The 11th edition of the Jeonju International Film Festival, held from late April to early May 2010, was the farewell one for chief programmer Jung Soo-wan, who helped build the festival into one of the most varied and interesting in the world – the closest thing to an Asian counterpart to the Viennale or BAFICI. Let’s hope Jeonju’s next chief programmer is good enough to have half her taste, intelligence and dedication.
A signature event of the festival is the Jeonju Digital Project, which each year funds and presents three short digital films by prominent filmmakers. (I was told by programmer and Digital Project co-producer You Un-seong that as of the next edition, the maximum-length restriction on the films will be dropped, so future Digital Projects could boast running times far exceeding the 30-45-minute range of this year’s films.) This year the triple bill led off with James Benning’s Pig Iron, on which the director provided this statement: “I have a very simple philosophy: Go to places that I want to be in; look and listen closely; and make films that will help me better understand my place in the world.” The film documents part of the process of steel-making at a steelworks in Duisburg, Germany. The camera is set up at a railroad yard where train cars transport iron ore to a large blast furnace, then carry the resulting pig iron to another part of the steelworks. Human workers in work suits and white hardhats play fleeting roles, but the heroes of the film are the trains that appear, most prominently “757” and “103”, the former a smart new yellow train, the latter a chunky gun-metal-colour car. The movements of the trains in and out of the frame constitute a firm, simple but surprising dramatic action and make possible a final blast of beauty at the hidden heart of a composition that at first seems forbiddingly austere. The clarity, detail and steadiness of the HD image contend with the massiveness of the industrial setting, put it on a human scale and make it significant, make it graspable, while acknowledging – more than acknowledging, disclosing – a vastness where humanity at first seems to have no place and where, for that reason, the place of humanity has to be reasserted, a task the film triumphantly accomplishes. Pig Iron is both a formally rigorous composition in time and a lush, romantic work, illuminating and illuminated by Benning’s previous HD film, Ruhr (2009), which was also shown at the festival.
More than just a clever and original meditation on Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Matías Piñeiro’s Digital Project film Rosalinda is a groundbreaking experiment in creating a truly Shakespearean cinema i.e., a form that is both textual and cinematic. In a rural riverside setting, actors rehearse scenes from As You Like It; because of the varying levels of the performers, an ambiguity arises between the play as ideally lived and made real (also for the viewer) and the play as a text that has not yet been mastered; throughout, action and dialogue sustain a brisk comic tempo, and the mellow, sunlit film creates a sympathetic glow of golds and greens to set off the performances of Rosalind, Celia and Orlando. A subsequent series of non-Shakespearean scenes among the same actors, joined by others, introduces a new mood of relaxation but also greater tensions, while long gaps between dialogues mean that the spoken word no longer sets the rhythm of the film, which concludes on a Rivettian note with an improvised game in which the players’ roles in a murder mystery are assigned by cards. This rich and enjoyable film promises well for a series of Shakespearean films envisioned by the Argentinian director.
Of this year’s three Digital Project films, only Denis Côté’s Les lignes ennemies disappointed: a shaggy-dog story, in CinemaScope ratio, in which a group of male soldiers wander through a forest, seemingly on a war-game exercise. The weirdness of the film (events that seem real in terms of the narrative turn out to have been dreams; the soldiers regale one another with outlandish stories) keeps it from being uninteresting, but the elementary contrast Côté keeps emphasising between the urgent military movements and the placidity of the landscape only looks the more undernourished when set beside the deftness of Piñeiro’s landscape work and the profundity of Benning’s.
The international competition at Jeonju is usually worthwhile; a highlight this year was Liao Jiekai’s Red Dragonflies, which won the Special Jury Prize. The film delicately interweaves personal memory with the excavation of the recent past of Singapore, various lines of the film converging at a rickety pedestrian bridge crossed by three young hikers, and then at a quiet coffeehouse/bookshop. The drifting mood the filmmaker sustains is subtly obsessive without being smothering. Debts of style and sensibility to both Hou Hsiao-hsien (leisurely pans on slowly developing interior scenes; long camera distance) and Apichatpong Weeresethakul (dream narration and unceremonious narrative bifurcation) are apparent. Some of the acting (by non-actors) comes off as studied, and on the whole the film is stronger in its non-narrative aspects, for its purely visual discoveries, than as a portrayal of the concerns of young Singaporeans (which it also is). Red Dragonflies is above all the revelation of a director’s personality.
John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark), shown out of competition, examines the tragic legacy of environmental disaster left by the United States at the site of the Clark Air Base in the Philippines. As is explained through harrowing testimony by victims, toxic waste dumped at the base contaminated farmland and polluted the water, which was used for drinking and cooking by refugees from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. The poisoning resulted in numerous illnesses, premature deaths and birth defects. The US presence left other scars: Gianvito interviews a man who was left disabled after being wounded by an American soldier during target practice, and another who saw a man killed by American aerial bombing.
The length of Gianvito’s film (four and a half hours, nearly) enables him to characterise the Clark disaster as a direct consequence, and an inseparable part, of the history of US imperialism – without reducing it to a mere example (since the film explores, very fully, the personal tragedies of the victims and the passion and the dedication of the activists fighting for the clean-up of the Clark site). Through intertitles and archival photographs, Gianvito traces the beginnings of US involvement in the Philippines during the Philippine American War (1899-1902). He also asks his contemporary subjects – mothers diagnosed with blood poisoning and their high-school-age sons – what they know about that history: the mothers know nothing or next to nothing, and the sons say they were taught only that there was a war, but nothing about its causes.
