The key aim of the Jeonju International Film Festival (hereafter JIFF) is to showcase independent films from around the world and from South Korea. In its twelfth year, JIFF is not only a young international festival, it is also very youth-oriented. The audience at virtually every screening is comprised of twenty-somethings; most of the Korean filmmakers whose movies are in competition are young; the programmers are young; and so are the critics and journalists who attend the event. All appear eager to learn from “master” directors from Europe and the US as well as from other Asian countries. Claire Denis and Noël Burch were present at JIFF this year to give master classes, and the festival staged retrospectives dedicated to Kidlat Tahimik of the Philippines, José Luis Guerín of Spain, Nicolás Pereda of Mexico, and masterpieces of the history of Portuguese cinema. It also staged a retrospective of the work of Korean filmmaker Lee Myung-se who is still alive and kicking and at the forefront of filmmaking despite being in his mid-fifties. For some fans Lee’s golden period is the 1990s, from My Bride, My Love (1990) and First Love (1993) to Their Last Love Affair (1996) and Nowhere to Hide (1999), although for a much younger generation he is the newly discovered director of Duelist (2005) and M (2007). Whilst contemporary South Korean cinema shows off its vibrancy internationally, its domestic independent filmmaking scene appears to be driven by the energy of youth.

The day before I travelled down to Jeonju, a red-coloured placard caught my eye while I was stuck in the usual heavy traffic jam in the central area of Seoul. (I frequently visit this area, but always feel like a stranger due to its fast-changing scenery). The first line on the placard said “5,410 won” and was followed by the statement that “everybody is happy if the minimum hourly payment is raised by 1,000 won.” It was a slogan promoting the key policies of the New Progress Party (a minor leftist party). My mind raced. So how much is the current legal hourly payment? Less than 4,500 won (approximately 4 US dollars). Is that how much money Korean workers are paid? I thought of the young girls working at the global-brand franchised ice-cream parlour I had dropped into just a few minutes earlier. They had such pale faces and cold-but-so-competent machinery manners, which made me feel like an idiot as I could not catch up with their speed in ordering. In Jeonju, I encountered various other groups of Korean youth. These included groups of local young people, dressed up and hanging out at the shopping area crowded with relentlessly driving cars and loud pop music coming out of speakers in shops; groups of university students who fill up screenings and stay keenly attentive to films and Q&A sessions; young voluntary festival workers who do their jobs so willingly however tedious given tasks may be (e.g. keeping watch over a shuttle bus stop where for most of the time not a single soul may be found). While being constantly surrounded by such young people, I could not help but ask myself a series of questions. Why are these young Koreans so dedicated to (i.e. obsessed with) cinema when they commonly consume films as digital moving image files? What social bearing does filmmaking have on the lives of Korean youth living in today’s smart-luxury, consumption-oriented, deadly-hard-working South Korean society?

Driven by such questions, and also hoping to learn more about the Korean (independent) filmmaking scene as well as Korean youth, I decided this year mainly to watch films from the Korean Feature Film Competition and the Korean Short Film Competition sections. It did not take long for me to gain certain findings, perhaps (and hopefully) as intended by the JIFF programming. Documentaries – which comprised half (five out of ten titles) of the Korean Feature Film Competition section – revolve around a single question concerning truth as well as questions of truthful cinematic representation. The Time of Lovelessness (d. Kim Hee-chul), a sequel to the same director’s The Gate of Truth (2004), deals like the earlier film with the Defence Ministry’s cover-up of the real facts concerning the sudden death of a young military officer at the JSA (Joint Security Area) in 1998. At the Q&A session following the screening, some of the individuals involved in the investigative campaign were present and wholeheartedly appealed to audiences to remember the case and not to forget the truth. The True-Taste Show (d. Kim Jae-hwan) adopts a humorous mocking format to reveal a truth behind the major broadcasting companies’ reality television shows introducing famous restaurants. At the post-screening Q&A session, the director appealed to audiences for support as he expressed his concerns about risks to his own company and employees in the face of potential future law suits piled up by some of those giant companies.

