Growing up in Korea, I knew Jeonju as an historic city famed for its local culture, including manual paper-making and exceptional food. My unashamedly touristic self, therefore, was always curious as to how this traditional city succeeds in hosting a film festival with independent and alternative spirit. The musical performance that enlivened the opening ceremony epitomised this disparity when well-toned drummers breakdanced to a modern-inflected Korean flute. Almost veering on the kitsch, the performance tossed around a mélange of elements from the Korean and the Western, the authentic and the invented. As evidenced by the catalogue, this 13 year-old festival is going strong, presenting a wide range of experimental works, documentaries, Korean and international features, and retrospectives. To get a general feeling of the place and its organisation, I decided to watch films from right across the program and this review focuses on a few films that caught my attention.
The Korean Selection – Old and New
Cho Byoung-ok’s All Bark No Bite was the most crowd-pleasing Korean independent feature at Jeonju. It stars the charming Kim Mu-yeol, who was recently seen in Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon and Eun Gyo. In All Bark, local troublemakers in a provincial town are proven mere amateurs when the suit-wearing real thugs turn up. With a hint of slacker motifs and sufficient humour, the film plays with the tried and tested formula of the Korean gangster genre, transforming a dull and sleepy town into a setting for the underdogs to rebel against the bullies. From the Korean Competition section, Jang Kun-jae’s Sleepless Night received both the grand prize and the audience award. Centered on a young married couple, the film effortlessly depicts their daily life in a very real and natural way. Not much happens in the matter of plot; they drink beer and watch television, or cycle home together after a long day’s work. Only the seamlessly inserted dream sequences, one by the husband and the other by the wife, grant us the chance to look into their deepest fears and worries. Such an unmarked transition from reality to dream is effective, as the impact leaves the audience as confused as the characters themselves. This low-key drama lasts only 65 minutes and its strength is not only its economy but the emotional core, which never becomes preachy or baggy. This is why Sleepless Night was able to stand out at the Competition, as discipline and genuine heart were virtues often lacking in some films at Jeonju this year.
The title of the ambitious animation Padak Padak is an onomatopoeic Korean word that describes the sound that a fish makes when flapping its fin. Set in a water tank at a seafood restaurant, the film has Mackerel playing the heroic character who tries to inspire his fellow aquatic captives to escape. Technically speaking, Padak Padak is impeccable and some scenes have the luminosity of Sylvain Chomet. But tonally, I felt it was too serious for its own good and the three musical interludes only slowed down the pace of the narrative. Those who saw the cheery film poster, featuring a clownfish, and expected to find a film along the lines of Finding Nemo might be in for a surprise. This raises the question of who is the target audience, as scenes of fish being skinned alive and the philosophising tone of the song sequences might be too much for the younger audiences, while the adults might find the heavy-handed messages rather distancing. Padak Padak leaves much room for improvement but it does show promising signs for Korean animated features. I had similar problems of tone and pace with White Night, a recent piece by Leesong Hee-il, who made an international splash with No Regret (2006). Leesong returns to his familiar territory: two good-looking men from different backgrounds and their sexual encounters. Even with its short 70 minute running time, I found the film, unfortunately, long and slow. It seemed like Leesong has not moved on from his previous works, simply defining gay love with equal measures of attraction and repulsion. With no clear motivation and backstories presented, the characters ended up being flat and underdeveloped. Perhaps the fact that the film was inspired by an actual gay-bashing case at Jongno, an area in Seoul, might be partially responsible for its serious tone.
Time Regained is a newly inaugurated section at Jeonju and is jointly sponsored by the Korean Film Archive. This year it presented two early films by Kim Ki-young of Housemaid (1960) fame. An 18-minute documentary produced by the US State Department, I’m A Truck (1953), is the oldest surviving work that bears Kim’s name as director. Narrated from the perspective of a military-purpose truck, the film anthromorphises this worn-out machine, built in the USA but eventually finding its home in Korea. With up-beat music in the background, the camera lovingly captures the revival process with close-ups of engines being cleaned and crankshafts being replaced. Both abled-bodied and disabled war veterans, rather than mechanics, are recruited to complete the task; one would be hard-pressed not to see this as an image of masculinisation of a war-torn nation. By focusing on what is essentially a nascent automobile industry, the film conjures the image of what South Korea will become, a country that bolsters its industrial power and export system. It is a delightful piece, and has a similar poetic serenade-to-machine tone to the Scottish shipbuilding documentary Seawards the Great Ships (1961). In all, I’m A Truck demonstrates Kim’s precocious talent in capturing the audience’s imagination with what is clearly a propagandistic project. Kim’s recently restored first feature-length film The Box of Death (1955) was also included in this sidebar. The sound being lost, watching the film was a slightly taxing experience. Nominally it is an anti-communist film, revolving around a group of communists who seek a hideout in a mountain range and plot a terrorist attack. With Kim’s visual and thematic traits so distinct, I found it difficult not to trace the burgeoning authorial marks. For instance, his taste for the grotesque is shown early with the close-up of a chicken being decapitated and then plucked. His other trademark –heightened female sexuality – is embodied in the actress Gang Hyo-sil, who exudes both innocence and sensuality. But stealing the scene is No Neung-geol who plays the communist sympathiser with a villainous charm. Compared to the more overtly anti-communist films of the 1970s, The Box of Death is an entertaining work, with a brief bank robbery scene and a time-bomb sequence in the final movement.
