2016 marked the 17th year for the Jeonju International Film Festival, held annually in early May in a small southern city in South Korea’s Jeolla Province. The festival has long been South Korea’s second major festival, never achieving the fame and prestige of the Busan festival and often dominated by the larger festival’s presence. That was again the case this year, but with an interesting twist. At the time of the festival, the major news dominating the discussion within Korean film circles was the potential boycotting of the 2016 Busan Festival (held in October) due to the controversial removal of the festival chairman Lee Yong-kwan, a move widely seen as retaliation for the 2014 screening of the documentary Diving Bell (The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol).1 Because this film was harshly critical of the conservative Park Geun-hye government’s handling of the Sewol ferry disaster (in which 304 passengers and crew died, many of which were students), the Busan city government sought its removal from the festival, sparking a long debate over freedom of expression that culminated in the proposed boycott.2 As a result, for once, Jeonju was seen as potentially gaining in prestige in relation to Busan. Long distinguished as a cinephile focused festival, this year politics was also very much at the forefront of Jeonju’s identity.
The two key political films were both documentaries critical of the current government: Choi Seung-ho’s Ja-baek (Spy Nation) and Kim Jin-hyuk’s 7 nyeon: Geu-deul-i Eob-lon (Seven Years: Journalism Without Journalist). While perhaps coincidental, the screening of these two films only served to highlight the controversy over Busan even further. A visiting critic asked me the very reasonable question of why there was such a controversy over Busan’s screening of The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol while there was very little conflict over these two equally polemical films. To understand this discrepancy, a knowledge of both Korea’s recent politics as well as the role of the film industry and festivals within this history is required. Like most democracies, South Korea is divided regionally, similar to the red state/blue state dichotomy in the United States.3 Jeolla province, where Jeonju is located, is very left-wing, historically seen as a hotbed of activist and Communist activity, represented most notoriously by the 1980 Kwangju massacre, in which the government murdered hundreds or perhaps thousands (estimates vary) of protesters, blaming the events on Communist agitators. This is in marked contrast to Gyeongsang province, where Busan is located, which is a mostly right-wing area of the country and the home of many past presidents, including Park Chung-hee, the dictator who ruled Korean from 1961-1979 and whose daughter, Park Geun-hye, is the current president. Thus it is not surprising that a controversy over criticism of a conservative government would arise in Busan instead of Jeonju. But the issues run deeper. After all, the Busan festival has a long history of programming political filmmaking, and the very origins of the festival are tied to the rise of the political left during the 1990s.4 Sewol, however, was such a national tragedy that it was seen as a major political threat, and thus a political documentary on the subject was held to much closer scrutiny.5 In short, Sewol is dangerous in a way many other political issues are not. That said, the issues around government suppression of free speech that are at the core of both Spy Nation and Seven Years are directly confrontational, and can be seen as a festival and perhaps even industry statement in their prominent positioning within this year’s programming. Indeed, tickets to these two films, especially the weekend screenings, were the hottest draws in Jeonju.
The two films represent very different approaches to the protest documentary. As a work of journalism, Seven Years is very thorough and comprehensive, outlining the suppression of press freedom oaver the course of the past seven years of conservative government rule. In traditional expository style, it lays out the case against the removal of multiple journalists from major news organisations by the conservative government, beginning with President Lee Myung-bak in 2008 and continuing under his successor, Park Geun-hye. Also implicated are the people in management at many of these corporations, who are seen as collaborating with the government instead of holding it accountable. The result is an informative piece about a very serious issue, but one that lacks much filmmaking flair and thus fails to be as engaging as it could. In trying to cover the breadth of the issue, director Kim Jin-hyuk fails to provide much depth. One comes away from the film thinking the same information could have been provided in a ten-minute article rather than the two-hour documentary. Spy Nation, by contrast, is much more engaging filmmaking, even if it is less accomplished as journalism. The film is made by and stars journalist Choi Seung-ho, who is also featured in Seven Years, chronicling the story of falsely accused North Korean spy Yoo Woo-seong and expanding out to a broader critique of the South Korean government’s use of anti-Communist propaganda for political gain. Choi’s style is closer to the participatory/personal approach of a Michael Moore, as he embeds himself with the victims of the South Korean government’s anti-espionage activities while also pursuing interviews with the people he holds responsible for these miscarriages of justice. The most condemning critique is the linking of the Park Geun-hye government’s actions to the political repression the country experienced under her father, Park Chung-hee (who, it should be noted, is still a revered figure to many in South Korea; his daughter won the 2012 election more because of, rather than despite, his legacy).6 This is driven home forcefully by the concluding sequence, an interview with a former South Korean political prisoner, now an elderly man living in Japan, who states that he will not return to visit his native country out of fear. Given South Korea’s troubled history with Japanese colonialism, to have a South Korean prefer exile in Japan is as condemning a statement as one can make to a national audience. While there is certainly an element of performative theatre on display, as well as some ethically questionable actions, such as potentially putting a North Korean woman in danger by contacting her, it is still an undeniably compelling work.
