The year 2016 in Korean cinema was especially strong if turbulent, with many major films by established auteurs, impressive debuts and second features from younger directors, and a political controversy over the artistic independence of the prestigious Busan International Film Festival. Last year’s Jeonju festival was indicative of the year to come, with a strong line-up of Korean films, a few of which were documentaries addressing the political situation.1 This year’s festival continued to be heavily political, which was probably unavoidable given the scandal that had caused President Park Geun-hye to be impeached and the fact that the election for her replacement was scheduled a mere four days after Jeonju’s conclusion. The strongest Korean films from this year indeed tended to be political, at least implicitly; unfortunately, overall the quality failed to reach last year’s heights. But even the artistic failures were unsuccessful in unique ways specific to this national cinema.
The Jeonju festival is broken into many component parts. There is an Opening Film, with this year’s selection the Berlin Golden Bear Winner Teströl és lélekröl (On Body and Soul) by Ildikó Enyedi, a strong selection and the first Berlin winner to open Jeonju since Asghar Farhadi’s Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (A Separation) in 2011, as well as a Closing Selection (Yaguchi Shinobu’s Sabaibaru famiri / Survival Family). There are both a Korean and an International Competition section, although both lack in the prestige names of larger festivals, as well as a Korean and World Cinemascape, encompassing previous debuted and often acclaimed films. Experimental cinema is represented through the Expanded Cinema section, while cult films are placed in the Midnight in Cinema block. A new section added this year, Frontline, highlights movies that focus on controversial political and social topics. This year’s Special Focus included the Korean screenwriter Song Gil-han, British director Michael Winterbottom (who also led a Master Class section), Russian director Alexei German, and the New Italian Cinema. Rather unique to Jeonju is the Cinematology Section, featuring works about cinema itself, reflecting the festival’s cinephile emphasis, as well as the Jeonju Cinema Project (formerly the Jeonju Digital Project), in which three directors are chosen and funded to make a feature (formerly a short which were then combined into an omnibus film). For this year, I focused most of my screenings on Korean cinema, as well as some of the Cinematology section and a handful of the more general world cinema offerings.
Two of my favourite Korean films of the festival were complimentary documentaries about former Korean presidents. No-mu-hyeon-ip-ni-da (Our President), directed by Lee Chang-jae, was one of the three films included in the Jeonju Cinema Project, and focuses on Roh Moo-hyun, who served as President from 2003-2008 and subsequently committed suicide in 2009 due to a combination of poor health and bribery allegations. The documentary is unquestionably biased in favour of Roh, and is even hagiographic to some extent, almost completely ignoring the corruption charges against him. It is also highly emotional and manipulative in its stylistic approach, attempting to be both rousing and sentimental in equal measures, and indeed, the audience response to the film was very strong, with many tears shed in the final sequence. But it is a very effective film despite the somewhat bludgeoning approach, and this is due to its strong narrative structure to compliment the compelling story material. The story of Roh’s career is a fascinating one and he makes a great protagonist for any movie; in fact, Roh’s earlier work in the 1980s as a human rights lawyer was already dramatised in the 2013 box office hit Byeon-ho-in (The Attorney, directed by Yang Woo-suk).[The week of Our President’s wide release in South Korea, The Attorney’s star Song Kang-ho was interviewed on the JTBC network (South Korea’s more left-leaning alternative to the more conservative major networks) to discuss the film as well as the politics of the country, specifically the conservative blacklist of artists involved in projects, like The Attorney, that were deemed unfavorable to the party. See Choe Sang-hun, “South Korea’s Blacklist of Artists Adds to Outrage Over Presidential Scandal,” New York Times, 12 January, 2017] But the documentary makes a wise decision in terms of its structure by focusing on Roh’s campaign for his party nomination in 2002, intercut with more general reminiscences from those who were close to him over the years. This provides a great narrative momentum as well as an education in the Korean political process. It also does a great job of explaining what was unique about Roh’s candidacy: a left-wing politician from the conservative southeast part of the country trying to overcome the regionalism of the country. The concentration on the process of the campaign itself allowed Roh to become both more human and flawed (as opposed to the mostly admiring recollections from his friends) as well as more representative of a whole movement. Ultimately, Roh stands in for a certain progressive ideal, and it is no accident that the reading of his suicide note is performed by Moon Jae-in, Roh’s friend and successor who was elected President shortly after the festival’s conclusion.