International Features and Documentaries
Alessandro Comodin’s Summer of Giacomo won the Grand Prize in the International Competition section. The film is a poetic observation of a 19 year-old boy and his fleeting and somewhat insignificant moments of happiness. Our protagonist, who perfectly captures youthful charm and awkwardness, spends his summer holiday with his childhood friend Stefi playing drums, frolicking in a secluded lake, and visiting the local fairground. Because the two look terrifically natural on screen, and because the camera is attentive to their interaction, the audience is given an almost illicit access to their intimate moments. The glorious but short summer gives nostalgic hue to the overall atmosphere, and Giacomo ends his holiday having learned a bit more about love and relationships. Treading the thin line between documentary and fiction, this is a charming and confident debut work by Comodin. Other international features shown this year included Twilight Portrait by Angelina Nikonova from Russia. A story of sexual violence, revenge, and redemption, the film left me (and probably many others) wondering about the true intention of the female protagonist, which is decidedly undetermined. Even though it is beautifully shot and covers compelling issues, it left me personally questioning my judgement as an audience. Had I not known that this film was made by a female director would I have been less forgiving to its problematic, to say the least, sexual politics? This was a question that hung around for quite a while. Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, previously shown at the Berlinale with great fanfare, was my personal favourite at Jeonju. Divided into three parts, the film speaks of a doomed love, crisscrossing past and present, fantasy and reality. The final part set in an unidentified place in colonial Africa pays homage to the silent era; melancholy and absurd situations override the historicity of the period. While some have wondered about the film’s connections with Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), what this Portuguese-German co-production reminded me of was Apichatpong Weeresethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and its fantastically matter-of-fact approach to spirituality and death; and Tran Anh Hung’s The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), a poetically narrated piece with the nation’s colonial legacy also providing the backdrop.
Two documentaries caught my eye at Jeonju – Minda Martin’s Free Land (2009) and Mohammadreza Farzad’s Blames & Flames. Free Land is a deeply personal work, as the director traces her family history, revealing the continued struggle of the poor. With evocative use of negative images and archival footage, and voice reenactment of historical interviews, Martin demonstrates how her family continued to live in the margins since her ancestor’s displacement from the Cherokee land more than a hundred years ago. Its resonance is particularly strong with the recent housing market collapse, breaking the last remaining myth of the free land. Poverty may be handed down but this honest work lets the audience also salute the resilient blood that flows inside the Martin family. Informative and engaging, the 28-minute documentary Blames & Flames shows how Iran’s troubled modern history is interwoven with the nation’s cinema going culture of the late 1970s. It contains rich archival photographs of Tehran in flames with cinema at the centre of the conflict; tensions rise with the imbalance in popularity between domestic and foreign films, questions about the status and quality of Iranian films, and rising ticket prices. Soon the overall social unrest is projected on to the theatres as they get burnt down by the protesters, then the people take up their cameras and march on the streets. This is a prime example of what is happening outside the theatre often being as interesting as what is being shown inside. I was completely arrested by this film due to my meagre knowledge of Iran (learnt mostly through the nostalgic lens of Persepolis, I must confess), but some parts do smack of somewhat glorifying the national cinematic heritage and the revolutionary consciousness of the Iranian people. Filmed in 2005, The Flock of the Lord by Romuald Karmakar is a documentary covering the death of one pope and the creation of the next. The journey begins in Marktl, the birthplace of Benedict XVI and a town that has spawned heaps of souvenirs, including Pope-blend tea and Pope’s hat biscuits. The film then tracks back eleven days to John Paul II’s funeral in the Vatican City. Pilgrims took extraordinary measures, like queuing for days in the cold to pay their respects to the late pope. Catholicism and the cult of the leader of the church is an inherently interesting subject, but the film, with its frequent fade-ins and -outs, has little emotional engagement with the people captured on camera. For instance, during the funeral scene it does little to uncover what really lies behind the faces of the devotees, who are clearly in an emotional trance.