To explore the disaster at such length and in such detail is to overcome two typical effects of documentaries on the sufferings of the powerless: on the one hand, a wallowing-in-misery syndrome that arouses predictable feelings without leading to any insight; on the other, a quickly dissipated rush of outrage that serves as quick gratification for the politically liberal viewer. The film is filled with examples of the calmly decentred soberness that Gianvito has established as his signature through The Mad Songs of Fernando Hussein (2001) and Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007): a very lyrical and violent scene of a boy playing in a street in heavy rain that cuts directly to monochrome photographs of Filipino corpses; a long series of shots of tombstones, mostly of infants; the insistent silence accompanying the stark white-on-black intertitles (including one, about the nom de guerre of revolutionary leader Andres Bonifacio, that significantly and sympathetically interrupts the singing of a song of lament and hope). For all its length, the film never gives the feeling that it is saying everything, or trying to, or that it even thinks for a moment that saying everything is possible. One comes out of the film wanting to know more about the subject, about the history.
A kind of complement to Vapor Trail (Clark) in its juxtaposition of the contemporary Philippines with the country’s revolutionary past, John Torres’s Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song is, stylistically, the opposite of Gianvito’s work: disconnected, adrift images whose principle of connection is unclear; a garrulous and lulling soundtrack against unhurried, washed-out, sometimes hard-to-read images; lyrical superimpositions reminiscent of Stan Brakhage or Bruce Baillie; a homemade, handheld aesthetic (focus is the least of the filmmaker’s concerns) that accepts that, for example, during a long take of two people talking, one of their faces may become obscured for several minutes by a big pale-green leaf that is the brightest element in the shot. Too diffuse? Too laissez-faire in its attitude toward narrative? These objections wash away in the flow of images: it’s as if the film were drawing unscripted people and things into its orbit, tagging them lightly to moments of significance asserted or sought (a girl looking up and out of frame during a lengthy scene with a cat).
Some of the best films I saw at Jeonju were shorts. Apart from the Digital Project entries by Benning and Piñeiro, an outstanding program of short films highlighted recent work by Ying Liang and Tsai Ming-liang. Ying Liang’s Condolences is a succinct, sharp, and brilliantly structured piece on the aftermath of a real-life bus accident in China. Most of the film is a single static-camera take of a small public ceremony held in observance of the disaster. An old woman whose husband and son were killed in the accident sits silently, her back to the camera, in the near-to-middle distance of the deep-focus shot: prayers are offered; officials make speeches, sometimes acknowledging the woman; a young TV-news reporter pesters the woman for comments. In their absurd meaninglessness, the ceremony and the media coverage become an ordeal to which the viewer, together with the bereaved woman, is obliged to submit; the pitilessness of the shot exposes the soft terrorism of this ritual of public forgetting and exorcising blame. Ying Liang’s three feature films (Taking Father Home, The Other Half and Good Cats) were marked by a distinctive mixture of reticence, dark humour and compassion, together with the ability to build seemingly ramshackle, actually inexorable narratives and create long takes in which the viewer learns to wait for the significant detail. These qualities get distilled in Condolences (and, to some degree, in two earlier shorts presented in the program, Medicine and I Love Lakers).
Tsai Ming-liang’s half-hour Madame Butterfly is a tremendous achievement in its modest, almost tossed-off way (and with a lowish-res video aesthetic that has nothing in common with the burnished style of Tsai’s features). The camera follows a Malay woman, perhaps in her forties, around a Kuala Lumpur bus terminal: lacking funds for a ticket home, she is offered a reduced rate but instead of taking the deal phones her boyfriend in a hopeless attempt to get him to come help her. After this very long take, an absorbing and excruciating study in abjection, comes another shot: same woman, another location – presumably the hotel room where (earlier on the same day of the first shot) her boyfriend has left her lying in bed alone. This mordant, painful, finally abysmally glorious film and the three Ying Liang films would have made a terrific program just by themselves, but they were joined by a Stephen Dwoskin film called Ascolta! (that, at two minutes, neither enhanced nor lowered the program but briefly enveloped the screen in a pale wisp before vanishing) and a slick, expensive American conceit called Plastic Bag (directed by Ramin Bahrani, narrated by Werner Herzog as if auditioning for a guest-vocal spot with Kraftwerk) that was by far the worst film I’ve seen in four years of attending Jeonju. Though it’s been hyped all over creation, partly because of Herzog’s involvement, the film really deserved to have its world premiere as the two-a.m. sign-off program of the community-access channel in West Hiatus, Maine.
As always at Jeonju, numerous films from the more or less recent past were screened alongside current work. Retrospectives showcased the work of Pedro Costa, Kim Dong-won and Romuald Karmakar, who all attended the festival, and Miklós Janscó, who did not. A special section celebrated “Poetics of Resistance and Revolution” from Sergei Eisenstein’s October to Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes and beyond; four recent restorations of the Korea Film Archive were presented, as was the new reconstruction of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; and the three Digital Project filmmakers were each given carte blanche to choose and show a film. Piñeiro’s selection, Philippe Garrel’s Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights… (1985), seemed to sum up the festival with its mixture of choked intimacy and sweeping intransigence, its sense of tarnished angels taking over public spaces and streets.
Jeonju International Film Festival
29 April – 7 April 2010
Festival website: http://eng.jiff.or.kr/index.asp