Over the course of five days at this year’s Jeonju film festival, I watched 21 films, the vast majority of which were Korean, with 15 of these being world premieres. This is in stark contrast to my first visit in 2008, which was my first real festival experience as a (relatively) young cinephile, in which I mostly ignored the Korean content in my desire to seek out the “best” films. The highlight of that year was a day-long screening of Satantango (1994), part of a career retrospective of Béla Tarr, and the only Korean film I watched was Bam-gwa Nat (Night and Day, 2008), due to my growing enthusiasm for auteur Hong Sang-soo. I have a certain nostalgia for my early days attending Jeonju, and certainly my enjoyment of the average film viewed has decreased. Nevertheless, taking in a large segment of a particular national output in one short period also has its pleasures, especially in this particular moment of South Korean cinema, in which the smaller, independent circuit often reflects national concerns better, or at least very differently, than the big budget, mainstream domestic product. Although the popular Korean cinema remains much more nationally oriented in its content than Hollywood (the top grossing film of 2017 was A Taxi Driver, which dramatised the 1980 Gwangju Uprising), its concerns tend to be larger historical events and its scope epic, with a clear mythical dimension. The films of Jeonju were much more modest and grounded, the best of which presented an alternative view, focusing on contemporary South Korea and much more quotidian and immediate issues.
The signature event of the festival is the Jeonju Cinema Project, formerly the Jeonju Digital Project, which began as a feature-length omnibus with three different directors (often noted international auteurs) and then expanded into three separate films, with the festival providing funding support for each. This year there was a further expansion to five, with three by Korean filmmakers and two foreign selections, both from Chile. I was able to screen all three of the Korean entries, with the best of the group easily being Lee Hark-joon’s A Good Business, a fascinating documentary about a South Korean minister working to help North Korean refugees escape and potentially be adopted into American families. While the subject matter is quite intriguing on its own, it is primarily the approach that makes the film so effective. This is primarily in the observational mode, although it does not subscribe purely to this style. There is non-diegetic music throughout, effectively moody and disquieting without tipping over into manipulation, and there are some explanatory intertitles, especially towards the last act. But overall, the movie presents its central protagonist, Pastor Kim, in an ambiguous manner and refuses to provide easy moral judgements about the man or his mission. Director Lee is aided by his vast amount of footage as well as his experience in dealing with North Korea as a subject, having made the films Cheon-guk-ui Guk-gyeong (Heaven’s Border, 2016) and Cheon-guk-ui Guk-gyeong-eul Neom-da (Across Land, Across Sea, 2011) previously. The lack of exposition does cause the storytelling to lag at times, as well as leaving many questions unanswered, but these are acceptable concessions given the respect Lee gives to his viewer. The goal of observational documentary is often to give the spectator the freedom that more traditional expository methods lack, and I have seen few documentaries that left me as conflicted as this one. Is Pastor Kim simply a conman? Is he a brave humanitarian? Is there something even more sinister behind the story? My own takeaway was that Kim was probably doing some good in the world, but that he likely was not as pure of intention as he claims. But this is not a film that allows you to feel comfortable or assured about any tentative conclusions you may reach.
