Mayor Suh Byungsoo’s determination to end the programming independence of Busan International Film Festival – and his persecution of festival director Lee Yongkwan in the courts – is fast turning into an end-game which will have no winners. In January 2016 I wrote an “open letter” deploring the mayor’s attacks on BIFF and its director. My essay found a lot of international support: the blogsite which published it recorded a record number of visits, and an international petition signed by many famous and distinguished film people was sent to Busan Metropolitan City Council in support of the film festival and its director. There has also been loud support in Korea, most recently from guilds in the Korean film industry, which have promised to boycott a film festival controlled by Suh Byungsoo. But the mayor’s crude response has been to dismiss all this protest with a mere wave of the hand. He has not offered one single cogent counter-argument, but instead seems determined to push BIFF to its death.
I have never met Mayor Suh Byungsoo – I hope I never do, since I don’t like bullies, especially stupid bullies – but I know his type. In the last two months it has become clear that Mayor Suh’s actions against BIFF are driven solely by his hatred of BIFF director Lee Yongkwan. This hatred was sparked solely by Lee’s refusal to withdraw one film from the BIFF programme of some 300 films in 2014. So the mayor’s persecution of BIFF and Lee Yongkwan is not ‘politics’. It’s more like a child’s playground tantrum. It is at best stupidity, at worst derangement. Mayor Suh must be a huge embarrassment to the Saenuri Party, to his own staff in Busan Metropolitan Council and to the tax-paying voters of Busan.
Some 2,400 years ago Plato and Aristotle laid out the principles of good government and what we should expect from our politicians. I don’t know what education Mayor Suh Byungsoo ever had (was there any at all?), but he clearly missed the classes on political philosophy. He is a politician with no depth or subtlety. He doesn’t understand debate and doesn’t believe in discussion. He has no respect for anyone whose views are different from his own. He tries to bulldoze his policies and opinions through all opposition, with no concern about any collateral damage. In short, he’s like a suicide bomber, a kamikaze pilot or an Islamist jihadi, determined to take down as many innocent people as possible as he plunges to his own meaningless political death. He has only one policy: crash and burn.
As I write, it seems depressingly likely that there will be no Busan International Film Festival in 2016. In his “Greetings from the Mayor” on the Busan Metropolitan City website, Suh Byungsoo promises to strive for such goals as enhancing the prosperity of the city and its people – and to strengthen the city’s culture. It would be interesting, would it not, to hear how he thinks that destroying BIFF will honour those promises. In fact, killing BIFF will not only deprive the Korean film industry and its friends abroad of an important forum; it will also deprive Busan city’s economy of billions of Korean won.
If Mayor Suh Byungsoo gets his pig-headed way, there will be no winners – least of all Suh Byungsoo himself, whose political life will soon be over and whose reputation will lie in ruins. The festival will be dead, hoping to revive under a more rational and sensible mayor in the future. The hotels, restaurants and shops of Busan will lose a huge amount of income. The people of Korea will lose a major element in their modern culture. As I said, no winners.
I have written harshly of Mayor Suh Byungsoo in this short note. My teacher was Suh Byungsoo himself. His rudeness in dismissing both Korean and foreign protests against his persecution of BIFF – without answering his critics or in any way defending his idiotic actions – showed nothing but contempt for his constituency. He deserves nothing better than contempt and ridicule in return. He has spent his whole life – sixty-odd years – climbing the greasy pole of politics, and now he’s sliding right back to the bottom, landing on his fat, stupid ass.
Tony Rayns is an award-winning film-maker, writer, film critic and festival programmer with a long held interest in the cinemas of East Asia. He has been a program consultant to the Busan International Film Festival since its inception. Click on this link for his earlier "'open letter" to the people of Busan