Former director of Busan film festival on fraud charges amid fallout from screening ferry disaster epic

Former artistic director accused of making fraudulent payments, but industry figures say allegations are politically motivated – and South Korean filmmakers have vowed to boycott this year’s festival

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 May, 2016, 1:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 May, 2016, 4:24pm

South Korean prosecutors pushed ahead this week with embezzlement charges against the former director of Asia’s top film festival, despite widespread criticism that the allegations are politically motivated.

The future of South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) has been threatened by a bitter dispute which organisers say is rooted in political anger over the screening of a film in 2014 that was critical of the government’s handling of the Sewol ferry disaster.

Busan film festival hit by South Korean filmmakers’ boycott over freedom of expression

Lee Yong-Kwan, the BIFF artistic director for five years before he was forced to step down in February, is accused of making fraudulent payments amounting to 27.5 million won (HK$185,000) to a firm that brokers sponsorship deals.

Three other former and current senior festival officials were also formally charged on Tuesday.

“We are seeking to punish those who squandered the funds for the festival ... without discretion,” Yonhap news agency quoted the chief investigator Song Sam-hyon as saying.

The prosecutors began an investigation last year at the request of Busan city council, a major BIFF sponsor and stakeholder.

South Korea’s film industry threatens to boycott Busan Festival over claims of political interference

The council and organisers crossed swords in 2014 over the premiere of a documentary about the Sewol ferry disaster, Diving Bell (or The Truth Will Not Sink With Sewol).

We are seeking to punish those who squandered the funds for the festival
Chief investigator Song Sam-hyon

The scathing, highly emotive film slammed Seoul’s botched rescue efforts in the immediate aftermath of the ferry sinking in April 2014 that claimed more than 300 lives, most of them schoolchildren.

Busan city mayor, Suh Byung-soo, who serves as festival chairman, had deemed the film “too political”.

The premiere went ahead after a barrage of protests from filmmakers, but the BIFF organising committee subsequently became the target of a flurry of state probes and the festival received an unprecedented cut in state funding.

Busan International Film Festival celebrates 20 years of increasing influence, as Asian cinema continues to grow

The row prompted a group of 100 prominent overseas cineastes, including the directors of the Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals, to issue a rare open letter in February condemning the “political pressure” being brought to bear on the festival organisers.

South Korean filmmakers have vowed to boycott this year’s BIFF, saying its artistic independence has been compromised.