SHORT! SHORT! SHORT! and the Jeonju Digital Project
This year, the shorts project commissioned Korean films by Park Jung-bum and brothers Kim Gok and Kim Sun. Solution, the Kims’ spoof on reality television, presents a child suffering from an incredible psychological disorder: the obsession to eat human feces. Watching Solutionis no doubt an uncomfortable experience and the film lacked the subversive humour of John Waters’ films. It left me wondering how well the political message, alluded to by the ghost of ex-president Park Chung Hee and the reference to a rat, will be picked up by a non-Korean audience. One Week is a medium-length film by Park Jung-bum, who gained critical acclaim with The Journals of Musan (2010), a poignant drama about a North Korean defector. Park again stars as the protagonist, playing a manual worker who tries to hold on to his moral core despite the increasingly difficult situations around him. Even though the film ends abruptly (the director says the film is in an unfinished form), it is an effective and honest work, which does not lose its warmth.
In this year’s Jeonju Digital Project, three Asian directors were invited to show their talents with the digital form. In When Night Falls, Ying Liang explores the real life case of a Chinese man who, after being charged for multiple murders, was hastily executed. The film reenacts the tragic story from the perspective of his mother, who was forcefully held at a mental institute while the trial was being prepared. Touching upon the sensitive issue of China’s judicial system, When Night Falls was the most controversial work at Jeonju this year. The festival organisers reported that there were pressures to cancel the screening and that a man offered a large sum of money in exchange for the film’s copyright. Later, Liang made an official statement containing facts that his family and friends in Shanghai and Hong Kong were approached by government officials and that he was personally harassed because of the film. Given the tense situation, there was goodwill but solemnity at the screening I attended. Liang’s reverence to the subject matter is clear and the restrained camerawork and muted performances push aside any temptation to sensationalise the material. Light in the Yellow Breathing Space, directed by Sri Lankan Vimukthi Jayasundara, begins with a young boy witnessing his father’s approaching death. The film then takes a fantastical flight as the theories of reincarnation and evolution are expounded against a backdrop of a forest occupied by a green dinosaur, a prehistoric man, and a monk. Poetry, absurdity and humour are enmeshed in one and this self-proclaimed “Buddhist Sci-fi” might leave you bemused if not a bit baffled. The Great Cinema Party by Raya Martin is a 70-minute black and white, hand-held, out-of-focus, visual and aural experimentation. The film begins with WWII battle footage, moves on to a group of tourists discovering many sites in Manila, and ends with a climatic party and fireworks. At moments, it feels like you are watching people just having fun in front of a camera, but if you surrender to the pace of the film, there are some visual treats to be discovered and I found the authentic landscape quite magical.
Retrospectives at Jeonju this year included the Japanese director, Uchida Tomu, who worked in both the silent and sound era, the young Catalan director, Albert Serra, and the Argentinian auteur, Edgardo Cozarinsky. Cozarinsky’s Night Watch (2005) and Nocturne (2011) portray encounters with various figures in an urban nightscape. Both sensual and hallucinatory at heart, Cozarinsky lets the camera aimlessly cruise the city and even as the night eventually gives way to light, the haunting after-taste lingers on. Although not strictly a retrospective, all three films by Tomita Katsuya were shown at Jeonju. His most recent Saudade, a winner of the top prize at Nantes, is a patchwork of stories involving the Japanese underclass, the Brazillian diasporas, and Thai and Filipino contract workers. Set in the director’s native town of Kofu, these multiple strands do not get tied neatly together in the end, but this is not at all frustrating as the characters are convincing and likable. They desire and aspire to find security and a sense of belonging in this unremarkable rural town. Living is tough for everyone as the collapsing traditional industries leave very few jobs, making the racial tension rise in the hip hop scene as well as on the construction sites. The Q&A session with the director and the cast members continued very late into the night, with the director recounting his stories of reckless living to the great enjoyment of the audience, who seemed to fully embrace the film.
