Jason Bechervaise examines the latest edition of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) in the context of the external and internal problems that have plagued the festival over the past ten years, with a leadership crisis this spring once again putting the festival in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. This report explores BIFF’s curation of Korean cinema, with an emphasis on the festival’s importance as launch pad for young Korean filmmakers as well as how the festival’s programming, which now includes productions financed by streaming platforms, reflects the rapidly changing Korean film and media ecosystem.

Opening night at the 28th Busan International Film Festival.

Opening night at the 28th Busan International Film Festival.

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On my way to Busan to attend the twenty-eighth edition of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), my excitement at attending a festival that always offers new discoveries along with a chance to assess the overall state of the Korean film industry was tempered with concern. Before boarding my flight, I’d scrolled through the local news feeds to get a sense of the atmosphere during the festival’s opening ceremony, which was already in full swing. The usual array of Korean stars and celebrities graced the red carpet in front of the lavish Busan Cinema Center, giving the impression of a glamorous, thriving festival that belied the turbulence of the past summer. As the newly installed interim festival director (and head of programming) Nam Dong-chul characterized the preceding weeks and months, “[I]t’s been a very challenging and stressful time.”1

Reports of a power struggle emerged in May with the announcement that the festival director’s role would be effectively split into two. Cho Jong-kook, a former editor of the Korean film magazine Cine 21 and secretary general of the Busan Film Commission and Korean Film Council, would henceforth run the festival alongside festival director Huh Moonyung. Given that Cho was a close friend of the festival chairman, Lee Yong-kwan, his appointment sparked concerns of cronyism.2 The local film industry rallied around Huh, with two industry film guilds threatening to boycott the festival.3 Further complicating matters, Huh was accused of sexual harassment and subsequently stepped down.4 Cho was formally dismissed in June, and Lee Yong-kwon (also one of the founders of the festival) resigned, accepting responsibility for the infighting but also citing political interference as a factor in his stepping down.5 Under these circumstances, questions about whether the festival would take place at all began to swirl within the industry and local media, but a turning point was reached when Nam Dong-chul was named acting festival director on June 26. Nam, a widely respected programmer but not one of the original festival founders, had his work cut out for him.

Asia’s largest and most prestigious film festival, Busan is no stranger to conflict and instability. (In 2015—the last time BIFF was covered in Film Quarterly—festival director Lee Yong-kwan was being pressured to step down by the Busan municipal government.6) Like most film festivals in Korea, a significant portion of its funding (around 50 percent) comes from the local government—in this case, the Busan Metropolitan Government.7 This dependency leaves it vulnerable to government control, as was apparent in 2014 in the uproar prompted by the festival’s decision to screen Daibingbel (The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol, Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hae-ryong, 2014), a documentary about the Sewol Ferry sinking. Oh Byung-soo, former mayor of Seoul and member of the ruling conservative party, demanded that the film—which was critical of the government’s handling of the disaster that left more than three hundred people, many of them high school students, dead—be removed from the festival’s lineup. BIFF refused, and an audit was instigated in retaliation, unearthing discrepancies that caused festival heads Lee Yong-kwon and Jay Jeon to face charges of embezzlement and fraud. But the film industry saw this as retribution and ultimately boycotted the festival until 2016, when changes to the festival regulations were made to guarantee its autonomy. Lee Yong-kwan and Jeon were reinstated in 2018, but it was not until 2021, when film critic Huh Moonyung replaced Jeon as festival director (Lee Yong-kwon remained as chairman) that the festival seemed to have put its political problems behind it. That stability was ultimately short-lived, as the events of this past summer proved.