Moon Jae-in won the presidency because of a tumultuous past year in Korean politics in which President Park Geun-hye was impeached due to charges related to influence peddling. Park was the first female president of the country as well as the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, a military dictator who ruled the country from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. The Park family and their legacy and supporters are the subject of Kim Jae-hwan’s excellent documentary Mi-seu Peu-le-ji-deon-teu (Mis-President), which was my favourite film of the festival. Unlike Our President, this film is much more critical of its subjects. But, at the same time, the approach lacks any of the bombast of that film, instead favouring a more reserved style that mostly observes rather than using overt manipulation of sound and image. The main characters are not either former president but rather their supporters. Specifically, an elderly man and a middle-aged couple, all of whom have a strong reverence for Park Chung-hee, giving him the credit for Korea’s post-war rise to prosperity. The ancestry worship that is a part of Korean cultural tradition is merged here with the political, as Park Chung-hee, his wife Yuk Young-soo (who was accidently killed by a bullet intended for her husband in 1974), and his daughter Park Geun-hye become the symbolic family of the country, mythical figures in many ways. It is difficult to not be reminded of their ideological double in North Korea and the extreme worship of Kim Il-sung and his lineage. The second half then traces Park Geun-hye’s downfall, as allegations mount and huge protests calling for her removal flood downtown Seoul. Some of the most disturbing footage comes from the counter-protests, in which anyone against Park is labelled a Communist and the anger reaches near hysterical levels. Such is the cost of converting humans into mythical form: the fall of the Gods is never easy to accept. Throughout, director Kim Jae-hwan observes, as the material needs little amplifying, and the sadness and resignation of the Park supporters has real emotional weight. Additionally, archival footage of a young Park Geun-hye at the Blue House (South Korea’s White House equivalent) and her later disgraced exit has a real poetic force, strangely humanising her without any hint of maudlin sentiment. The film plays well to both neophytes and experts of Korean culture and politics and deserves a wider audience both inside and outside the country.
In terms of fiction films, the best Korean feature was another of the Jeonju Cinema Project entries: Kim Dae-hwan’s Cho-heung (The First Lap), his follow-up to his impressive debut Cheo-rwon-gi-haeng (End of Winter), which won the New Currents prize at Busan in 2014. The story revolves around a young couple, Soo-hyun and Ji-young, from very different class backgrounds and their anxieties as they deal with a possible pregnancy. Kim shoots the entire film with sequence shots, including no editing within the scenes, and together with his fine performers, creates an intimate and realistic drama about life in contemporary Korea. The structure revolves around two extended family visits, the first with Ji-young’s upper middle-class family, who worry about Soo-hyun’s financial suitability and want the couple to better conform to social standards, which would include marriage. The second half finds the couple travelling to Soo-hyun’s much more dysfunctional, working-class family, a past that Soo-hyun very much wants to avoid and yet is forced to at least attempt to confront. Another benefit from the long take style is the ability to capture the everyday space and reality of modern South Korea, providing an almost documentary backdrop to the intimate drama in the foreground. Kim captures not only the stress and frustration of middle-class aspiration and the bleakness and despair of those on the margins, but the humour and connection between the couple that allows them to persevere. The ending is notable in showing the dominance of the Park Geun-hye scandal in the social imagination, as the couple are followed from behind as they participate in the protest in Gwanghwamun Square. While this may date the film to some extent, I think it was an appropriate conclusion to a story that was at once deeply personal while never ceasing to engage with the social. Apparently, Kim conceived of The First Lap as the second in a trilogy on family, and I look forward to the concluding film.