The other two Korean Jeonju Cinema Projects were much less successful. Jang Woo-jin’s Gyeo-ul-bam-e (Winter’s Night) was a disappointment given my admiration for his previous directorial effort, Chuncheon, Chuncheon (Autumn, Autumn), and for his work as a producer on last year’s best Korean film at Jeonju, Kim Dae-hwan’s Cho-haeng (The First Lap) (Kim produced this film, as well as appearing in a brief cameo for the especially hardcore Korean cinephile). The subject matter is quite similar to Autumn, Autumn (two interconnected stories of one older couple and one younger, visiting a small tourist area in a province outside of Seoul), but with a greater ambition and scope that the material does not require or support. The first 30-40 minutes are compelling, showing Jang’s skill with long takes and his ability to draw humour from his situations that recall Hong Sang-soo at his best. Jang clearly has talent and I suspect he will make strong work going forward, but the narrative here is overstretched, and Jang’s reliance on long takes eventually becomes ponderous and rather stale, indulging in occasionally pretty images but more often simply unimaginatively framing his characters and their pontificating. Those reservations aside, Winter’s Night displays a filmmaking craft that was mostly absent in Lim Tae-gue’s Pa-do-chi-neun Ddang (The Land on the Waves). Lim’s debut feature, Pok-lyeok-ui Ssi-at (The Seeds of Violence), captured the Grand Prize in the Korean Competition at last year’s festival, and he has an admirable desire to deal with Korean social issues within a larger thematic scale. The Land on the Waves attempts, not unlike a director like Lee Chang-dong in Bak-ha-sa-tang (Peppermint Candy, 1999), to tell the story of both a flawed single male character and then turn this into a national allegory, complete with historical references to Korea’s recent past. The problem is the direction is strained and ineffective, with framing choices that are attempting expressiveness but produce awkwardness instead. The word pretentious is used far too often in criticism, but there is no better word to describe the film.
The winner of this year’s Korean Competition Grand Prize was Jung Hyung-suk’s Seong-hye-ui Nara (The Land of Seonghye), and having seen all 10 of this year’s entries, I believe it was the correct choice. It is Jung’s second feature, following Yeo-su Bam-ba-da (The Night View of the Ocean in Yeosu), which also played in competition here last year, and it is a mature, fully realised work, indicative of Jung’s extensive background in writing and theatre but also displaying a quiet yet assured visual style. Jung is especially skilled at location shooting, with the flat, minimalist black and white cinematography establishing the grim yet banal world of the protagonist. The story follows Seonghye, a young woman in her late 20s working part-time jobs as a delivery person and convenience store cashier to make ends meet. Eventually we learn she is a university graduate who left a company following a sexual harassment incident and is unable to re-enter the corporate culture as a result. Actress Song Ji-in naturalistically conveys Seonghye’s depression, showing the lack of joy she experiences, even when she has a date with her partner or interactions with friends. The only time she smiles in the first half of the film is, ironically, when she has to perform during a failed job interview. Two expertly staged long takes, one in which Seonghye undramatically breaks up with her boyfriend, and another where she finally unleashes her rage at a complicit former co-worker, are particular highlights of a highly intelligent and social mise-en-scène displayed throughout. The plot and her circumstance become even more grim, but then, unexpectedly, the story twists towards something of a more positive future, albeit one that comes at a terrible cost. I am quite sure this will be among my Top Ten Korean movies of the year, and if not, it is a great year ahead.
Cho Sung-bin’s debut feature Bi-haeng (Dreamer) was the winner of the CGV Arthouse Distribution Support Award, the Korean Competition’s second place prize and perhaps more valuable given that it guarantees a theatrical run domestically. The story revolves around a North Korean immigrant who comes to South Korea through a sponsor and gets involved in the illegal drug trade in order to help raise the money to bring his brother across the border as well. The story and the lead performance by Hong Geun-taek are overly familiar, with a close resemblance to Park Jung-bum’s superior Musan-il-gi (The Journals of Musan, 2011), and the direction is similarly routine. However, the co-lead, an ex-con played by Cha Ji-hyun, is a distinct and memorable character, believably flawed and unlikable and yet able to generate a degree of audience sympathy. Two other films rewarded from the Korean Competition were Hui Ji-ye’s Jol-eop (Graduation) (Union Investment Partners Award) and Choi Chang-hwan’s Nae-ga Sa-nun Se-sang (Back from the Beat) (CGV Arthouse Creative Support Award), both of which were also feature debuts, albeit from filmmakers of very different backgrounds. Hui is still in her early 20s and has not yet graduated from university herself, despite this being the subject of her film. As a result, Graduation has a youthful optimism despite the obvious anxiety that even the middle-class are feeling these days, which is conveyed through a playful visual style that is somewhat precious at times but nevertheless shows a filmmaker with a great deal of promise. Choi, on the other hand, is a self-taught director in his early 40s, having made music videos and a few shorts previously. Also, in contrast to Hui and her story, he is strongly working class in his orientation, as is shown through his lead character, an aspiring musician and delivery driver who is taken advantage of by both his employer and his close friend. Back to the Beat is slight (only 66 minutes), has a lead performance that does not always convince, and generally lacks much insight and conviction despite the subject matter. It is watchable, with some good sequences, but never achieves the dramatic immediacy it seeks to convey.
