Last year, for the first time since 2007, I was unable to attend the Jeonju film festival, as it was in effect canceled, although there was still a program and some local screenings over a few months of many of the films. This year, while not quite back to normal, there was something resembling a full program, with 30% theatre capacity and press access. There were even some events, like filmmaker and cast Q&A sessions and masterclass presentations, although it was lacking the industry parties and other activities that make a festival feel festive. Nevertheless, it was comforting to be back at a film festival for the first time since 2019, and there was a similar sense amongst the audiences that although this was not quite normality, maybe normality was not that far off.
In terms of the festival lineup, the format was not greatly altered: there was an International Competition, a Korean Competition, and a Korean Competition for Shorts; World Cinema, Korean Cinema, Cinema Fest, and Masters sections, as well as special focus programs and sections devoted to documentary and experimental work. The program most impacted by the pandemic year was likely their signature Jeonju Cinema Project, which usually includes four-five features, with usually three by Korean directors, all partially funded and supported by the festival. This year, there were three Korean films, but one was a holdover from last year, Lee Seung-won’s Se Ja-mae (Three Sisters), which also played Busan in October and had already received a domestic theatrical run in January. The two other films were both documentaries, and one, Min Hwan-ki’s Roh Hoe-chan (The Man with High Hopes), was late being completed and screened without English subtitles. Often at least one of these projects each year becomes a local indie success, as was the case even last year with Three Sisters, but that seems unlikely to be true this year, owing mostly to the difficulty of film production in 2020. The one Jeonju Cinema Project I was able to see was Im Heung-soon’s Po-wong (Hug), a documentary encompassing material from filmmakers from nine different countries around the world in the past year as they try to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Im is both a filmmaker and an artist, best known for his 2015 video work Factory Complex, which won the Silver Lion at Venice in 2015. Hug works in the style of a personal essay, even including stories of dreams of the pandemic and its possible aftermath. The voiceover mostly avoids expository information and instead tries to create an impressionistic mood, and it does succeed in having a few memorable moments. Ultimately, however, it remains more of a document of the times, with much of the material not particularly compelling and the constant movement across the planet feeling like a substitute for the lack of real substance. Unlike Factory Complex, it will be remembered more as an historical artifact than an important work of art.
Most of my viewings were concentrated on the Korean selections, both the Competition films as well as those in the general Korean Cinema section. This year was notable in that the quality in the Competition films remained roughly equivalent to other years, perhaps even slightly stronger as a whole; where the pandemic most impacted, it appears, is with the other Korean films, which were seriously lacking. While COVID cannot be the only reason for this decline, I would argue it was a factor. For example, I thought the worst film of the festival was Ko Bong-soo’s Seup-do-da So-nop-eum (The Rain Comes Soon), a meta comedy about the screening of an independent movie during the 2020 Korean summer in which air conditioning could not be used because of the fear of virus spread. Ko is a talented director and I have enjoyed a couple of his earlier films, such as Teun-teun-i-ui Mo-heom (Loser’s Adventure, 2017) and Gal-gga-bu-da (Wish You Were Here, 2019), but this is one of the more painfully unfunny comedies I have seen in many years and feels rushed in both conception and execution. In his other work, Ko consistently got strong performances from his actors, himself included in Wish You Were Here (a similarly self-reflexive comedy that was genuinely funny), but here the acting is severely lacking and Ko’s direction uninspired. It is never a good sign that the film-within-a film parody is not much worse than the one we are already watching, unless you want to make an argument that this is somehow a deliberate choice on the part of the director (being deliberately “bad”). There is one sequence, a comedic spoof of the typical festival / indie filmmaker Q&A session, which does work comedically and briefly allows the movie to show some life, but overall a major disappointment, one I am willing to partially attribute to the difficulty of last year’s working conditions and the attempt to make a commentary on the pandemic’s impact on this specific milieu.