Potentially adding to Busan’s woes is a significant decrease in the Korean Film Council’s (KOFIC) domestic and international film-festival fund for 2024 to approximately 2.8 billion won ($2.14 million), half of the budget allocated in 2023. Given the festival’s troubles with government interference under the earlier conservative administration of Park Geun-hye, which also saw more than nine thousand artists blacklisted, this lack of support from the conservative government of the current president, Yoon Suk Yeol, is worrying.8 In September 2023, a coalition of fifty-six film festivals including Busan presented their objections in a joint statement.9 What this reduced funding means going forward remains uncertain but will likely affect Korea’s smaller festivals more significantly.10

Founded in 1996 at a moment when the Korean film industry was in the midst of transformation ushered in by a new generation of producers and directors including Bong Joon Ho and Park Chan-wook, Busan has grown in lockstep with Korean cinema’s enhanced profile both locally and internationally. This is also true of Korea’s two other major festivals, the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) and the Jeonju International Film Festival, founded in 1997 and 2000, respectively. Bucheon established itself as a leading genre film festival in the region, while Jeonju’s curation of titles has primarily focused on independent and alternative cinema. Busan sits somewhere in between, showcasing both independent Korean films (in its New Currents, Korean Cinema Today, and Wide Angle sections) and more-commercially genre driven titles (in its Panorama and On Screen sections).

Often dubbed the Cannes of Asia for its glamorous ambiance, idyllic setting along Haeundae Beach, and for its programming, which focuses on discoveries while showcasing Korean and Asian auteurs.11 The festival’s ascendancy has been remarkable in the face of perpetual challenges, not only from within the festival itself and its relationship with local and national governments but also from difficulties affecting the wider industry. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, posed an existential threat to the festival, which moved online in 2020 and capped attendance at 50 percent for the 2021 edition. (Travel restrictions also meant there were few international guests.)12 After rebounding in 2022, the festival’s scandal-tainted image this year resulted in fewer sponsors and a reduced budget.13 The turmoil also affected its programming, as interim director Nam Dong-chul had just four months to assemble a festival that would showcase the best in Korean, Asian, and world cinema.

Hanguki sileoseo (Because I Hate Korea), the festival’s opening night film.

Hanguki sileoseo (Because I Hate Korea), the festival’s opening night film.

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These leadership and funding challenges resulted in a slimmed-down edition of the festival, with 209 films from sixty-nine countries (compared with 243 films in 2022 and 303 films in 2019). The festival’s choice of opening film—Jang Kun-jae’s Hanguki sileoseo (Because I Hate Korea), in its world premiere—was an intriguing one. The story of a young woman, Gye-na (Go Ah-sung), who, fed up with Korea’s conformity, class divisions, and working culture, immigrates to New Zealand, it began the festival on a somewhat muted note. Young Koreans face an extremely competitive working environment in which social class, age, and gender play an integral, restrictive role. Given this situation, often referred to as Hell Joseon or Tal-jo by Korea’s youth, it is not difficult to see why some seek opportunities abroad, as Gye-na does in the film14 She endures a long commute into Seoul, made especially arduous in the brutally cold winter; like many Koreans, she can’t afford to live in the capital. She grows unhappy at work after being asked to fake scores in a procurement deal, while her less-privileged background adds friction to her relationship with her long-term boyfriend. She has to make a decision: to conform to social norms and marry into a wealthier family, or to follow her own desires, a choice many of her generation can empathize with. Ultimately she discovers that living abroad presents other challenges as she juggles different jobs and encounters racism, ignorance, and class barriers. Yet although Because I Hate Korea’s focus on the plight of Korea’s younger generation is characteristic of Korean independent cinema over the past fifteen years, tonally and structurally (its nonlinear narrative is frustrating at times), it feels less accomplished than films from Korea’s younger filmmakers.

Even with fewer films than in the past, the sheer size of BIFF’s program means that films can get buried. Having attended the festival every year since 2010 (with the exception of 2020 because of the pandemic), I go to great lengths to seek out the new young Korean filmmakers. Kim Bora’s Beol-sae (The House of Hummingbird, 2018) and Yoon Dan-bi’s Nam-mae-eui Yeo-reum-bam (Moving On, 2019) were two notable discoveries that went on to travel extensively on the festival circuit. This trajectory underscores Busan’s significance for Korean independent film for both critics and programmers. Furthermore, the concurrently running Asian Film Market provides Korean films with the exposure needed for potential overseas distribution. In this way, the festival gives a snapshot of how Korean independent films are evolving but also, through the curation of Korean titles at the festival, an indication of the health of the wider industry.