The third of the Jeonju Cinema Project films, Kim Yang-hee’s Si-in-ui Sa-rang (The Poet and the Boy), was not nearly as successful, but at least it was a failure in some interesting ways. The plot revolves around a middle-aged poet, comfortably married to a wife anxious to become pregnant and have a child. However, he becomes obsessed with an extremely handsome and troubled young man working at a local coffee shop. There is certainly much for a queer critic to dissect here, even if the overall product is not very effective and ultimately feels rather reactionary. There is a strong anal motif, with the two men bonding over a nostalgia for the lost father, whose memory is connected to flatulence, with implicit incest overtones. At first, I was rather surprised that a female director made the film, since I felt a certain misogyny here, a kind of “queer versus the feminine” dynamic.2 Although the strongest aspect of the movie is the great performance by Jeon Hye-Jin as the wife, this most interesting character is unfortunately sidelined for the central relationship. She turns into the simple place-marker of civilisation and repression, with as little independent function as a heroine in a classic western. By the conclusion, the queer and the feminine are both placed to the side for conventional patriarchy, even if the attitude towards this social order remains conflicted. The fact that the boy escapes this trap perhaps indicates a certain hopefulness and idea of rebellion, even if it can only take place because of the older man’s sacrifice. Unfortunately, this feels less like genuine rebellion and more like a traditional masculine fantasy of escape from civilisation and the trap of femininity and domination. Director Kim Yang-hee seems to be reinforcing this patriarchal order rather than critiquing and challenging, even though maybe the general unhappiness of the three lead characters trapped in this world is its own kind of challenge. The Poet and the Boy ends up as a text more interesting to read and analyse than experience.
The remaining Korean films were mostly disappointing and represent a step back from last year’s selections. The most successful was probably Jung In-bong’s Gil (The Way), a sentimental but affecting drama following three different elderly protagonists all linked by a common flashback to an idyllic meeting on a countryside railway track. The nostalgia of these flashbacks sequences contrast with the loneliness each character feels in their advanced age, as they struggle with general societal indifference. Kim Hye-ja, most famous for her acclaimed lead role in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, stars in this first sequence and is as great as always, even if the sequence itself feels underdeveloped. The best section is the second, as an older man attempts to learn how to run a small café and develops an infatuation with the younger woman training him. The finale falls rather flat and is the weakest sequence, but overall a film worth watching for the performances and understated style. The romantic comedy Saem also had its moments, even if it did not amount to much more than a passing trifle. The lead protagonist suffers from the unusual condition of face blindness, the inability to remember faces, even of people who he knows well. This premise allows for the type of broad misunderstanding comedy one would expect, although the script often manages to be cleverer than the high concept setup anticipates. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the plot, especially when looking at the film from outside of Korean culture, is the scatological humour. Within western culture, this type of humour is mostly present in gross-out comedies, but here, it forms the basic framing of the romantic meet-cute, which takes place in a toilet stall as the female love interest suffers from intestinal distress. I find this lack of shame around bodily functions somewhat refreshing, but the rest of the narrative remains too hackneyed to recommend the film for anything beyond mild sociological value.