Outside of Hug and The Rain Comes Soon, the pandemic was not an explicit focus of most of the films, the vast majority of which had filmed pre-pandemic, at least amongst the features (there was a program of shorts thematically linked by their pandemic subject matter). That said, the isolation of the past year did add a certain poignancy and additional meaning to one of the best films in the Korean Competition, Hong Sung-eun’s debut feature Hon-sa Sa-neun Sa-ram-deul (Aloners), a film that has already had a theatrical run locally in late May following its Jeonju premiere. It stars Gong Seung-yeon in the lead role as Jina, a young woman who is the top employee at her credit card company because of her rather detached attitude to the job. Her mother has recently passed away, and she is estranged from her father. Moreover, she has no other close relationships, seemingly preferring the lack of human contact living in modern Seoul affords her. Two events threaten this solitude: she is forced to train a young woman who has recently moved to Seoul from a small town, and her next-door neighbour, who also lived alone, is found dead weeks after his death. She also discovers a security camera in her father’s house and begins to both spy on him as well as rewatch old footage from when her mother was still alive. While this description may make the film seem heavy-handed and overly bleak, writer-director Hong smartly mixes in a sense of humour and some fantastical and surrealist elements that work well with the more realistic and observant aspects (the neighbour’s death, for example, is the result of being crushed by his massive pornography collection). Gong is strong in the lead, and Jung Da-eun, who plays her younger colleague, is both charming and touching in her role, adding real warmth and depth to the portrayal. The ending is slightly predictable and does not quite earn its optimism, but overall it’s an exciting debut effort.
My other favourite amongst the fictional works is Jung Jae-ik and Seo Tae-soo’s Bok-ji Sik-dang (Awoke), which also deals with isolation and how it can make people vulnerable to the predations of others. Set on Jeju Island, a popular Korean tourist destination off the country’s southwest coast, it centres on Jae-gi, who has recently become disabled due to a traffic accident. He is supported by his cousin but needs fuller government assistance to live independently. However, when given a disability assessment, he is unaware that he should not put his full effort into the test and is given a lower disability rating than he should have received. This traps him into a bureaucratic nightmare of Catch-22 proportions, in which he is incapable of doing the jobs his assessment assigns him and unable to qualify for the assistance he requires. He is then befriended by a fellow handicapped man who is a veteran of the system, only to be further exploited by this gangster-like figure. The story is reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends), in which a member of a minority group is made vulnerable to corrupt individuals within his own community, and a welcome change from the type of sentimental inspirational tales of the disabled we are often given. Well-made with fine performances and direction and produces genuine feelings of tension and dread. Even the villain is given moments of understanding and sympathy, although that characterisation becomes rather one-note by the final act. Also smartly structured, with the ending returning to the beginning with a dual suggestion of both progress and circularity, concluding with a particularly memorable final shot.
Ryu Hyung-seok’s documentary Corydoras was another fine selection in the Korean Competition section that dealt with the topic of disability (a topic often ignored both socially and cinematically in Korea), but from a different perspective and filmmaking approach. It tells the story of Park Dong-su, a poet who was born with cerebral palsy and spent most of his life living in miserable conditions in a series of group homes after being abandoned by his family. As the film begins, he is living in better conditions and with fuller support, but is having writer’s block, likely, it is suggested, because so much of his art was drawn from his suffering. We also encounter various people from his past, including other disabled friends and former friends who have a complicated relationship to Park, who is a prickly figure that is not always easy to like. Stylistically, directory Ryu smartly avoids voiceover narration as well as any kind of hand-held direct cinema footage, instead creating mostly static, almost painterly compositions. The mobile framing is saved for long take, subjective point of view sequences taken from Park’s wheelchair perspective. The result is a highly aestheticised work in the poetic mode that captures this poet’s life honestly, unsentimentally, and without glossing over his hardships.
My other favourite documentary of the festival, Byun Gyu-ri’s Na-e-ge Ga-neun Gil (Coming to You), is unabashedly sentimental and meant to directly provoke audience emotion but accomplishes this with such charm and warmth that I was willing to forgive most of the conventionality and manipulation. Director Byun is an activist for PINKS, a non-profit NGO engaged in supporting sexual minority cultures, and this is her second feature following her 2017 debut Play On. The style here is straight-forward, mixing observational scenes and expository interviews with the four main subjects: Han-kyeol, a young transgender man in the process of transitioning; his mother Nabi, a fire chief; Ye-joon, a young gay man who recently came out to his family; and his mother Vivian. There is a clear anger directed at the rather backward laws that still exist in Korea regarding sexual minorities, and Byun does an admirable job in explaining these regulations and their problems. But ultimately the movie works because of the characters, and the stars here are the two mothers. They are immensely charismatic on camera, honest about their own emotions and how they have evolved over the years, and it is difficult not to be moved by their experiences. Byun smartly focuses on the parents and their emerging activism, centered around an LGBTAIQ parents’ group, because it is precisely this demographic that needs to be reached. Despite the difficulty sexual minorities continue to face in South Korea, the movie’s optimistic message about the possibility of change resonates as deeply as it does because of the subjects and the humanity Byun is able to capture.
