Kim Dong-ho shares founding of BIFF
He is soft-spoken, extremely polite and remembers your name only after a quick phone call.
Meet Kim Dong-ho, the founding director of Busan International Film Festival and one of the pioneer figures in the Korean film industry.
On a bright Monday afternoon, Kim, who now serves as the festival’s honorary chief, sits in the cafe located in the Plaza Hotel, central Seoul. Dressed in a suit and his hair tidily gelled down, the 74-year-old greets all with a warm handshake.
It’s been a year since Kim retired from his 15-year position as BIFF director, Yet he is up for more challenges in the Korean film scene. Aside from taking the job as the chair-professor of Dankook University’s graduate cinema studies program, Kim is about to debut as a film director.
It’s long been a dream of his to make films, especially after watching “every single” Korean film that has come out since 1988. Yet his all-time favorite movie was in fact released in 1981. “It’s Im Kwon-taek’s Buddhist-themed movie ‘Mandala,’” he says.
And the topic of his upcoming movie is not a surprise -- conflicting jury members at a film festival. It seems like a perfect topic for someone who has directed one for 15 years.
“Well, it is, sort of,” Kim says diplomatically. “But the initial idea of the script did not come from me.”
The project in fact started with highly acclaimed Korean-Chinese director Zhang Lu, best known for this 2010 drama “Dooman River,” wanting to write a short film script based on his experience as a jury member during last year’s Asiana International Short Film Festival (AISFS).
“Apparently director Zhang had a lot of conflict with his fellow jury member, director Bae Chang-ho, while evaluating the films,” Kim says in his soft voice, laughing. “So he wanted to make a film about that, and since everyone knew that I’d always wanted to direct a film, he decided to give it to me. And I have much more experience as a jury member than director Zhang has, so it’ll be interesting to see what I bring to this project.”
Since its first edition in 1996, the Busan International Film Festival has grown to become the largest movie showcase in Asia. It celebrated the opening of its official, exclusive venue this year, while featuring 307 films from 70 countries. This year’s edition was the first festival since Kim’s retirement to his current honorary position last year.
“I was convinced that the festival will only get better, even without my leadership,” Kim says on watching this year’s edition. “The new director Lee Yong-gwan has a scholarly background, and I liked how he brought many academic sides of cinema to this year’s festival. And it was certainly touching to see the opening of the Busan Cinema Center. A lot of international guests told me they were jealous. We’d worked very hard for the project for the past eight years.”
Yet Kim still worries about the funding issue for the future of BIFF.
“It takes about 10 billion won every year,” he says. “I think it would be ideal to set an exclusive fund for BIFF and have at least five billion won from it per year.”
It’s quite fascinating to see how much this man, who is considered the “giant of the Korean film industry,” has accomplished throughout BIFF’s history. On top of everything else, he was merely a long-time civil servant of Korea’s Ministry of Culture and Information before being appointed the president of the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation -- which now is the Korean Film Council -- in 1988. In 1992, he served as the vice minister of the Culture Ministry for a year.
Kim is known for his networking skills and diplomatic maneuvers, who “has never failed to convince anyone of anything.” Kim’s leadership, complimented with such skills, has been a huge asset for BIFF and its development into the world-class cinema bash.
His close friends include Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Wang Kar-wai, and Takeshi Kitano. “There really is no special way,” he says. “I just visit people in their office, take them out for food, and talk to them with sincerity. And it just works all the time.”
Looking back, putting together BIFF’s first edition was certainly an adventure. While no one on the organizing team had any experience organizing a film festival, they in fact envisioned a “small-scale but strong” festival like Pesaro International Film Festival in Italy. The current BIFF has turned out “a lot bigger” than what the team had imagined, Kim says. Even during the opening ceremony, Kim remembers being “worried” for the most part.
“I really didn’t know if it was going to work or not,” he says.
Kim fondly remembers running into Paul Lee, a Korean-American who was serving as the director of the Asian American Film Festival at the time, during a film-themed seminar which was held prior to the first edition of BIFF in Busan.
“He was only in Busan for the seminar, not the whole film festival,” Kim says, smiling. “Though he was young, he seemed to know a lot about film festivals, and we needed him for the first edition. We took him to karaoke, bought him drinks, and gave him a separate desk and eventually made him stay for the whole event.”
The first thing Lee told the organizing team was that they need to immediately come up with a ticket catalogue and an electronic database system for ticket sales. “We had no idea what they were before Lee told us,” Kim says. “So I desperately contacted Arts Council Korea and Seoul Arts Center for advice. In the end, it was Busan Bank that offered to create the system for us. That was a huge relief.”
When he is off duty, Kim enjoys checking out art exhibitions and running. He wakes up at 4 a.m. every day, and runs an hour or two. And if he were to be born again, he says he’d like to be an owner of an art gallery.
“Whenever I go overseas for film festivals, I always make sure I see an art exhibition,” he says. “One of the walls in my room is actually covered by piled-up art pamphlets.”
By Claire Lee (email@example.com