Busan Film Fest insiders are pushing for generational change amid sexual misconduct and cronyism allegations

Busan Film Fest insiders are pushing for generational change amid sexual misconduct and cronyism allegations

With less than four months to go until the opening ceremony of the 28th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), widely regarded as Asia’s most influential film festival, the event remains mired in turmoil, with insiders increasingly scrambling for a generational change. Korean industry data says so The Hollywood Reporter they are concerned about both the immediate staging of the upcoming festival, which runs from 4-13 October, and the potential damage to the BIFF’s global reputation, as allegations of cronyism and sexual misconduct continue to affect the festival’s leadership.

On Thursday, the festival board officially apologized for its mishandling of a recent sexual harassment allegation, saying it would designate a sexual misconduct counseling center in the city of Busan to investigate the case.

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“We sincerely apologize for the case of sexual harassment that occurred in our workplace,” the festival said in a statement, adding that it “would find a way to prevent recurrences.”

The festival’s recent descent into self-destructive infighting has been swift but complex. It started in May, when BIFF president Lee Yong-kwan, one of the event’s three charismatic original co-founders, suddenly announced that he was creating the new position of chief executive officer at the festival’s top. The role would oversee the festival’s budget and operations, taking those responsibilities away from the current festival director, Huh Moon-young, who would retain control over the event’s artistic choices only. Lee then appointed his friend and associate, Cho Jongkook, a Korean Film Council veteran and fellow senior industry statesman, to the new position.

Days later, Huh, a seasoned film critic and programmer who had worked with the festival and its support organizations for years, said he would step down. Industry-goers decried the situation, arguing that Lee’s moves reeked of cronyism and that stripping the festival director of budgetary powers would weaken the festival’s artistic independence. The Korean Film Producers’ Association then issued a statement in support of Huh, urging the BIFF board to “reverse the co-director system and create an environment where Huh can lead the festival”.

Lee, who had been with the festival in various capacities since its launch in 1996, responded by announcing his resignation as a gesture of assuming responsibility for the hoax. However, on May 31, the festival released a statement saying that Huh was stepping down over “personal issues”. Two days later, the festival board approved his resignation.

Then came the next bombshell: Korean media reported that, amid the uproar, a festival employee had contacted the Center for Gender Equality in Korean Cinema with allegations of sexual harassment against Huh. Further outrage ensued, with critics angered by the festival’s non-transparent characterization of Huh’s resignation as a “personal matter”. Huh’s accuser remained anonymous, but he is said to have verbally harassed the employee and issued “inappropriate work orders.” Huh denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, the current leadership of the festival – and how it will organize a successful 2023 edition – remains in question. In May, the BIFF board asked Cho, appointed by Lee in his new role as chief executive, “to make a voluntary decision on his position”, but he refused to step down. Lee said he will step down, but didn’t clarify when that will happen. Last week, the BIFF said its chief film programmer, Nam Dong-chul, another respected former critic, would step forward to run the event on behalf of the vacant festival director. But on Tuesday, Nam told local press there was confusion over the festival leadership appointments and called on the festival board to hold an extraordinary general meeting to decide on the status of both Chos. Lee then responded by saying that the board should hold a special meeting to discuss Nam’s status before Nam has a say in Cho’s role in the festival.

As his leadership remained in turmoil, the festival attempted to roll over the controversy surrounding the allegations against Huh with an apology on Thursday. But a festival staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said DAY that there has long been a culture of inappropriate sexual talk among the mostly male senior executives of the festival.

“Some of the older members of the festival staff have at times acted in inappropriate ways and made comments, which do not meet the standards or expectations of gender sensitivity demanded by the younger staff,” says the festival insider, adding that he does not they can comment on the specific allegations against Huh, who remains under investigation. “But it’s been an issue raised by some female staff within the festival before,” they add.

When asked for comment, a BIFF spokesman said: ‘We are still shocked and confused by 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 council has not yet made any decision on Cho Chong-guk’s status.”

“The festival will go on,” says another BIFF staffer of 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 old festival generation to the new, but I think this transition should have been prepared well in advance, step by step. It seems to have been done in a hurry.

Adds a spokesman for the Busan Film Critics Association: “The festival has been monopolized by President Lee for too long. I have not seen a festival where the president’s influence is as strong as in Busan. It is time to give talented young film professionals a chance and unveil a transparent succession process.”