Besides The Land of Seonghye, my two favourites of the Korean Competition films were Jung Dae-gun’s Mate and Park Kun-young’s Han-gang-e-ge (To My River), both very different in style and genre yet effective in their desired effect. Mate is the most crowd-pleasing and accessible of the festival, a conventional romantic comedy-drama that nevertheless manages to be incisive about the social structure surrounding the characters. It is told through the male character’s point of view, something less common in this genre, and conveys his emotional life with an admirable authenticity, creating empathy for his rejection. But, importantly, it does not demonise the female lead nor let the character escape responsibility for his own attitudes and lack of maturity. As a bonus, his relationship with his mother is unsentimentally loving, and is worked into the main story thematic seamlessly. Writer-director-editor Jung also manages the rare feat of a convincing and balanced conclusion that, like the film as a whole, is traditional yet unexpected. To My River is more in the art cinema mode, although hardly unique within that tradition. It follows a female poet dealing with the grief of the recent death of her boyfriend, although as the story progresses it becomes clear that the narrative is non-linear. Because of this structure, it is difficult to connect with the characters in the first half, but once the relationships and the overall story begin to be pieced together, the second half is much more effective. Likewise, Park’s visual approach of long take conversations gradually builds the details of the plot and the repetitions give the earlier scenes additional meaning. There are echoes of other art cinema approaches here, but given that this is a debut, there is enough of a distinctiveness to have anticipation for Park’s future projects.
There were two science-fiction based works in the Korean Competition this year, which is rather unusual within the independent domestic circuit. Both were flawed, but nevertheless deserve credit for taking an unusual and at times inventive approach. The better of the two was Baek Seung-bin’s Na-wa Bom-nal-ui Yak-sok (I Have a Date with Spring), an apocalyptic fantasy clearly framed as such, as a frustrated writer projects with disgust with the world onto three different scenarios, each expressing different aspects of his desire for destruction. Because of this structure it can feel like a number of short films stitched together, but the misanthropic conceit is enough to keep the parts from completely splintering, and there is a genuine weirdness and dark comedic sensibility here that I admired. It felt more like the type of movie you would see at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan) and it was refreshing to see its inclusion here. Oh Won-Jae’s feature debut Nat-seon Ja-duel-ui Ddang (Land of the Strangers) takes a familiar Korean independent narrative, a man is released from prison after confessing to a crime he did not commit in order help his family, and moves it into Tarkovsky territory, as the man’s family is now one of the last survivors of a Chernobyl-like area suffering from the impact of a nuclear meltdown. The cinematography is the best element here, creating a bleak landscape that is both ordinary and yet alienating, a world terrifying as a possibility that is also perhaps already the world we live in, especially given the amount of air pollution and environmental degradation residents of Korea deal with on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, the storytelling does not live up to the intriguing premise and visual execution, with an ending that is quite lacklustre and uninspired.