The Korean Competition featured three more films that I would also give a qualified recommendation, even if they are a tier below the four films discussed above. Hwang Jun-ha’s Influenza is one of the films to make the most explicit reference to the pandemic, taking place in a hospital as a virus is beginning to spread. The story centres around Da-sol and Eun-bi, a pair of newly hired nurses and their struggles within the power hierarchy of the Korean workplace. Hwang smartly uses the crisis of the disease to discuss pre-existing social problems that get exacerbated as a result. Told with a long take, realist style with strong performances from its cast, but marred by an odd final cut and musical cue, which is very misplaced given the harrowing sequence that precedes it. Lee Jung-gon’s Not Out is another social problem film (and another from Jeonju to already have a small theatrical run here in June), the story of a talented but poor high school baseball player and his attempts to keep playing the game despite numerous setbacks and the general corruption of the Korean system, which eventually drives him to crime out of desperation. The crime subplot is out of place, and there is a methodical pace and execution that prevents strong emotional impact, but a worthwhile examination of a baseball system that is rarely explored at its lower end, avoiding most of the familiar sports movie cliches. Hur Jung-jae’s Cheot-beon-jjae A-i (First Child) is another low-key social drama about a woman returning to the workplace after her first child and the difficulty of managing the situation after her mother falls ill and she has a conflict with her Chinese nanny. Covers similar material as the popular and controversial novel Kim Ji-young Born 1982 and in many ways is a better adaptation than the 2019 film version in that it acknowledges the inability to resolve this problem in the current social situation. However, as a film, it is rather lifeless and without much in the way of style or vision, thus limiting its emotional impact despite its impressive realism.
Rounding out the 10 Korean Competition films were three titles that did not really work for me, although even these works showed some creative ideas and future potential. Lee Jae-eun and Lim Ji-sun’s Seong-jeok-pyo-ui Kim Min-young (Kim Min-young of Report Card) actually won the Grand Prize from the festival jury, a decision I find puzzling even if I admired some aspects of the storytelling. A coming-of-age story of the dissolving friendship between three high school friends after graduation, it cannot help but recall the great Go-yang-I-deul Bu-tak-hae (Take Care of My Cat, Jeong Jae-eun, 2001). However, it lacks that film’s richness of detail and performance and feels oddly flat and inert, even in its more fantastical moments. Woo Kyeng-hee’s Yeol-a-hop (Nineteen) is another coming-of-age tale, set in 2008, of two teenagers with financial and family troubles who form a connection over music. The performances are fine and some of the story elements are intriguing, particularly the female character’s attempts at avoiding the inevitable consequences of her mother’s death, but the characterisation and direction prevent any deep engagement. Probably the weakest of the group is Kam Jeong-won’s Hee-su (The Train Passed By), an attempt at slow cinema, clearly influenced by Asian minimalist filmmakers and, going back further, Michelangelo Antonioni. The film tries to capture modern alienation amongst the workers of a textile factory in Daegu. The long take images are not really striking enough to create the atmosphere required, and the character interactions are almost a parody of art cinema angst (one sequence ends with a character asking another “what is love?” to which the other sighs and looks silently for over 20 seconds before cutting to black). The oblique editing and story structure, shifting between Daegu and Gangwon province, is ambitious but ends up causing more confusion and boredom than adding anything profound.
