Busan International Film Festival, Asia’s largest, has come under fire for a string of leadership changes that has exposed internal differences over how the festival should be run.
BIFF Executive Director Huh Mun-young and BIFF Chairperson Lee Yong-kwan submitted their resignations in the space of a week, following the appointment of Cho Jong-guk as head of operations on May 9.
Huh, who had been appointed to lead the festival in March 2021, turned in his resignation on Thursday, less than five months before this year’s festival, raising concerns about the event proceeding as planned.
Regarding Huh’s departure, BIFF said Huh did not state his reason for departure and the situation is currently being “handled.” BIFF said it has not accepted Huh’s resignation.
Film industry insiders said Huh resigned to express his frustration over the recent transformation of the BIFF executive committee structure into a co-chair system.
Until recently, the festival’s overall operation planning and administrative work had been conducted by the director who works with the chairperson.
BIFF said Cho would lead BIFF executive committee operations including administrative work and budgeting, so that Huh would be able to focus on overseeing the festival's programming. Cho’s position as the head of operations has been newly created.
Huh started his career as a film journalist and then worked as a BIFF film programmer. He also participated as a member of the International Critics’ Week jury at the 75th Cannes Film Festival last year.
Cho, who was also a film journalist, served as the secretary general of the Busan Film Commission and a director of the Korean Film Council.
Following Huh‘s resignation, Lee, a founding member of BIFF in 1996 who has been the BIFF chairperson since 2018, said Monday he would step down after “quickly wrapping up the current situation.”
“We see Huh’s return to the committee as the only solution to mend this situation. Myself and Huh will meet on May 31. I’ll persuade him through dialogue,” he told reporters at a press conference.
Regarding speculation that Huh had not been aware that Cho would be appointed to the role of head of operations before the meeting, Lee admitted that there was a difference in views.
“But we had a thorough discussion and agreement before holding the general meeting. We are in the process of changing various internal systems at BIFF,” Lee said, adding that the cancellation of Cho’s appointment is “not an option.” Cho and Lee are known to be close acquaintances.
Industry insiders suggested that the current leadership struggle reveals the problems of film festivals. Some said it was wrong to appoint a close friend to high positions regardless of their depth of experience or expertise.
During the same press conference Monday, a number of BIFF executive committee office staff members raised concerns of unfair recruitment practices at the BIFF, claiming Lee forced staff members to hire his close acquaintances, such as the son of his friend. Lee declined to respond.
An association of filmmakers also released a statement on the same day that Huh should be reinstated, saying that Huh is “the right man to lead the festival" and that the committee should withdraw its “wrong decision” on the appointment and stop trying to explain it as a misunderstanding.
Relatedly, the Jeonju IFF, another major local film festival for indie films, came under fire recently after appointing actor Jung Joon-ho to co-direct the festival along with director Min Sung-wook, one of the Jeonju IFF's founding members.
A number of executive committee members with film industry backgrounds resigned in protest. Despite these concerns, the 24th Jeonju IFF closed earlier this month with a record number of movie sellouts and a expanded pool of international guests at the festival.
“Just five months before the BIFF's kickoff, it seems like what’s most important is to face the challenge and make bold decisions in transforming the operation system, because the local film industry is already going through a hard time with the advent of streaming content in the rapidly changing media and film landscape,” said a film industry insider with 25 years of experience.
The 28th BIFF begins Oct. 4 and continues until Oct. 13.