Less than four months from the opening ceremony of the 28th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), widely considered Asia’s most influential festival, the event remains mired in turmoil, with insiders increasingly agitating for a generational change. Korean industry figures tell The Hollywood Reporter they are worried both about the immediate organization of the next festival, set to run Oct. 4-13, and the potential damage to BIFF’s global reputation, as allegations of cronyism and sexual misconduct continue to reverberate through the festival’s upper leadership ranks.
On Thursday, the festival’s board officially apologized for the mishandling of a recent sexual harassment allegation, saying that it would designate a sexual misconduct consulting center in the city of Busan to investigate the case.
“We sincerely apologize over the sexual harassment case that occurred in our workplace,” the festival said in a statement, adding that it would “come up with a system to prevent recurrences.”
The festival’s recent descent into self-destructive infighting has been swift but complex. It began in May, when BIFF chairman Lee Yong-kwan, one of the event’s original three charismatic co-founders, abruptly announced that he was creating the new position of managing director at the top of the festival. The role would oversee the festival’s budgeting and operations, taking those responsibilities away from the festival’s existing director, Huh Moon-young, who would maintain control only of the event’s artistic choices. Lee then appointed his friend and associate, Cho Jongkook, a veteran of the Korean Film Council and a fellow industry elder statesman, to the new position.
Days later, Huh, an experienced critic and film programmer who had worked with the festival and its support organizations for years, said that he would be resigning. Industry onlookers decried the situation, arguing that Lee’s moves reeked of cronyism and that stripping the festival director of budgetary powers would weaken the artistic independence of the festival. The Korean Film Producers’ Association then put out a statement in support of Huh, urging BIFF’s board to “reverse the co-director system and make an environment for Huh to lead the festival.”
Lee, who had been with the festival in various capacities since its launch in 1996, responded by announcing his own resignation as a gesture of taking responsibility for the imbroglio. Nonetheless, on May 31, the festival released a statement saying that Huh was quitting over “personal matters.” Two days later, the festival’s board of directors approved his resignation.
Then the next bombshell dropped: Korean media outlets reported that, amid the turmoil, a festival employee had contacted the Center for Gender Equality in Korean Cinema with allegations of sexual harassment against Huh. More outrage ensued, with critics angered over the festival’s non-transparent characterization of Huh’s resignation as a “personal matter.” Huh’s accuser has remained anonymous, but he is said to have verbally harassed the employee and issued “inappropriate work orders.” Huh has denied the allegations.
Meanwhile, the current leadership of the festival — and how it will mount a successful 2023 edition — remains in question. In May, the BIFF board asked Cho, Lee’s appointee in the new role of managing director, “to make a voluntary decision about his position” — but he refused to step down. Lee has maintained he will resign, but hasn’t made clear when that will happen. Last week, BIFF said its lead film programmer, Nam Dong-chul, another respected former critic, would step up to lead the event on behalf of the vacant festival director. But on Tuesday, Nam told local press that there was ongoing confusion about the festival’s leadership appointments, and called on the festival’s board to hold an extraordinary general meeting to decide on both Cho’s status. Lee then fired back that the board should hold a special meeting to discuss Nam’s status before Nam has any voice on Cho’s role in the festival.
As its leadership remained in upheaval, the festival attempted to move on from the controversy surrounding the allegations against Huh with its apology on Thursday. But a festival staff member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, tells THR that there has long been a culture of inappropriate sexual talk among the festival’s mostly male senior leadership.
“Some of the senior members of the festival staff have sometimes acted in ways, and made inappropriate remarks, that do not meet the standards or expectation of gender sensitivity required by younger staff,” the festival insider says, adding that they can’t comment on the specific allegations against Huh, which remains under investigation. “But it was an issue raised by some female staff within the festival before,” they add.
When asked to comment, a BIFF spokesperson said: “We’re still shocked and confused about Huh’s resignation. All we can say for now is that an investigation is underway. There is a lot of speculation in the media, but the board has not yet made any decision about the status of Cho Chong-guk.”
“The festival will move on,” says another BIFF staff member about the current, overlapping scandals. “After all, the Busan International Film Festival is an organization run by more than 200 people.”
They add: “I see it as a process of transition from the festival’s older generation to the new, but I do think this transition should have been prepared for way ahead of time, step by step. It seems to have been done in haste.”
Adds a spokesperson at the Busan Film Critics Association: “The festival has been monopolized by chairman Lee for too long. I have not seen a festival where the chairman’s influence is as strong as in Busan. It’s time to give a chance to talented young film professionals and unveil a transparent succession process.”