As mentioned earlier, it is the Korean films that were outside the Competition section that were the most lacking this year, with only one film that I would recommend, Kim Duk-chul’s Baek-nyeon Ga-jok (The Family of One Hundred Years), a documentary detailing various people connected in differing ways to the Korean minority population living in Kawasaki, Japan. The director, himself a member of this diaspora, first made a film about this subject in 2007, titled Gang-eul Geon-neo-neon Saram-duel (People Crossing the River), and followed up with a second film, Baek-nyeon-ui Ga-jok (One Hundred Years: The Journey of the Family) in 2015. I have not seen either of those films, but the first part of this latest work is a re-edited version of the 2015 movie (about 110 minutes) along with a second part, which is basically a coda, which runs about 35 minutes. There are enough compelling stories and characters in the first part to recommend, but the documentary lacks a certain intellectual curiosity and complexity, especially in part two, which is a rather simplistic look at the rise of anti-Korean hate groups in Kawasaki and efforts to ban these demonstrations as hate speech. The other documentary about Korean history and politics I was able to see, Park Kyu-hyon’s Neut-bom (Blooming over the Line), suffered from similar issues. It tells the story of pastor Moon Ik-hwan, a major participant in the pro-democracy demonstrations of the 1980s who controversially took an unauthorized trip to North Korea in 1989 to meet with Kim Il-sung, for which he was arrested and imprisoned upon his return (Moon is also the father of Moon Sung-geun, the great veteran character actor who is featured as a talking head). Despite the subject matter, the film is far too much of a hagiography to be of serious interest, although it serves as a useful introduction to the man and the historical times he lived through. Basically meant to function as a video to play in a room of a Moon Ik-hwan museum, which may well be its ultimate fate.
Choi Equan’s My Son was another film exploring the subject of disability in contemporary South Korea, although unfortunately, unlike Awoke and Corydoras, it felt incredibly retrograde in its representation. However, it was able to maintain a certain morbid curiosity because of its rather heavy-handed, Freudian psycho-sexual dynamics. The story, adapted from a stage play, concerns a father who is taking care of his young adult son, who has cerebral palsy. In addition to dealing with the issues arising from his son becoming an adult (including helping him with masturbation, a scene the film actually depicts), he begins to suffer from a deliberating illness himself. Well-meaning film that tries to look at characters and situations society ignores, but the choice of extremely heightened melodrama for this material is rather odd, as the attention turns to issues of an Oedipal nature, with the disabled son becoming a man through both his relationship with his father’s girlfriend and eventually by euthanising his father in the emotional climax. My Son is not a good film, but at least it was not dull. The same could not be said of the other two films in the Korean section I was able to see, both of which were failed attempts at a familiar type of light art cinema. Yang Yun-mo’s Tul-ip Mo-yang (Shape of Tulip) is the more ambitious of the two, although this is not really a positive in this case. A Japanese woman comes to the town of Gongju to try to find the Korean man she had a brief encounter with years earlier in Japan, while a man in this same town fantasises about a Japanese star from the 1930s who he watches at the town’s dying art cinema theatre. Eventually the two meet and form a relationship. Some beautiful black and white images and a few sequences that have some charm, but entirely too precious in its rather superficial cinephilia, and the romance completely lacks chemistry. And at just over two hours, very much a slog. Choi Chang-hwan’s Sik-mool-ka-fe, On-jeong (Plant Café, Warmth) is very slight, a three-part sent of stories centered around a small café / plant store run by Hyun-jae, a former photographer and war correspondent. Reminiscent of Hong Sang-soo’s Pul-ip-deul (Grass, 2018) or the work of Kim Jong-kwan, but nowhere close to that level of filmmaking. There are some fine compositions and a warm atmosphere created in the café (especially through the great Leadbelly music) but the script is so cliched and flimsy that the film cannot really recover.
Overall, Jeonju in 2021, whose slogan was “Film Goes On”, was a success simply in existing and mostly resembling its former self. The lineup was not as stellar as in other years, but there was not a major drop off and looking back historically it the unusual circumstances of the event could easily be forgotten. But attending the event was a different story. To return to Freud, there was a feeling of the “uncanny” throughout the festival, a sense that this was the Jeonju film festival that I had experienced in the past and the equal sense that somehow this was a completely new experience. Korean independent cinema, I would argue, has a similar relationship to the pandemic: the feeling of social isolation and economic precariousness that so dominated the last year globally is both something new to these filmmakers and something very familiar.
Jeonju International Film Festival
29 April – 8 May 2021
Festival website: https://eng.jeonjufest.kr/