As South Korea’s biggest film stars walk down the red carpet at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF)—Asia’s largest and most buzzworthy—an elderly man with a warm, affable smile, looking like your friendly neighborhood grandpa, greets each actor with a firm handshake before they enter the venue.
He is Kim Dong-ho, the festival’s co-founder. When he first established the event in 1996, it had just been three years after the country formally ended military rule by electing its first civilian president. South Korean cinema was beginning to emerge from a long period of government censorship.
It was by no means certain where the Korean film industry was headed. Many were doubtful that the festival would last beyond its first year.
But Kim held firm to his vision: to create a film festival that would open the world to the great potential of Korean cinema, while keeping it free from any political agenda.
“I believe freedom of expression and creativity are rights,” Kim said. “That is one of the reasons, why international moviegoers and movie influencers still support our film festival. Therefore, I believe no matter what the circumstance is, protection for freedom of expression is in need.”
Today, at 80 years old, he is considered South Korea’s movie mogul, and a key figure in developing the country’s arts and cultural institutions, having a part in establishing the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, NamyangJu Film Studios, Independence Hall of Korea, and Seoul Art Center.
For more than a decade, Kim served as BIFF festival director. Then, from 2016 to the BIFF held this past October, Kim was the organizing committee chairman.
With this past festival, Kim has resigned and will soon be retiring.
But what he and the BIFF have left is a legacy of enriching Korean cinema and allowing it to flourish together with other great motion picture industries around the world.
But Kim actually did not become involved in film until late in his life. In his early university career, he graduated from South Korea’s top law school: Seoul National University’s School of Law. But due to family circumstances at the time, he did not take the bar exam and instead began a career working in Korean government. He rose from director of cultural affairs to undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture.
After years of serving as director of major cultural institutions, at 51 years old, he was appointed an executive member of the Korean Film Council, a government-supported entity for promoting Korean film.
“From then on, I thought, why not become a movie connoisseur? So I started watching all sorts of movies and all the movies that were made in Korea.” Kim went back to school and received a master’s degree in film. He later even taught film at university.
When he established BIFF, his experience in government allowed him to see how easy politics could easily become intertwined with cultural events.
“Whenever funds are involved, the politics are involved. It doesn’t matter what type of event it is,” he said. “I look at it as a political scheme, instead of organic cultural events.”
So he made it a point to ban any political figure from appearing at the film festival’s opening ceremony, even prohibiting the announcement of congratulatory messages that politicians have sent. Whether it is the president or a town official, Kim refuses to allow them in. It is his principle to maintain true artistic independence.
Kim’s conviction in integrity came to a head in 2014, when a documentary film exploring the aftermath of the sinking of the Sewol ferry—which resulted in 304 deaths, mostly high school students who were on a school trip to Jeju Island—was set to premier at the BIFF. The film’s raw, unyielding look at the government’s bungled attempt at rescuing the passengers drew angry protests. The Busan city mayor and then-festival chairman even threatened to pull the film from the festival lineup.
But Kim did not waver. The film, called “Diving Bell,” screened without a hitch.
Since then, political pressure has forced government authorities to slash the BIFF budget. In spite of reduced resources, Kim remained steadfast in keeping the show running.
“Even if we have to put up tents on the Haeundae beach [in Busan] due to the budget cuts, festival director Kang Soo Yeon and myself will continue the tradition of this festival,” he said.
Indeed, it is only Kim who can convince world-class film directors and actors to join him on the beach for a shot of soju [Korean hard liquor], something he used to do during the early days of the festival.
With his retirement, Kim will be sorely missed at Korea’s most prestigious film event, but Kim himself is excited for the next chapter of his life. “It is time for me to build my own future.”