The Way and Saem are both flawed, but they are masterpieces compared to the two worst films I saw at the festival: Lim Wang-tae’s Ga-eul U-che-guk (Autumn Sonata) and Yoo Ji-young’s Su-seong-mot (Duck Town). Autumn Sonata is a particularly odd mixture, albeit one that is quite distinctively Korean, as the two main influences seem to be Im Kwon-taek and Korean television dramas. The plot revolves around a young woman who realises she is dying from the same disease that took her father at a young age. Because of this, she decides to reject her childhood love, a nephew who has been waiting years to be with her. There is a strong attachment to the Korean past and tradition, with the father a saintly figure strongly worshipped by the daughter. This is combined with the rather poor acting and farcical comedy that is standard in K-dramas, resulting in an unsatisfying combination that never achieves either tone with conviction. Duck Town likewise fails in trying to take on the important social issue of suicide through broad comedy. A major problem is structural, as the plot rambles with no clear directorial vision and a curious lack of character development, which is likely partially due to the poor lead performance. That these films could be entered into a festival as large as Jeonju is a sign of a lack of depth within the Korean film landscape, an inability of Jeonju to attract better submissions, and/or a problem with their reviewing and selection process. While I recognise that my taste is not necessarily reflective of all audiences, Autumn Sonata and Duck Town seem unlikely to satisfy either the art cinema audience or those looking for more conventional, mainstream fare.
Rounding out the Korean films at the festival were two movies at the opposite end of the commercial spectrum: Woo Kwang-hoon and David Redman’s documentary Dancing with Jikji and Kim Sung-soo’s blockbuster Asura: City of Madness. Dancing with Jikji explores the subject of the invention of the printing press, trying to challenge the historical idea of movable type being invented in Europe by Gutenberg and instead showing how printing has Korean origins. The film follows co-director Redman, who teaches at a university in South Korea, as he researches the subject, travelling to Europe and encountering numerous obstacles along the way. The subject matter has potential, but there are many problems with the film and its approach. It begins with a critique of Eurocentrism, but never really develops this idea and fails to provide an adequate intellectual framing on the issue and explain why it is significant, something that could easily have been accomplished through a discussion of the clash of civilisations versus cultural hybridity debate. Redman and his co-investigator point out that they have Masters degrees and are therefore scholars who should have access to historical records (true), but do not really apply that scholarly approach in the documentary. But the biggest weakness is simply the style. There is a self-reflexive quality, with constant reference to the construction of the work and a heavy reliance on written graphics to explain what is occurring on screen. As a result, there is no clear purpose to the referencing other than to create a feeling of intensified exposition, which ends up being exhausting more than illuminating. More trust in the audience and thoughtfulness in approach could have transformed and shaped this admittedly impressive amount of research into something more impactful. Asura: City of Madness was a successful thriller from last year, the 15th highest grossing Korean film domestically, and it is certainly a well-made and stylish exercise, with very fine cinematography throughout.3 And the story, about political and police corruption in a Seoul suburb, had much potential. But this is a film that is trying too hard to be cynical and edgy without ever being able to convincingly convey this to the audience. Instead, it often comes across as silly and slightly pretentious in the attempt. One obvious example is two separate uses of the song, “Down in the Hole,” played over violent action scenes. By this point, this song is strongly associated with the American television drama The Wire, and director Kim Sung-soo seems to want to make a similarly tough-minded look at society’s problems, but the result is more laughable than anything else. Cynicism is not necessarily profound. For critics worried about Korean cinema becoming an inferior Hollywood imitation, Asura: City of Madness is a perfect illustration.
The Cinematology section included the very engaging and relevant Cinema Futures, directed by Michael Palm, and the less successful but still occasionally dazzling Manifesto, directed by Julian Rosefeldt. Cinema Futures is another documentary/essay about the transformation of cinema from the era of celluloid to the digital age, with many familiar talking heads discussing the issue, such as Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan, along with other less mainstream and more scholarly perspectives, such as David Bordwell and Jacques Rancière, among many others. Unlike other similar movies about this subject, such as Chris Kenneally’s Side by Side (2012), Palm focuses much more on the archival aspects of this change rather than purely aesthetics. The concern is not only the changing look of the image, but the ability to preserve this material, given the lack of stability of digital formats. This is particularly the case with independent work, which is now much more vulnerable and in need of protection. My screening included a talk with Palm afterwards, and it was clear from many of the audience questions that this issue of digital archiving is not one most people are aware of, even those with a passion for cinema. Manifesto is a more experimental work, conceptually about the various artistic manifestos of the previous century, but not really a documentary about these movements. Rather, the great Cate Blanchett stars in a series of short sequences that reflect upon Futurism, Dadaism, Situationalism, Pop Art, Dogme 95, and many other famous examples. Some are quite striking as short films, especially when they take a realistic setting like the newsroom or the classroom and use this for satirical effect. But there is not much intellectual weight or even curiosity about the manifestoes themselves, instead using them mostly as a conceit. The result is more style over substance, with each vignette feeling either too long (when it is not effective) or too short (when it is).