While the two documentaries discussed above foreground the importance of unravelling hidden truths, The Color of Pain (d. Lee Kang-hyun), Anyang, Paradise City (d. Park Chan-kyong) and Out of the Cave (d. Ahn Kearn-hyung) pose self-reflexive questions regarding the delivery of truth by an unreliable medium – cinema – and approaches to the gaze and storytelling adopted by particular filmmakers. The Color of Pain puts viewers firmly in a corner as the camera remains at a fixed distance from the medical doctors, workers, working spaces and interviewees it observes – some of whom do not have anything to do with the main issue at hand, namely, the working and health conditions of labourers. Yet the camera’s stable gaze is long enough for viewers to undergo a whole spectrum of experiences, by turns engaging with, blank-staring at, observing, witnessing, waiting and even ignoring the film itself. Anyang, Paradise City, commissioned as a public art project by the city council of Anyang, sees director Park Chan-kyong (brother of Park Chan-wook) playfully and skilfully stitch together historical memories of a tragic accident – the 1988 Green Hill Fire in which 22 young female workers died after being locked up in a factory accommodation hall overnight – through sensual images and associative montage.

Personally, however, my more sumptuous cinematic experiences came from watching short movies in the Short! Short! Short! and Korean Short Film Competition sections. The former is an omnibus project sponsored by JIFF. Every year the festival commissions Korean filmmakers to make a short movie on a given theme. (The Jeonju Digital Project is another omnibus project with a longer history, produced by JIFF since 2000. This year Claire Denis, José Luis Guerín and Jean-Marie Straub joined the project). The theme this year was “vive l’amour”. It presented Moonwalk by Boo Ji Young (director of Sisters on the Road, 2008) and Immature by Yang Ik June (of Breathless [2008] fame). At the screening Yang’s popularity as a star figure, or hero, of Korean independent cinema was palpable among the young cinephiles. In both critical and commercial terms, his Breathless is one of the most successful Korean independent films, and before its success Yang had directed his own short films as well as appeared as an actor in many other shorts. The themes and styles exhibited by the 12 short films in the Competition section were varied. Yet all display interesting storytelling methods (not necessarily socially critical but drawing upon good understandings of peoples’ subtle emotions and desires) eloquently delivered through highly-toned and well-controlled filmmaking skills. In this sense, it is this particular section of the festival that evidently showcases the current standards and upcoming new talents of contemporary South Korean cinema.

Being in Jeonju for nine intense days only fed my curiosity concerning the relationship between Korean (independent) cinema and Korean youth. Hoping to get a better picture of the Korean independent filmmaking scene, I sent a short questionnaire to Maeng Soo-jin (programmer of the JIFF Korean Feature Film Competition section) and to Moon Hak-san (one of the four film critics on the JIFF Korean Short Film Competition preliminary committee). The following is my own translated script of these interviews. I would like to thank both for sharing their precious knowledge and vision with readers of Senses of Cinema.

On Korean Independent Cinema and the Korean Feature Film Competition in Jeonju – Interview with Maeng Soo-jin

This year’s Korean Feature Film Competition section includes five documentary films, all of which pose questions about truth and the nature of cinematic representation. Selecting such films appears to make a statement against certain trends of contemporary Korean cinema. If so, what are the trends and what is the key message of this statement?

I selected many documentaries since this year Korean independent documentary film showed a noticeable growth in both quality and quantity. (Two thirds of films submitted to the section were documentaries). Korean independent cinema emerged in the 1980s when the social democratisation movement reached its peak in the struggle against the military dictatorship. While responding to the social situation, the majority of Korean independent cinema was made up of activist documentary videos which merely recorded democratisation struggles and reported on social problems. As the democratisation of Korean society proceeded in the last decade, independent feature film production was given more attention than documentaries. Yet as the political situation has undergone a radical transformation in the last few years, many people in the independent filmmaking scene feel a strong sense of crisis in which the recent development of Korean democracy is being reversed. Such a sense of crisis and the current anti-democratic social changes have led naturally to an increase in documentary production.

Thus far Korean documentary filmmakers could not be free from political correctness or the burden of history. They relatively overlooked, or did not consider seriously, issues of style and aesthetics. For such reasons, this year, while drawing attention to the importance of documentaries, I selected films which evoke questions of aesthetics within the community of Korean independent documentary filmmaking.

