When Kim Jiseok, co-founder and head programmer of the Busan International Film Festival, passed away suddenly at Cannes in 2017 of a heart attack at the young age of 57, it sent shockwaves through the cinema industry. Kim had been a key figure in the promotion of Asian cinema which he founded the festival to showcase, but had also become mired in controversy following the decision to go ahead with a screening of a documentary about the Sewol Ferry disaster that the municipal authorities had tried to pressure the festival to cancel because it reflected badly on the government.
Kim Young-jo’s documentary Jiseok (지석) makes no secret of suggesting that the stress of dealing with the government’s attempts to overrule the festival’s autonomy was a direct cause of his death. In a poignant clip from a 2012 interview included close the documentary’s conclusion, Jiseok is asked why BIFF has managed to survive when so many other festivals have not and answers that there has always been such a tight bond between its team members which has not so far been strained by conflict or controversy and he doubts that it ever will be.
But this is in fact thought what happened as the organisers split into factions with differing views as to how the festival should proceed after it was targeted by the government, some feeling they should cancel all together and others wanting to go ahead. Jiseok felt himself pressed into a corner caught between opposing forces and torn between loyalty to his old friends and the desire to preserve the film festival. Industry friends also privately recall that he was personally very affected by the Sewol Ferry Disaster in which a large number of school children were killed when the ferry they were travelling on as part of a school trip capsized due to mismanagement and lax safety procedures.
Still, Jiseok was regarded by some as a traitor for continuing to work with the festival and taking over the duties of Lee Yong-kwan who had made the decision to go ahead with the screening but was forced to resign under government pressure and later accused of embezzlement after a government audit carried out in retaliation. In subsequent years, many Korean industry figures decided to boycott the festival entirely while a question mark hung over its autonomy and artistic freedom. Most of the interviewees are able to acknowledge that Jiseok found himself in a difficult position and do not necessarily hold his decision to continue working at BIFF against him but do suggest that it was the fragmentation of these relationships, some of which went back over 30 years, that caused him additional strain and damaged his health.
What’s most clear is that Jiseok was very well loved and is much missed not only by his wife who also appears in the documentary but by the international industry at large. Some of the biggest names in East Asian cinema such as Hirokazu Koreeda, whom Jiseok had asked to become the dean of the Asian Film Academy, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul appear on camera offering their memories of Jiseok while it’s clear that he also enjoyed warm and close relationships with filmmakers at both ends of their career. Malaysian director and actress Tan Chui Mui (Barbarian Invasion) makes a particularly poignant statement recalling the bubbling frog bath toy Jiseok had gifted her infant son who will now only know his “Korean Uncle” only from photographs and her stories of him. Other South Eastern filmmakers also pay tribute to his warm support of underrepresented national cinemas and encouragement of new cinematic voices.
Kim’s documentary may in some ways find itself caught between competing visions on the one hand keen to examine the fallout from the tightening censorship regime of the Park Geun-hye era which eventually led to the blacklisting of artists who were critical of the regime including internationally renowned names such as Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, while on the other offering a simple memorial of the man himself in an act of catharsis for those who knew him with the consequence that little else of him is revealed aside from his warmth, cheerfulness, and affability along with his passionate love of film. In any case, many of the interviewees appear close to tears as they attempt to bid Jiseok goodbye, testament to good he left behind not just in terms of cinema but as a human being.
Jiseok screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)