The rest of the Korean program this year was unusually strong, with a number of fine films both in and out of competition. Traditionally this has been a weaker part of the festival, and marked a dramatic contrast with Busan, which frequently attracted the better and more high profile work. This became even more of a problem following Jeonju’s own controversy following the 2012 festival, when it lost both its programmer, Yoo Un-seong, and its long-time director, Min Byung-rok. Although this conflict was more about internal festival politics than issues of national concern, it nevertheless caused a certain amount of turmoil and had a negative impact on the festival in the years afterwards.7 For example, noted Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, who screened his films here in 2008 and 2011, has not been on the program since, nor have many of the other more prominent names in the industry. This year may have marked a turnaround. My favourite film of the festival was Lee Hyun-ju’s romantic drama Yeon-ae Dam (Our Love Story), winner of the Korean Competition Grand Prize, a wonderfully acted and subtle story of two women falling in love and dealing with the consequences. What is especially impressive is Lee’s ability to show the pressure Korea’s homophobic society puts on the relationship while not making this the only or maybe even the major source of the couple’s eventual coming apart. Lee also makes canny use of familiar Korean tropes, such as a key scene late in the story that takes place in a “love motel” (where couples go for sex, often rented by the hour), a frequent setting in South Korean indie dramas. Here, however, it serves as a site of heartbreak rather than lust. This is Lee’s first feature, produced by the Korean Academy of Film Arts, which has been the starting place of many prominent filmmakers, including Bong Joon-ho, Im Sang-soo, and Hur Jin-ho, and based on this impressive debut I think Lee has the potential to join their ranks.
Two other Korean films are worth highlighting. In competition, Kim Jong-kwan’s Choe-ag-ui Yeo-ja (Worst Woman) is another self-reflexive indie narrative seemingly influenced by Hong Sang-soo, an increasingly large subset of Korean festival features. However, despite its somewhat derivative nature, Worst Woman is able to stand on its own merits, thanks in large part to the fine lead performance from Han Ye-ji, who is asked to carry the film, since the story revolves around her relationships with three different men and how she has to perform differently with each. It would be easy to imagine the film failing without Han’s ability to make the character feel genuine despite the rather schematic nature of the scripting, but fortunately she is up to the task. One comes away from the film more excited by her potential than the filmmaking, but it is nonetheless a fine second feature from Kim, who previously made Jo-geum-man Deo Ga-kka-i (Come, Closer) in 2010. Also of interest is Im Chang-jae’s Pu-reum Nal (Beyond the Blue), a striking drama looking at life on the margins of Seoul society. While there are certain problematic aspects to the story, especially around its depiction of homosexuality as a stand-in for the lead character’s denigration, it is convincing in both its story and character development.
Not all the Korean films, of course, were of high quality. Jeonju veteran Lee Sang-woo’s latest, Seu-ta-bak-seu Da-bong (Bittersweet Brew), was a failed attempt to mix comedy and melodrama. The story concerns a young man pressured by his mother to study for university who secretly desires to brew coffee, eventually deciding to move to the countryside with his aunt. While the story never finds the right tone, it is an interesting failure, especially its treatment of a homosexual police officer and an overweight local woman. Both are the subject of rather broad comedy, and yet as the film develops are given more sympathy and depth. On the other hand, Cho Sung-eun’s Woori Yeon-ae-ui I-ryeok (With or Without You), starring K-pop star turned actress Jeon Hye-bin, was a complete failure. Like Worst Woman, it has a self-reflexive element, as it concerns a divorcing couple trying to work together to complete a screenplay. But in this case the story falls back on continuous clichés, and the performers are either bland or overacting terribly. However, in previous years, With or Without You would have been closer to the norm of Korean films at the festival rather than an exception. Given the controversy at Busan it seems likely Jeonju will be able to continue this upward trend next year and attract higher quality Korean works.