If we can think of those films in the Competition section as independent Korean films, what are their environments of production and distribution and who makes such films?

The situation of the production and distribution of Korean independent films is extremely poor, far beyond imagination. Usually directors spend their own money or raise funds from among friends for production. Partly they get support from film festivals like JIFF, or from KOFIC (Korean Film Council). However, the amount of such supporting funds is not very much and only a few filmmakers benefit from such funding. Despite such poor conditions, filmmakers still manage to make one or two titles; but filmmakers cannot endure such conditions for a longer term. Although specialised independent film distributors like Indiestory, Indie Plug or Cinema Dal lessen the hardship to some degree, the situation is still so bad and it is difficult to secure any stable revenue. In such a situation, talented directors cannot have a future vision for planning further production.

Some films in the section pose self-reflexive questions on cinematic representation while dealing with political and social issues. How do you think such questioning shapes the characteristics of these titles?

Thus far Korean independent documentaries have been mostly armed with political correctness. In terms of style, they adopt a conventional explanatory mode with objective voice-over narration. Yet in the last few years an increasing number of films have questioned the dichotomy between documentary and fiction and integrated such questions into the films themselves. They also pose self-reflexive questions concerning the position of filmmakers. Filmmakers who make such films are those who have been making films at the margins of the independent filmmaking scene. For example, Park Chan-kyung (Anyang, Paradise City) reflects on cinema and filmmaking from his background as a media artist. Ahn Kearn-hyung (Out of the Cave) and Lee Kang-hyun (The Color of Pain), who have been making films at the margins of the scene, also bring new questions to the already-established independent documentary makers. I hope that such films, even indirectly, can challenge and change the independent filmmaking scene.

What relation do such films bear to contemporary Korean society?

These films may be the outcome of the reflective efforts of filmmakers who examine their positions while facing the current phase of Korean society, which is becoming more complicated with more ramified class interests. In the past, Korean society was rather easy to map out. The positioning of the established independent filmmakers did not require so much consideration as the line of conflict between democracy versus anti-democracy, and good versus bad, could be clearly drawn. They possessed great confidence and self-satisfaction as they could convince themselves that their cameras spoke for the socially repressed. But such self-satisfaction restrained them from reflecting on their own positions. However, as the clear line between good and bad has become blurred, and Korean society has undergone rapid change, the firm belief in their positions has turned into an object of critical investigation. The films included in the section seem to respond to such fundamental reflections on the issue of representation and the positioning of filmmaker and camera.

Which particular independent Korean films or directors would you like to bring to international attention?

First, works of Filmmaking Group Cheongnyeon [영화제작소 청년]. Kim Kyung-man’s An Escalator in World Order (screened in this year’s JIFF International Competition) and Lee Kang-hyun’s The Color of Pain both belong to this group. I hope that international audiences pay attention to the social and filmmaking contexts of those films when they watch them. Second, Ahn Kearn-hyung’s Out of the Cave. Third, films of the Un-compromising Filmmaking Group Gok-sa (the brothers Kim Gok and Kim Sun)

On Korean Short Films and the Korean Short Film Competition in Jeonju – Interview with Moon Hak-san

What is the environment of short filmmaking like in South Korea and what kind of people make short films?

There are three different environments for short filmmaking in Korea. First, people make short films in independent filmmaking groups. For example, the Un-compromising Filmmaking Group Gok-sa made Time Consciousness (2002) and Light and Class (2004) and Lee Jin-woo of the Underground Creation Group Pajeok made Dreams Come True? (1999). Second, people make short films while attending film school, in particular the Korean Film Academy and KNUA (Korea National University of Arts). Noticeable titles are So Sang-min’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (2005), Gwon Il-soon’s Hide and Seek (2001) and Go Young-min’s 8849M (2001) from the Korean Film Academy; and Yoon Seong-ho’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now (2005) and Portfolio (2006), Oh Joum-kyun’s A Vital Activity (2003), and Yang Hyo-joo’s Broken Night (2010) from KNUA. The quality of KNUA shorts is high as the students make films with staff specialising in subdivided areas such as production, cinematography, sound and editing. Third, people make shorts while attending filmmaking workshops, organised for example by Media Act or Hangyeore Film School. Examples are Hong Du-hyun’s Tuning in Silence (2001) and Cho Kyu-jang’s Love is Will of Body (2005). In this case, people often quit their jobs in order to become a filmmaker.