As in the past, the New Currents and Korean Cinema Today sections, both of which feature works from less-established filmmakers, were a rich source of new talent. While New Currents encompasses debut or sophomore films from all over Asia (including Korea), Vision spotlights independent Korean films from a new generation of directors. The standout Korean film in New Currents was undoubtedly Geu yeo-leum-nal-ui geo-jis-mal (That Summer’s Lie, Sohn Hyun-lok, 2023). The film follows a high school student, Da-young (Park Seo-yoon), who is asked to write about her summer for an assignment. She submits a frank account of what she did with her boyfriend. Her teacher, shocked, asks her to write another version to fix what the teacher considers the mistakes of the first. Viewers follow Da-young’s account of the relationship (which lasts just a few weeks), but as the narrative grows more convoluted through the film’s dreamlike structure, the audience is left to puzzle out what is fantasy and what is reality. It’s an interesting spin on melodrama, a genre that has been characteristic of Korean cinema since the early twentieth century. Like many independent films, it is also socially conscious, addressing attitudes towards teenage pregnancy and the wider pressures young people face both in and out of school.

However, in a new trend, evident in Busan and also at the Jeonju International Film Festival earlier this year, an increasing number of young Korean directors are infusing their films with humor as they continue to tackle difficult and sensitive issues. Also in the New Currents section, Lee Jong-su’s Bu-mo ba-bo (Heritage, Lee Jong-su, 2023) centers on a social worker, Jinhyun (Yoon Hyeok-jin), who supervises a young man, Youngjin (Ahn Eun-soo), doing community service at a community center in lieu of military conscription. Jinhyun takes in Youngjin when his father throws him out, leaving him with nowhere to go. The mismatched pair become a droll odd couple, thanks largely to Ahn Eun-soo’s deadpan delivery, but the humor doesn’t distract from the film’s critique of a social system that fails to support those who need it most.

Screening in the Vision section and winner of three awards was Oh Jung-min’s feature debut, Jangson (House of the Seasons, 2023).15 Set in a rural tofu factory—beautifully captured in the opening scene of a steam-filled kitchen—it centers on an extended family who come together for a memorial ceremony (jesa). The narrative catches the sparks generated by the various family members and generations, particularly Seong-jin (Kang Seung-ho), the favored only grandson, whose initial nonchalance unravels under the weight of expectations. With a humorous tone that darkens as the narrative progresses, the film offers a gently satirical critique of traditional gender dynamics while revealing the mystery at the root of the family’s differences.

Lee Mirang’s first feature, Ttal-e dae ha-yeo (Concerning My Daughter, 2023), also resonated with critics in Busan, where it won the CGV Award (funded by the Korean exhibition giant). Based on the eponymous 2018 novel by award-winning writer Kim Hye-jin, it focuses on the relationship between a mother (Oh Minae) and her daughter, Green (Lim Semi), who is a part-time lecturer at a university. Green encounters financial difficulties and is forced to move back in with her mother, bringing her same-sex partner (Ha Yoon-kyung) with her. The mother can’t understand why her educated daughter doesn’t get married and have children, let alone why she protests when a gay colleague at her university is fired. Over time she comes to accept her daughter for who she, but her challenges in doing so reflect the wider homophobia and rampant discrimination that continue to plague Korean society.

In both its realist aesthetics and subject matter, Park Hong-jun’s Hae-ya hal il (Work to Do, 2023) contributes to the trend in Korean independent cinema for films (both narrative features and documentaries) addressing labor issues.16 However, unlike films such as Kateu (Cart, Boo Ji-young, 2014) and Ur-ro-gong-dan (Factory Complex, Im Heungsoon, 2015), which foreground the perspective of frontline workers, Work to Do introduces the perspective of those tasked with making tough decisions in a challenging economic environment. Jun-hee (Jang Sung-bum), a young male associate at a shipbuilding company, is transferred to the company’s human-resources department. The company is losing money and in need of restructuring, and it is up to Jin-hee and his team to determine who is made redundant. This unenviable position becomes increasingly untenable as he sees the effect that his choices have on his colleagues along with the pressure it puts on his marriage. Based on Park’s personal experience, this feature debut is keenly observed with a level of detail that reflects the director’s understanding of the complex and gendered dynamics of the workplace. For example, the film shows how women are systematically shut out of the executive echelons.

The extended family at the center of Jangson (House of the Seasons, 2023).