Last but not least, the special program of Yeongsang-sidae & Lee Jang-ho deserves to be covered. Yeonsang-sidae, which could be translated as the “age of images”, was a cinematic movement that lasted for about three years in Korea in the 1970s. Led by America-educated Ha Gil-jong, its members included directors Hong Pa, Kim Ho-sun, Lee Won-se, Lee Jang-ho, and the film critic Byun In-sik. Although short-lived, these young and popular directors inaugurated a journal with the aim of experimenting with a new Korean cinematic language. Jeonju’s efforts to shed light on Yeonsang-sidae and director Lee Jang-ho is timely and commendable. Squeezed between the 1960s Golden Age and the 1980s Korean New Wave, the 1970s is often quoted as the darkest period in Korean cinema, but such official discourse leaves any hidden gems from this period in dire need of re-evaluation and, perhaps more importantly, restoration. The problem with any discussion on Yeongsang-sidae lies in the fact that the group disbanded too soon and the directors did not seem to share a single-thread of artistic intention or political message. In any case, the key to understanding this period is Lee Jang-ho, indisputably the best-known director among the Yeongsang-sidae members, and who was active in both the 1970s and 1980s. He was a student of Shin Sang-ok, who was a vanguard of the 1960s Korean film scene, and then mentored Bae Chang-ho and Jang Sun-woo who became prominent figures in the 1980s and beyond. Therefore, Lee’s career not only helps us re-examine the disjunctured history of Korean cinema but also reminds us that the time is ripe to give serious attention to films from the 1970s. It seems the so-far untapped period is finally gaining some public attention as Udine Fast East Film Festival organised an extensive retrospective of 1970s Korean filmmakers just this year (see report by Chris Berry here).
The director Lee Jang-ho was present at the festival, attending a number of events. His Good Windy Day (1980) is a critically acclaimed work centered on three working-class men and it perfectly captures Seoul in rapid transition and development. The meticulously designed costume drama Eoudong (1985) features the sexy Lee Bo-hee who with great audacity takes a stab at the Confucian dictums on women. My greatest delight, however, was watching A Man with Three Coffins (1987) on the big screen. It is an absolutely beautiful film and the scene where the shaman’s boat travels across the lake defies description. It is pure visual poetry, by the likes of atmospheric boat scene in Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953). According to Lee, the film is an experiment on “automatic writing” and during the Q&A session, he used the word to effectively dodge any questions that the audience had about the plot points.
Except for the public bus strike, which made moving across town extremely time-consuming, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Jeonju and everyone I met seemed to have only good things to say about the festival. Upon seeing the famed 300+ young volunteers drafted from the local university, I was certain that some might have their formative cinematic experience at Jeonju, which really is all that matters. At the concluding press conference the stats were reported. Apparently, the online ticket sales by foreigners increased ten-fold from 40 to 400, a figure that makes one wonder in what feasible way such data can be gathered. In total, 1000 tickets were pre-sold from abroad when you count the foreign guests. Again this echoes my earlier question about the identity of the festival. Its desire to become truly international is manifest not only in the film selection but also in the desired attendance demographics. Perhaps Jeonju’s strength is its multifaceted character, a historic and touristic location that celebrates independent and non-mainstream cinema, well-attended by the locals but also aspiring to attract international visitors.
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When I first wrote this report in mid-May I could not have anticipated the post-festival drama that ensued. Festival programmer Yoo Un-seong was suddenly dismissed on the 5th of June. Yoo reported in his personal blog that the main trigger for such a decision, according to the executive committee, was the tense verbal exchange between Yoo and the two local journalists at the concluding press conference. Since then Yoo has protested against the decision, calling it unjust and wrong, and a number of international filmmakers and festival directors, including Olivier Pere (Locarno) and Chris Fujiwara (Edinburgh), have written letters in support of his reinstatement. In an even more dramatic turn of events, JIFF director Min Byung-rok who has served the post for the past nine years and who upheld the view that the dismissal was legitimate, resigned on the 2nd of July. In his farewell message to JIFF, Min stated that he feels responsibility over the recent controversy and his resignation means that Yoo’s reinstatement will not be discussed any further. Retrospectively, what this year’s JIFF will be remembered for is not its film selection and events that brought people across the globe together, but its scandalous feud amongst the organising committee that resulted in the loss of two main figures. This is very unfortunate and all I can hope is that next year’s edition of the festival will not be disrupted too much by the recent changes in the personnel and that JIFF continues to showcase high quality of films and demonstrate an efficient running of a major cultural event.
Jeonju International Film Festival
26 April – 4 May 2012
Festival website: eng.jiff.or.kr