Mayor resigns as Busan film fest chief after controversial attempt to block Sewol ferry disaster film

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Busan Mayor Suh Byung Soo stepped down Thursday as the chairman of the Busan International Film Festival organizing committee, amid calls for his resignation following the government and Busan City's attempt to cancel the screening of a controversial documentary about the Sewol ferry disaster at the 2014 festival.

Lee Yong Kwan, co-executive director of the BIFF secretariat, also resigned alongside Suh. Since going ahead with the screening of Diving Bell in 2014, Lee had been facing mounting pressure from the central government and Busan City to resign.

Suh said that the position of the BIFF chairman would be opened to candidates from the private sector.

"I have decided to resign as the city has been seen as undermining the festival's independence and increased conflicts (with BIFF), which could hinder the growth of the movie industry," said Suh at a press conference in Busan on Thursday.

"We will seek to change BIFF's article of incorporation to allow people from the private sector to run the international festival from now on."

He added that Busan will further provide funds to BIFF, and will fully support the festival to become a "mature event that can be enjoyed under a freer environment."

Suh also noted that Lee's official term ends Feb 26 and said that all the decisions were made based on an agreement with the BIFF organizing committee.

The mayor, however, reiterated his position over the documentary, saying, "I have not seen the whole thing, but personally, I don't see that as a movie."

The documentary, directed by journalist Lee Sang Ho and filmmaker Ahn Hae Ryong, depicts the government's failed rescue efforts during the Sewol disaster in April 2014 in which more than 400 people died.

Busan, the government and BIFF had locked horns over the issue of the documentary screening, with Suh expressing his wish for the documentary not to be shown at the festival.

Film stars and industry personnel rallied against Busan, saying that the government and the city were violating freedom of expression. The BIFF decision to screen the documentary led the Korean Film Council to cut funding for the BIFF by nearly half last year.

Busan City had upped the ante by calling on BIFF director Lee to resign, claiming that Lee misused the city's funding for the festival. It alleged that BIFF had also illegally paid commissions worth over 60 million won (S$68,400) to sponsorship brokers, citing an investigation by the Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea.

Busan has pressed charges against Lee, while the BIFF disputed such allegations.

"We filed a complaint as we see this as an illegal act," said Suh.

BIFF and movie industry insiders criticized Busan, claiming the festival was being penalized for the screening of Diving Bell.

Busan City will hold an executive meeting with the BIFF organizing committee to discuss the festival's 2016 business plan and budget on Feb 25.