The extended family at the center of Jangson (House of the Seasons, 2023).

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A palpable trend over the last few years is the internationalization of Korean cinema, for which the success of Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019) served as a catalyst. Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda worked with a Korean cast in Beu-lo-keo (Broker, 2022), and Chinese actress Tang Wai played the lead in Park Chan-wook’s Heeojil Gyeolsim (Decision to Leave, 2022). International coproductions made in Korea such as the Singaporean–South Korean film A-jum-ma (Ajooma, He Shuming, 2022), which premiered in New Currents in Busan last year, have also been a notable development. In this edition, Chinese filmmaker Han Shuai’s Green Night (2023) screened as a gala presentation following its premiere in the Panorama section at the Berlin Film Festival earlier in 2023. A Hong Kong–China coproduction shot and set in Korea and featuring Korean indie star Lee Joo-young, it reflects Korea’s growing regional appeal. Lee Joo-young is cast alongside Chinese star Fan Bingbing, who plays Jin Xia, a Chinese immigrant working at a security checkpoint at Incheon International Airport, outside Seoul. There she dresses down an extroverted green-haired woman (Lee Joo-young) who turns out to be a drug mule. Intrigued and also alarmed by the encounter, Jin Xia becomes involved with the woman and the illegal drug trade, which offers an escape from her abusive, churchgoing husband (Yeong-ho Kim). While themes of sexual violence and misogyny are often seen in Korean films, Han Shuai gives her female leads unusual agency while investing the cityscapes of Seoul and Incheon with an evocative, incongruous mix of neon lights and church crosses.

The Korean film industry has changed dramatically since 2020. The pandemic, combined with streaming and the increase of cinema ticket prices, has led to changes in viewing habits, with audiences watching more content at home. At the same time, postpandemic theatrical recovery in Korea has been markedly slower than in other global markets, while demand for Korean content on global streaming platforms has been greater following the success of Squid Game (Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2021). This shift was underscored when Netflix announced that it would invest a further $2.5 billion in Korean content, a move that sparked concerns that Netflix was pushing out smaller industry players.17 With fewer opportunities to direct films, a growing number of filmmakers are migrating to streaming services. Kim Sung-hoon was at the vanguard of this trend with the 2019 series Kingdeom (Kingdom); other Korean series with global reach include Crash Landing on You (Nam Hye-seung, 2019) and Vincenzo (Kim Hee-won, 2021), in addition to the hugely popular Squid Game.

Ahn Sun-kyoung’s I yeong-hwa ui kkeut-e-seo (At the End of the Film, 2023), which premiered in the Jiseok section—a competition part of the program dedicated to the late BIFF programmer Kim Ji-seok, who passed away suddenly while attending Cannes in 2017—reflects on these developments. The self-reflexive film follows Si-won (Park Jong-hwan), a filmmaker who, after suffering numerous setbacks, attempts to make a film set on a mountain. In the production meetings early in the film, there are several references to how the industry is changing, with investors increasingly turning to streaming. The film becomes more abstract and uneven as it goes on, but offers a humorous commentary on how the market is evolving.

Korea’s rapidly evolving media ecosystem was mirrored in the curation of this year’s edition of Busan, which, following on last year’s precedent, included both films and streaming titles. For the third consecutive year, the festival showcased episodic drama in the On Screen section, which this year consisted of six shows: five from Korea and one from Indonesia. Getting tickets for these dramas proved immensely difficult. I did manage to acquire a ticket for Disney’s Bijilante (Vigilante, Choi Jeong-yeol, 2023), about a police-academy student (Nam Joo-hyuk) who moonlights as a vigilante hunting down escaped criminals. Seeing it at the Busan Cinema Center’s packed 840-seat Haneulyeon Theatre was a surreal experience given the audience’s audible enthusiasm for a film-festival screening that was not of a film. Based on a webtoon (as is much of Korean cinema’s content now), the first three episodes were riveting, reflecting the high production values of much Korean content.18 Bijilante takes a stab at Korea’s justice system, which is widely seen as failing to adequately punish those guilty of heinous crimes, while the theme of revenge nods to some of Korea’s most iconic genre films. The two Netflix original films that premiered in Korean Cinema Today—Bal-le-li-na (Ballerina, Lee Chung-hyun, 2023) and Dokjeon 2 (Believer 2, Baik, 2023)—were genre films heavily reliant on violence. This slick but brutal style is increasingly evident in Netflix content as the platform seeks to duplicate the aestheticized violence associated with Korean auteurs such as Park Chan-wook.