Overall, the Korean Competition offered a fine overview of contemporary Korean society which is often missing from the mainstream box office hits and the successful television dramas. The two worst films of the group, Lee Seung-yup’s Gui-yeo-un Yeo-in (The Darling) and Lee Jun-pil’s Bo-i-ji An-neun O-ren-ji-e Gwa-nan Si-seon (A Gaze on an Invisible Orange), were empty art cinema exercises without any contemporary relevance or cinematic flourish. The Darling is a pale (ghostly pale) imitation of Hong Sang-soo, focusing on an actress spending a summer abroad in Vancouver, Canada, told in an episodic, diary format. It is a useful illustration, through its weaknesses, of what makes Hong’s work especially effective. Most striking is the performances, which were wildly uneven, with many stilted and unconvincing scenes which the long take style mercilessly and unwisely exposes. It makes one appreciate how reliant a low budget director like Hong has become on his ability to use his prestige to attract performers who can handle his long, dialogue heavy sequences; without such performers, The Darling falls flat. Moreover, the very slight narrative lacks any clear point or thematic, even when the occasional individual scene shows some life. That said, its modesty and lack of ambition are preferable to A Gaze on an Invisible Orange, whose self-important musings on performance made the short 78-minute running time seem interminable. Like The Darling, it is shot in black and white, but here it is trying to signal high art prestige rather than low budget minimalism. One of the more dull and lifeless films I have seen in many years.
In the International Competition, Marcelo Martinessi’s Las Herederas (The Heiresses) won the Grand Prize, with Shevaun Mizrahi’s Distant Constellation winning the Best Picture Prize and Malene Choi Jensen’s The Return awarded the Special Jury Prize. Because of my concentration on Korean content, I was only able to see one of the three, The Return, a Danish-Korean co-production about children adopted by Danish parents returning to South Korea, the country of their birth, to seek their biological parents. It is a documentary/fictional hybrid, an approach I especially enjoy when executed well, and director Choi Jensen does a fantastic job of working with her non-professional actors to create a staged narrative based on both her and her cast’s actual experiences. This drama, centering on the characters of Karoline and Thomas, is intercut with interviews that are shot in a more conventional talking heads manner with people telling their own tales of reunion. The resulting combination does what hybrids do best, which is to increase the reality effect through dramatic recreation and aesthetics (the use of colour and architecture to convey the strangeness of Seoul for a visitor is striking) while also making the viewer question the exact nature of truth and performance. The centrepiece sequence is the character of Thomas meeting his birth mother and learning about her life story. The camera is in long shot, with four characters around a table: Thomas, Karoline, the mother, and an interpreter. The mother’s story is heartbreaking, but it is told to Thomas through an interpreter, giving it a certain distance, and he remains less emotional than the average viewer, despite his close proximity to her spatially. It is paradoxically both the most clearly artificial and staged scene in the entire film and the most authentic for this very reason: the performance of the mother and the emotional resonance is so intense that it is able to transcend the staged quality and convince the viewer of its truth. The only other International Competition film I watched, Ioana Uricaru’s Lemonade, was also terrific, despite coming up empty-handed in terms of awards. Like many of the great examples of Romanian cinema of the past decade, it has a dark and ironic sense of humour, especially with its “happy ending”. But in this case, the society being examined is the United States and its immigration bureaucracy, a timely subject matter to be sure. Hopefully, this will lead to a wider distribution for this important movie, which, unlike some of the more esoteric Romanian New Wave examples, is very immediate and gripping and has a chance to connect broadly with audiences.