Another area where Jeonju struggles to compete with Busan is in the selection of international films. The international competition section does not attract a strong lineup, with even the winners of the Grand Prize rarely breaking out beyond the Asian festivals, and unlike Busan, there are few major films from European festivals. Again, this has become a larger problem since the festival shake-up back in 2012. For example, in 2011, the opening film was Berlin Golden Bear winner and eventual international success Jodaí-e Nadér az Simín (A Separation, Asghar Farhadi); this year it was the rather conventional Chet Baker biopic Born to be Blue (d. Robert Budreau). The winner of this year’s Grand Prize was the Israeli film Sufat Chol (Sand Storm), written and directed by Elite Zexer. This debut feature played earlier in the year at Berlin and has since had a fine festival run. It is a solid drama, emotionally affecting, but with little directorial flair. The only other of the competition films I saw was History’s Future, directed by Fiona Tan and written by Tan and the film critic Jonathan Romney, an obscure science fiction tale that is also partly an essay film on contemporary Europe. While it is an admirable attempt and I am sure it will have its champions, especially amongst fans of experimental cinema, I never felt the various elements really connected together. Out of the competition, the international highlights were El Clan (The Clan, Pablo Trapero), an effective if derivative Argentinian political drama/gangster film heavily influenced by Scorsese’s Goodfellas; L’avenir (Things to Come, Mia Hansen-Løve), a fine if rather low-key drama helped enormously by Isabelle Huppert’s lead performance; and, best of all, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, a truly disturbing mixture of fiction and documentary concerning the attempt to make a movie about the tragic suicide of Florida journalist Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself on live television back in 1974. In addition to his background in documentary, Greene has worked as an editor for Alex Ross Perry on Listen Up Philip (2014) and Queen of Earth (2015), and this film announces his potential to become a major American independent filmmaker. In terms of tone, Kate Plays Christine is closer to the kind of disquieting psychological horror on display in the work of Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin, who collaborated on such films as Afterschool (2008), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), and Simon Killer (2012), and coincidentally have made a dramatised version of the story this year, Christine (not at Jeonju). Like those films, Kate Plays Christine can feel like it is lecturing the audience, similar to the work of Michael Haneke, especially in its conclusion, but it is nevertheless an important essay on media and gender that also manages to work in dramatic terms.
As previously mentioned, Jeonju’s main reputation is as a cinephile’s festival, with strong retrospectives of directors and national movements. Back in 2008, my first year attending, there was a complete Béla Tarr program, including a screening of Satantango followed by a Tarr Q&A, an event which began at 2:00 pm and ended approaching midnight. I remember being shocked by the huge turnout, and in particular recall a young student telling Tarr that she missed her whole day of classes to attend the event. This was the moment when I started to appreciate the level of Korean cinephilia.8 The quality of the retrospectives has taken a drop in recent years, as has the Master Class program, which in past years featured critics and academics such as Adrian Martin and Raymond Bellour as well as filmmakers such as Claire Denis and Pedro Costa. Perhaps as an acknowledgement of this decline, or simply as a way to expand the cinephile brand, the festival has been increasingly programming documentaries and profiles of famous auteurs, leading to the creation of an entire section of the festival labeled “Cinematology” in 2015 to focus on these movies about movies. My favourite of these entries was Ross Lipman’s Notfilm, an essay work revolving around the 1964 collaboration between Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton. Although the result, a 20-minute short named Film was considered a failure, Lipman’s Notfilm succeeds on every level. It manages to both chronicle the making of the film and the various personalities involved while also taking up the larger themes that Beckett was attempting to convey through its own look at cinema history and how movies represent the subject. It thus goes beyond a simple recounting of the production to critically engage with the work.
Of the more traditional documentaries, I preferred Marianne Lambert’s I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman. Lambert was a collaborator on Akerman’s later work and completed the film before Akerman’s death. Thus, we get a candid insider’s look at Akerman’s personality and her thoughts on both filmmaking in general and how her own work fits into cinema history. The result is an affectionate portrait that also gives the viewer an appreciation of Akerman’s importance as a director. Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma is unique simply in being told completely thorough the director’s own words. De Palma takes the viewer through his entire career, film by film, supported by appropriate clips. Luckily, De Palma is an entertaining storyteller who is candid about both his own work and that of others, which keeps the documentary entertaining even with its myopic focus. Less successful in my opinion, although I seem to be in the minority here, is Kent Jones’ Hitchcock/Truffaut, a documentary about the making of the famous book while also an appreciation and analysis of Hitchcock’s cinema. My main criticism is basically one of over familiarity. It seems unnecessary at this point to spend yet another extended amount of time discussing such classics as Vertigo, especially since so many of the interviewees have said similar things elsewhere (Scorsese, Schrader, Bogdanovich). Also, the balance was overly tipped towards Hitchcock, with Truffaut underrepresented. While the film may no doubt be interesting to Hitchcock neophytes, I was expecting something more substantial and original from a talented critic like Jones than a collage of director talking heads.