Screening in Wide Angle (a section devoted to short films, documentaries, and experimental films) were the Netflix documentaries Jin-li-e-ge (Dear Jinri, Jung Yoon-sik, 2023) and No-lan-mun: Se-gi mal si-ne-pil da-i-eo-li (Yellow Door, Lee Hyuk-rae, 2023). Dear Jinri contains the last interview with K-pop star Sulli, who took her own life in 2019. The film is affecting as Sulli talks about her struggles with being in the spotlight and the unrelenting focus on her appearance, but it lacks crucial context about her life and death. Yellow Door, in contrast, was one of my festival highlights. A documentary about the Yellow Door film club in the 1990s, it brings together club members including director Bong Joon Ho as they nostalgically reflect on their time together as young cinephiles and their experience watching Bong’s unreleased first film, the animated Looking for Paradise. One of the striking features of the 386 generation of filmmakers (referring to those born in the 1960s, who attended university in the 1980s, and were in their thirties when the term was coined) was their huge appetite for cinema. Bong and his peers share an enthusiasm for film that is infectious and at the heart of this club, but the film also contextualizes their cinephilia within the creative energy that was transforming Korean cinema during the 1990s.

It felt fitting to conclude my festival attendance this year with Yellow Door, a film that harks back to an earlier period of instability, transformation, and creative ferment, a time when younger filmmakers were reinventing Korean cinema. Although the industry today is markedly different, with streaming platforms upending the studio system, its rapid evolution is reminiscent of the 1990s.

Where film festivals in Korea situate themselves in this evolving ecosystem remains uncertain. Busan is attempting to strike a fine balance in showcasing the new voices that the festival is synonymous with and celebrating cinema as a theatrical medium, while also acknowledging that SVOD (subscription video on demand)—or OTT (over the top), as it is more commonly referred to in Korea—is transforming how content is viewed and consumed.

Also shadowing this year’s edition were the external and internal political pressures that have had a detrimental impact on the festival. But despite these woes, a sense of optimism permeated Busan. A new generation of young filmmakers provided many discoveries, while the creative curation of the recently installed festival leadership succeeded in providing a snapshot of the challenges facing Korean society, ensuring the festival’s continued relevance and possibilities for renewal as the industry enters a new era.


Quoted in Michael Rosser, “Busan Film Festival Emerges from Turmoil with a Strong Selection and Star Power,” Screen Daily, September 30, 2023, www.screendaily.com/features/busan-film-festival-emerges-from-turmoil-with-a-strong-selection-and-star-power/5186426.article.


Patrick Brzeski and Soomee Park, “Busan Film Fest Insiders Push for Generational Change Amid Sexual Misconduct, Cronyism Allegations,” Hollywood Reporter, June 15, 2023, www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/busan-film-festival-sexual-misconduct-cronyism-allegations-1235517184/.


Patrick Frater, “Busan Film Festival Urges Former Director to Cooperate with Sexual Harassment Probe,” Variety, September 6, 2023, https://variety.com/2023/film/news/busan-film-festival-sexual-harassment-1235714661/.


Jean Noh, “Busan Festival Director Huh Moonyung Steps Down amid Sexual Harassment Allegations,” Screen Daily, June 5, 2023, www.screendaily.com/news/busan-festival-director-huh-moonyung-steps-down-amid-sexual-harassment-allegations/5182848.article.


Patrick Frater, “Busan Film Festival Chairman Lee Yong-kwan Seeks Immediate Departure, Blames Political Interference,” Variety, June 28, 2023, https://variety.com/2023/film/news/busan-festival-chairman-lee-yong-kwan-quits-1235656573/.


Derae Kim, Dina Iordanova, and Chris Berry, “The Busan International Film Festival in Crisis or, What Should a Festival Be?” Film Quarterly 69, no.1 (September 2015), 80–89.