The Korean Cinemascape at Jeonju is the one area where it compares poorly with the larger Busan festival, often unable to attract the same calibre of Korean releases and thus not offering as wide and deep an overview of the year as Busan often provides. This year included a few big box office hits from the past six months since Busan, including a screening and master class of my favourite Korean movie from 2017, Jang Joon-hwan’s 1987: When the Day Comes, a tense, vibrant drama about the ‘80s pro-democracy movement. I was able to catch up with Korean female director pioneer Lim Soon-rye’s box office success Little Forest, a drama about a city girl returning to her country roots, but was underwhelmed by its conventionality and sentimentality, especially compared to the many independent films at the festival that dealt with similar subject matter (the difficulty of living in modern Seoul) with so much more realism and genuine emotion. The three world premieres from this section were also a disappointment. The omnibus Bom-i-ga-do (After Spring) holds the distinction of being the first feature to deal with the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, a major national trauma in which over 300 people lost their lives, many of whom were high school students. However, it lacks the specificity of detail needed to make the stories more than simply cheap sentiment, although the middle section, featuring a rescue worker suffering from PTSD, held some potential. Choe Equan’s roooom is a series of stories set around an apartment complex and feels like four short films rather than a feature, since location is the only real unifier. The opening segment is quite strong, centering on the building manager and his relationships with various tenants, and the film would have been wise to keep the focus here. The other narratives become increasingly weaker, with an awful and poorly timed finale that recalls the worse tendencies of the now disgraced Kim Ki-duk.1 Veteran director Yeo Kyun-dong’s Yeos-u-bo-da Nat-seon (Stranger Than Jesus) was simply forgettable, an attempted black comedy satire that produced few laughs and little relevant social commentary, despite its attempt to do both. The two most acclaimed premieres from the section, both of which I missed, were Kim In-seon’s Eo-reun-do-gam (Adulthood), which won the NETPAC Award (best world premiere in the Korean Cinemascape), and Lee Jo-hoon’s Seo-san-gae-cheok-dan (Land of Sorrow), winner of the Jin Motors Prize (Best Korean Documentary).2
The only other non-Korean films I screened were the Opening Film, Wishing Chong’s Yakiniku Dragon, and, in the Masters section, Christian Petzold’s Transit, which played in competition at Berlin, and they perfectly illustrate the quality extremes of this year’s entries. Although set in Japan in the late 1960s, Yakiniku Dragon does have Korean content, as it deals with a group of immigrants who first settled in Japan during the end of World War II. It began as a successful stage play which was performed in Seoul as well, and I suspect this is why a film of this low quality was selected to open the festival. These origins can be seen in the expository nature of much of the dialogue that creates very awkward storytelling, especially for a movie with populist aims in its mixture of broad comedy and intense melodrama. While this mixed tone could conceivably work on an overall structural level, director Chong tries to mix them within a single scene, thus failing to create either laughter or tears. Despite an impressive budget and elaborate recreation of this village, the material never feels authentic and the showing merely superfluous to the didactic telling. Transit, by contrast, is another near masterpiece from Petzold, one of the most exciting filmmakers currently working. While not at the level of his previous Phoenix (2014), it covers a similar time period, 1940s Europe, and common themes, such as identity and responsibility. Like most of Petzold’s work, it directly evokes a previous film, in this case the Hollywood classic Casablanca (1942). The plot also revolves around a love triangle and letters of transit, this time set not in Casablanca but in an earlier stop on the refugee trial, Marseilles. Petzold makes no effort to hide that the film is taking place in the present day, and thus is also able to make commentary on the immigration crisis facing Europe today. Franz Rogowski creates a great lead character, subtly evoking Bogart in his speech delivery and yet de-glamourising the man without emptying him of honour. What Petzold does here is not quite de-construction of a classical text, but something greater, in my estimation, using the past and its conventions to maintain story tension and then express thematic variations. This was the best film I saw at the festival.
Approaching its 20th anniversary next year, Jeonju continues to evolve alongside the Korean industry itself. It has shifted from a festival centering on international cinephilia (although it still features retrospectives and a Cinematology section) and more towards producing content for domestic arthouses and developing filmmakers for a possible future on the international scene. And with the growth of the locally produced blockbuster in Korean cinema, the films of Jeonju offer an important alternative, offering audiences much more of a societal mirror than they are currently receiving from the popular domestic product.
Jeonju International Film Festival
3-12 May, 2018
Festival website: http://eng.jiff.or.kr
- For an intelligent discussion of Kim Ki-duk and the scandal around him, see Pierce Conran’s review of his most recent film, which is now unlikely to screen domestically, even at a festival: http://screenanarchy.com/2018/03/berlinale-2018-review-human-space-time-and-human-aka-rape-the-movie.html ↩
- A short note is needed on the presence of the word “land” in the English translation of so many of this year’s films, four in total. It indicates a nationalist concern to be sure, although the same Korean word is not being translated in each case. Both The Land on the Waves and Land of the Strangers use the word ddang, which is close to the meaning of earth or ground. The Land of Seonghye uses the word nara, which is closer to country or nation, while Land of Sorrow’s literal translation does not include land at all. ↩