City of Stars: Busan International Film Festival

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Author: Luisa Quintero

Every year, along with the beginning of autumn, Busan welcomes hundreds of actors, directors, and other members of the film industry who come to the city to attend one of the most important film festivals in Asia and the world: the Busan International Film Festival, better known as BIFF, for its acronym in English.

BIFF 2023 promotional posters. Photograph taken by the author.

This festival was held for the first time from September 13-21, 1996, and since its inaugural year, it has focused on introducing new independent films and directors, providing them with a space to debut in the film industry. BIFF also stands out for its remarkable appeal to young people from all over the world, with a large youth audience each year, as well as severala number of young talents who see this as a unique exposure for their careers.

As the first international film festival to be held in South Korea, BIFF was born out of a desire to create a festival that would position the Korean film industry as a pillar of ‘Asian cinema’. Nevertheless, today, thanks to its growing global popularity, the Busan International Film Festival is recognized as one of the main events that presents the latest in Korean and international cinema each year and, in particular, is the main promotional space for the latest in Asian cinema, thus supporting the work of filmmakers from all over the Asian continent.

Promotional posters of past editions of BIFF. Photograph taken by the author.

In 1996, during its first edition, 169 movies from 31 countries were screened in a total of six theaters. For its 28th edition this year, 2023, which took place from October 4 to 13, the Festival presented 209 films from 69 countries in 25 theaters in Busan. Among these films, 87 Korean and international premieres were held. Also, the program was divided into categories to make it easier for attendees to find something of interest to them within the Festival’s extensive line-up. The categories were:

  • Gala presentation: the films of South Korea’s most renowned filmmakers and actors are screened in Busan to celebrate their artistic achievements.
  • Icons: a showcase of the latest films by iconic contemporary filmmakers from around the world.
  • Jiseok: films competing for the Kim Jiseon Award (an award created in commemoration of the late Kim Jiseok, BIFF’s program director, who dedicated his life to fostering and supporting Asian cinema). Feature films in this category must be by established Asian filmmakers with three or more feature films.
  • A Window on Asian Cinema: a contrasting look at the diverse styles and visions of Asian cinema, highlighting the latest films by established directors as well as newcomers to the industry.
  • New Currents: competition between the first or second world premiere features by up-and-coming Asian filmmakers for one of two New Currents awards.
  • Korean Cinema Today – Special Premiere: This section features the most recent and representative selections of contemporary Korean commercial cinema with special appeal to general audiences.
  • Korean Cinema Today – Panorama: an introduction to the year’s most significant and popular Korean films, from commercial blockbusters to auteur favorites.
  • Korean Cinema Today – Vision: a handpicked selection of the year’s best Korean independent feature films and an introduction to the year’s most significant and popular Korean films, from commercial blockbusters to auteur favorites. 
  • Korean Cinema Retrospective: a look back into the past that sheds light on the history of cinema by spotlighting a Korean filmmaker who has made a significant contribution to the medium or one with a specific thematic oeuvre.
  • World Cinema: a showcase of the year’s non-Asian narrative features, including the latest works from well-known filmmakers and international film festival awardees.
  • Flash Forward: a competition among non-Asian filmmakers’ first or second features that take an innovative and original approach to cinema. The winner is decided by the audience and awarded the Flash Forward Award.
  • Wide Angle: a section dedicated to outstanding short films and documentary films that offer broad cinematic viewpoints and distinct visions.
  • Open Cinema: a collection of new and internationally acclaimed films that offer an ideal mix of the popular and the artistic are screened at the hallmark outdoor theater (Busan Cinema Center).
  • Midnight Passion: a collection of horror, SF, and thriller films that are certain to keep diehard film fans awake throughout the night.
  • On Screen: presentation of highly anticipated or most talked about drama series of the year.
  • Special Program in Focus: a special showcase of films by notable filmmakers or those working within a specific topic.
BIFF 2023 Program. Photograph taken by the author.

In addition to the films screened in these categories, as every year, Festival attendees were also able to enjoy various conferences, masterclasses, and special presentations with actors and directors, as well as the awards ceremonies for the competition categories and the Festival’s opening and closing galas.

Busan Cinema Center (the main location for the Festival events). Photograph taken by the author.

Although the main events include the awards for the most outstanding films presented each year in the different competition categories, since the very beginning, BIFF has been proclaimed a non-competitive film festival. In that sense, its main objective through the competition categories is to strengthen Korean and Asian cinema in general, providing visibility and economic support for its productions, rather than to consecrate the filmmakers with a statuette. As a result, the Busan International Film Festival has been awarded with different international distinctions, including two by UNESCO (the Fellini Award and the recognition of Busan as a Creative City of Cinema), for its contribution to the expansion and development of the film industry in Asia.

Wall to recognize different personalities who have participated in the Festival. Photograph taken by the author.

Similarly, due to its importance as a non-competitive international film festival, and because the media market environment has certainly changed, for this latest edition, BIFF redesigned its overall strategy and established a mid and long-term vision that goes beyond the barriers of the event itself, as shown in the figure obtained from its website.

Projection figure. Taken from the official BIFF website.

Thus, it is intended that what makes up the BIFF is not only the annual celebratory event but also an effective networking event to support education and production in the film industry. The above is because even if BIFF is already recognized as the best film festival in Asia, for future editions, its organizers have the goal of making it the best non-competitive film festival in the world and the official production hub for Asian cinema.

Under this new vision for the future of BIFF, it is also intended to expand the concept of Busan as the ‘Hometown of Asian Cinema’. Even though in its first editions, there was widespread concern that the festival would be held in a city other than the country’s capital, Seoul, over the years, the Busan International Film Festival has proven to be a cornerstone for Busan. By making Busan the epicenter of development for Korean cinema, BIFF has contributed greatly to the city’s socio-economic progress and is, today, one of its main sources of economic spillover.

BIFF commemorative painting. Photograph taken by the author.

In light of the foregoing, it is possible to state that the Busan International Film Festival is one of the most important annual events that take place in South Korea and serves as a reaffirming example of why this country is an example to follow when it comes to creative economy¹(The creative economy, or creative industry, is the sector of the economy that involves the generation of ideas and knowledge. The concept essentially encompasses the cultural industry and the knowledge economy), since, thanks to its existence and its impact, the Korean film industry has become one of the best and most recognized in Asia and is at the top of the list to become one of the best in the world. Therefore, if you have the opportunity to visit South Korea this fall, coming to Busan to attend BIFF should be at the top of your list of things to enjoy.

Reviewed by: Marisol Montiel


BIFF. (2023). The 28th Busan International Film Festival. BIFF.

Nadilo, S. (May 7, 2023). 28° Festival International de Cine de Busan – Convocatoria 2023. Asian Film Festivals.

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Festival Internacional de Cine de Busan. Wikipedia.

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