Busan, South Korea — — Kim Dong-ho should be riding high. Over the last 15 years, the diminutive arts lover has patiently crafted the Pusan International Film Festival into Asia's largest movie showcase and helped put South Korea on the world's cinema map.
Guests for this year's edition, which wraps up Friday, included Juliette Binoche, Oliver Stone and Willem Dafoe, as well as up-and-coming Chinese actress Tang Wei. The lineup of 308 films included 103 world premieres.
Not only that, but a new film center in this city, due for completion in 2012, will provide a permanent home for the event and for the Asian Film Academy, which is to transform itself from small festival-time workshops into a full-fledged film school.
Yet as the 73-year-old Kim prepares to turn over the reins to a new, as-yet-unnamed executive director, he's worried about the future of his beloved festival. This year's government allotment fell nearly 20% to $1.3 million, and Kim warns that it could be reduced further. He's gone so far as to publicly criticize President Lee Myung-bak for breaking a campaign promise to ensure the event's long-term future.
"Korea's National Assembly and central government don't seem to have a proper understanding of film festivals," he said in an interview. "There needs to be a change in awareness somehow."
Before taking office, Lee promised film festival leaders that he would set aside a $100-million endowment, Kim said. "It was set in stone. But once [Lee] officially took office, that promise collapsed."
Kim noted that half the approximately $27-million budget for the Cannes Film Festival is provided by the French Ministry of Culture, while South Korea's culture ministry this year picked up only 15% of his festival's $9-million budget. Most of the rest comes from the city of Busan, corporate sponsors and ticket sales.
He wants the government to establish a foundation to ensure the festival's long-term health.
Britain's cash-strapped government also reduced funding for its national film industry this year. But Kim argues that South Korea has more to lose by putting the squeeze on filmmakers, whom he sees as vital to promoting the nation's nascent cultural brand worldwide.
Some industry insiders believe the funding cuts are political — a message from the conservative government that it will no longer offer a blank check to filmmakers who often lampoon politicians.
"For this conservative government, supporting the arts and film festivals is looked at like a leftist endeavor," said Jean Noh, a reporter for the trade publication Screen International. "They ask, 'Why are we giving people money who are already making money?' "
But government officials deny playing politics with the arts.
Yu In-chon, a former actor who is now the minister of sports and culture, denied that cuts were being made at all. "The money is set; don't worry about it. We're not cutting funding," he said as he waited for a screening of "Under the Hawthorn Tree," by Chinese director Zhang Yimou.
Hur Won-je, a legislator from Lee's Grand National Party, acknowledged that cuts were being made but said the move was not political. "There's no political ideology involved. These film events just need to start funding themselves and not rely on the government."
If the government trims its allocation and replacement funds aren't found, that could mean fewer screenings and lost opportunities for filmmakers, some observers say.
"Each year, Pusan brings major players in film industry to Korea," said Stream Lee, a business development executive who does business in Hollywood and Seoul. "If they cut the funding too drastically, the industry may lose an incredible networking venue."
For the Pusan festival — named for the city's old spelling — the funding debate comes at a critical time.
"Nations like China and Japan are pumping money into their film festivals," said Nam Lee, an assistant professor at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Orange County's Chapman University. "For now, Pusan is Asia's film platform, but many worry Korea will lose ground."
Kim's now-famous festival traces its roots to 1994, when officials in Busan decided to start their own film event. For leadership, they went to Kim, who headed the Seoul Arts Center and Korean Film Council before becoming the nation's vice minister of sports and culture. Though he raised nearly $3 million for the affair's inaugural year, 1996, many assumed the festival would be a one-time event or that it would be moved to Seoul, the capital.
But Kim stayed put, modeling his festival on Cannes' seaside atmosphere and giving Pusan's enthusiastic supporters the chance to sit on the beach, drink soju and watch movies. In a nation where more than 99% of people younger than 35 use the Internet, tickets to film premieres — sold online — often sell out in 10 seconds or less.