Hyo-won Lee, “How the Busan Film Festival Is Bouncing Back despite Political Pressure,” Hollywood Reporter, October 4, 2016, www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/how-busan-film-festival-is-932663/.


Esther Chung, “Blacklists Affected Some 9,000 People in the Arts,” Korea JoongAng Daily, May 8, 2018, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2018/05/08/politics/Blacklists-affected-some-9000-people-in-the-arts/3047877.html.


So-mi Kim, “The Proposed Budget for the Culture in 2024 Is Met with Stiff Resistance,” KoBiz, September 26, 2023, www.koreanfilm.or.kr/eng/news/news.jsp?blbdComCd=601006&seq=5972&mode=VIEW#:~:text=According%20to%20the%202024%20budget,of%20the%20current%20year’s%20budget.


Festivals in Korea are not alone in facing cuts in government funding. The German Ministry for Culture and Media created a firestorm this past summer when it announced it would not be renewing Berlinale artistic director Carlo Chatrain’s contract in 2024 as part of a major overhaul of the festival’s operating budget. The decision was met with outrage and a petition signed by the world’s leading filmmakers. See Samantha Bergeson, “Berlinale Axes Sections As Budget Cuts Hit the Festival,” Indiewire, July 11, 2023, www.indiewire.com/news/breaking-news/berlinale-program-cuts-budget-1234882857/; and Elsa Keslassy and Naman Ramachandran, “Martin Scorsese, Radu Jude, Joanna Hogg among 400+ Signatories of Open Letter Urging Prolongation of Carlo Chatrain’s Berlinale Leadership,” Variety, September 6, 2023, https://variety.com/2023/film/global/martin-scorsese-100-signatories-open-letter-carlo-chatrians-berlinale-1235714524/.


For more on the Busan Film Festival and its relationship to Cannes and the auteur, see Jason Bechervaise, “Rediscovering Kim Ki-young: The Rise of the South Korean Auteur on the Festival Circuit,” in ReFocus: The Films of Kim KI-young, ed. Chung-Kang Kim (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2023).


Kim Boram, “Busan Film Festival Closes Safely amid Pandemic,” Yonhap News Agency, October 15, 2021, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20211015005851315.


Michael Rosser, “Busan Film Festival Unveils 2023 Line-Up and Will Honour Chow Yun-fat,” Screen Daily, September 15, 2023, www.screendaily.com/news/busan-film-festival-unveils-2023-line-up-and-will-honour-chow-yun-fat/5185562.article.


The term Hell Joseon was coined in 2015. Referring to the feudal class system of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897), it relates to Korea’s growing inequality—especially among young people. It was later superseded by Tal-Jo, which translates as “Escape Hell”—also adopted by Korea’s Generation Z. See Andrew Salmon, “75% of Young Want to Escape South Korean ‘Hell,’” Asia Times, December 31, 2019, https://asiatimes.com/2019/12/75-of-young-want-to-escape-south-korean-hell/.


House of the Seasons won the KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) Independent Film Award, a CGK (Cinematographers Guild of Korea) Award, and an Aurora Award. Various guilds, award bodies, and companies (including Korean exhibitor CGV) give awards to Korean films screening in the New Currents and Korean Cinema Today sections.


For a discussion of the gender dimensions of this theme, see Chris Berry, “In Woman’s Korea: Vertigo, Women, and Work in South Korean Cinema,” Film Quarterly 74, no. 4 (June 2021): 31–35.


Hyunsu Yim, “‘Netflix Effect’ Lifts Korean Content but Market Control Worries Grow,” Reuters, June 20, 2023, www.reuters.com/business/media-telecom/netflix-effect-lifts-korean-content-market-control-worries-grow-2023-06-19/.


For more analysis on Korea’s webtoon industry, see Liz Shackleton, “After BTS & ‘Squid Game’ How Webtoons Are Becoming the Latest Korean Cultural Export to Have a Global Impact,” Deadline, July 6, 2023, https://deadline.com/2023/07/korea-webtoon-naver-wattpad-kakao-entertainment-netflix-disney-1235430199/; and Brian Yecies and Ae-Gyung Shim, South Korea’s Webtooniverse and the Digital Comical Revolution (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).