What does having their films selected for the JIFF Competition section mean for those filmmakers?

We usually select 12-15 short films from around 600 submissions. Being selected for the competition therefore means joining in the list of noticeable titles which represent the main trend of the year. Films that are selected for JIFF often win awards in other film festivals, too. In the past, to become a commercial film director in Korea you had to pass through the apprenticeship system. These days people can get a chance to make commercial or independent feature films by having their shorts screened at film festivals. So if you have your film invited to Jeonju, it means that you are taking a first step to becoming a professional film director and your potential as a filmmaker is tested in public.

What were the main criteria for selecting the 12 short films for the section?

Before the section became a competition section, the main criteria for selection was whether they represent the key tendencies of Korean short films of the respective year. Now that it has turned into a competition section, we focus on cinematic quality as the main criteria. In considering them as short movies, we also pay attention to how well they express their original ideas or whether they are critically engaged with social reality.

How have Korean short films changed over the past decade?

There are many different ways we can approach changes in the trend of Korean short films during the last decade. Above all, film formats have changed. In the early 2000s, short films were made on 16mm or 35 mm. In the mid-2000s short films were mostly made with DV cameras and now people mostly use HD cameras. In terms of filmmakers, in the early 2000s it was mostly people from independent filmmaking groups or film schools. Currently it is mostly film school students whilst independent filmmakers like Gok-sa and Lee Ji-sang continue to make shorts and some of them now make independent feature films. In terms of themes, in the early 2000s most films touched upon Korean history and society; for example, critical views on family ideology, memories about distorted history, or problems of violence in schools. Currently, the majority of short films, which are mostly film school graduate films, deal with melodramatic stories, or gay and lesbian love stories, or else they follow generic conventions. This year a number of short films deal with North Korean refugees.

Amongst the films in this year’s competition, which ones do you find most impressive?

Ahn Gooc-jin’s Double Clutch, which is this year’s winner, is an excellent work which playfully deals with the theme of death using generic elements of comedy and featuring condensed time in one limited space. Actress Choo Sang-mee’s Dressing Room is also noteworthy. It is articulate and through excellent cinematic expression depicts the inner conflicts experienced by an actress in her dressing room just before she goes on to the stage.

Which particular Korean short titles or directors would you like to bring to international attention?

At the moment what is most noticeable in the wide spectrum of Korean independent cinema is the emergence of a group of directors who introduce an element of playfulness while the main trend is the switch from realism to modernism. Yoon Seong-ho (Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, Portfolio) reflects on Korean social reality and cinema by adopting self-reflexive strategies; Yang Hae-hoon (The Swaying Boat, 2004) cinematically represents Korean society as a text by employing his own codes; Gok-sa (Anti-Dialectic, 2001; Party Politics Strikes Back, 2006) continuously widen a range of themes and experiment with varied styles while making feature-length films as well as shorts. Other noteworthy directors are Lee Ji-sang (the Ten Ox-Hearding Pictures series), Kim Jong-gwan (Tell Her I Love Her, 2003; How to Operate a Polaroid Camera, 2004; Slowly, 2005) and Cho Kyu-jang (Bong-su, 2007; A Camel Doesn’t Leave Desert, 2008). For representative works of realism, I would like to recommend Park Chan-ok’s Heavy (1998), Jung Ji-woo’s A Bit Bitter (1996), Han Ji-hye’s Please Stop the Train (2008), Kim Sun-min’s GariVegas (2005), Shin Min-jae’s Seongbuk Port (2007) and Lee Jin-woo’s The Wind Stirs (2006).

Jeonju International Film Festival
28 April – 6 May 2011
Festival website: http://eng.jiff.or.kr/

About The Author

Nikki J.Y. Lee received a PhD in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She has taught at Yonsei University and Korea National University of Arts. She has published several articles on Korean films and directors, including “Localized Globalization and a Monster National: The Host (2006) and the South Korean Film Industry” in Cinema Journal. She is co-editor of a forthcoming title, The Korean Cinema Book (British Film Institute/Palgrave MacMillan).

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