Rounding out my screenings at the festival were Paul Thomas Anderson’s Junun, Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, and Roman Polanski’s 1971 adaptation of Macbeth. Junun is a 54-minute documentary on Johnny Greenwood’s collaboration with a group of Indian musicians which debuted on the MUBI website last year. It is a fairly simple observational approach enhanced by Anderson’s great eye for composition and the power of the musical performances. Heart of a Dog is a personal essay, rather free form in its structure but intriguing because Anderson is such a unique personality. Not all the sections work, but the overall effect is spending 75 minutes with an intelligent and creative person and getting an insight into how they think. My final film of the festival was Polanksi’s now notorious adaptation of Macbeth, his first film since the murder of his wife Sharon Tate two years earlier. It was part of a “Shakespeare in Cinema” special program, and it may have been my favourite experience of the festival. Re-watching the film after many years, I was struck by Polanski’s ability to take this well-known and revered text and make it great cinema. The key, strangely enough for this supernatural and highly stylised tale, is the realism, the ability to create a convincing (and extremely dark) world in which these events take place. The result is an experience in which Shakespeare’s poetic language and Polanski’s grounded imagery create a tension that propels the familiar narrative forward, producing continuous sequences in which the oft-quoted language is given a fresh perspective.
Before concluding, a short note is needed on what has been one of the signatures of the festival, the Jeonju Digital Project, which originated with the first festival back in 2000. Each year, funding would be provided to three different filmmakers to make a digital short, which would be screened together as an omnibus work during the festival. The first decade of the project attracted a number of high profile talents, from local directors like Bong Joon-ho and Hong Sang-soo to international favorites Jia Zhang-ke and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, among many others. However, the bigger names started to dry up, and in 2014 the festival decided to scrap the short film format and have each director shoot a feature film to be screened on its own (in 2015, it was also rebranded as the Jeonju Cinema Project). In the first year this seemed to produce promising results, with both Shin Youn-shick’s Ju-ryu In-gan (The Avian Kind) and Park Jung-bum’s San-da (Alive) gathering positive notices. However, this year’s entries, Cho Jae-min’s Nun-bal (A Stray Goat), Kim Soo-hyun’s Woo-ri Son-ja Be-seu-teu (Great Patrioteers), and Lukas Valenta Rinner’s Woo-a-han Na-che-deul (The Decent), failed to gather much excitement, and one wonders about the project going forward. While the switch to feature films is certainly understandable from a marketing perspective, it also takes away the uniqueness and perhaps may even discourage certain bigger name auteurs from committing. It may need further retooling if it is to remain a key event in the festival. That said, while this year’s Jeonju festival never reached the height of its peak years, it was a marked improvement over recent iterations, probably the strongest overall since 2012. This was combined with the news of Busan’s potential decline, for while a full boycott of the festival was eventually dropped in July, following a long period of negotiation (as well as the return as chairman of Kim Dong-ho, the festival’s original director), it is likely to be smaller in scale this year, with a number of industry members still holding out on participation.9 The eventual fallout over the controversy is still unknown, and may help in leading Jeonju to regain an even stronger footing within the massive and competitive Korean film festival scene.
Funding for this research was provided by the Kwangwoon University Research Fund (2016).
Jeonju International Film Festival
28 April – 7 May 2016
Festival website: http://eng.jiff.or.kr
- Steven Borowiec, “Documentary About Sewol Ferry Sinking Roils South Korea Festival,” Los Angeles Times, 8 October 8, 2014. The controversial film can be viewed here. ↩
- Lee Hyo-won, “South Korean Filmmakers Decide to Boycott Busan Fest,” The Hollywood Reporter, 18 April, 2016. ↩
- An example of this divide can be seen in the most recent Presidential election of 2012. ↩
- For a detailed history, see Young-a Park, Unexpected Alliances: Independent Filmmakers, the State, and the Film Industry in Postauthoritarian South Korea, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2014. ↩
- It is difficult to convey the impact this tragedy had on the South Korean nation. Many events and festivals in the upcoming months were cancelled or scaled back, including that year’s Jeonju festival. For many months afterward the country seemed to be in a state of collective mourning. ↩
- There have been volumes written on Park Chung-hee, but a decent if overly sympathetic overview can be found in Daniel Tudor, Korea: The Impossible Country, Tuttle, North Clarendon, VT, 2012, pp. 66-74. ↩
- Lee Hyo-won, “Jeonju Film Fest 2013 Wraps Under Harsh Criticism From Judges,” The Hollywood Reporter, 3 May, 2013. ↩
- For an intriguing discussion that sees this quasi-religious cinephilia as taking over from the quasi-religious student activism of the 1980s, see Soyoung Kim, “‘Cine-Mania’ or Cinephilia: Film Festivals and the Identity Question” in Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer (eds), New Korean Cinema, New York University Press, New York, 2005, pp. 79-91. ↩
- Jean Noh, “Korean Film Industry Votes ‘No’ to Lifting Busan Boycott,” Screen Daily, 1 August, 2016. ↩