In the World Cinemascape section, the standout was Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, a highly self-reflexive work that would have been at home in the Cinematology category as well. Even more than Larraín’s other film from last year, Jackie, Neruda is a highly original and thought-provoking spin on the very traditional and staid biopic genre. Pablo Neruda turns out to not be the lead character, or is at most a co-lead; instead, we spend more time with the policeman chasing him, Oscar Peluchonneau (played by Gael Garcia Bernal). The twist is that this character is himself a fictional creation of Neruda’s artistic imagination, putting a post-modern twist on the true-life crime drama. The final image of Bernal looking out of a neon-lit hotel window is especially evocative, one of the more memorable shots of recent years. Last year’s Silver Lion winner for Best Director at Venice, Amat Escalante’s La región salvaje (The Untamed) is a fantasy utopian/dystopian vision that, like the best examples of the genre, has an ambiguity around its central metaphor, mostly because that metaphor has multiple interpretations: feminine desire, queer desire, drug use, and many others. Although not an obvious parallel, I was reminded of some of the better episodes of the series Black Mirror, especially Season Three’s “San Junipero”. A more obvious comparison to Black Mirror, and less successful because of the derivation, is Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime, a weaker and less effective version of Season Two’s masterful “Be Right Back”. That said, I appreciated Almereyda’s talky, off-kilter approach to the subject matter, even if it never gets fully beyond the rather tired premise of futuristic, holographic replacements of lost loved ones. Finally, the most pleasant surprise of the festival was Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting. Not being a huge fan of the original and liking the rest of Boyle’s work even less, my expectations were low, but the film manages to be one of the few sequels that uses the original as a starting point for a deeper exploration of its characters and location. Boyle’s hyper-kinetic style serves this material much better than usual, and the screenplay by John Hodge and performances, especially from Ewan McGregor, are first-rate.
2017 marked my tenth year attending the Jeonju festival, going back to 2008. For many years it was my favourite, with its great focus on cinema history and appreciation of contemporary auteurs. It fell victim to a slow but unmistakable decline from 2012-2015, unable to attract the same level of talent and relying more on documentaries about great cinema rather than great cinema itself. 2016 was a strong recovery, perhaps buoyed by the problems of the rival festival in Busan and by the increasingly urgent political situation, and the best of Jeonju 2017 addressed these social issues well. However, the depth of quality was lacking, with many quite poor films, especially among the Korean selections. Despite the massive growth of the Korean industry and the increasing independent sector that has arisen to complement the blockbuster successes, there is still a great gulf separating the top level of Korean film from the rest. Jeonju will likely continue to reflect this gap in the years to come, showcasing both the highs and lows of this increasingly important national cinema.
Jeonju International Film Festival
27 April – 6 May 2017
Festival website: http://eng.jiff.or.kr
- For an overview of this political situation and its relationship to last year’s festival, see Marc Raymond, “International Cinema, Nationalist Politics: The 17th 2016 Jeonju International Film Festival,” Senses of Cinema no.80 (September 2016) ↩
- For a full discussion of this dynamic, see the work of David Greven on Alfred Hitchcock, particularly his recent Intimate Violence: Hitchcock, Sex, and Queer Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). ↩
- Korean box office numbers are available from the Korean Film Council: http://www.koreanfilm.or.kr/jsp/news/boxOffice_Main.jsp. ↩