This year’s 23rd edition of the Jeonju International Film Festival returned to full capacity for the first time since 2019, following a 2020 cancellation and a reduced capacity/hybrid version in 2021. Its slogan, “Film Goes On,” seemed not so much hopeful and optimistic as it did naively aspirational, given the difficulties that have befallen the Korean film industry in the last two years. In February 2020, Korean cinema was riding high following the unprecedented Oscar win of Bong Joon-ho’s Gi-saeng-choong (Parasite) (2019); then, the pandemic hit, and that momentum dissipated. While all national cinemas have struggled with COVID-19, it was particularly damaging for the Korean industry, as it has been unable to retain its previous domestic market share. When audiences have come back to cinemas, it has often been for Hollywood blockbusters, particularly the Marvel franchise, rather than local products.1 This may seem incidental to a discussion of the Jeonju Festival, which focuses on much smaller independent cinema and has never really competed with the bigger budget foreign releases. However, the fall of the Korean theatrical feature has coincided with the rise of the streaming services, with many locally produced Netflix series dominating Korean viewership and even achieving a large global audience, particularly O-jing-eo Ge-im (Squid Game), written and directed by veteran commercial filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk.2 Thus, the theatrical market more generally feels under threat, an anxiety which trickles down to the smaller films and newer filmmakers, who now are facing a future that may include more work for streaming services and less ability to forge a feature filmmaking career. Obviously, audio-visual entertainment will go on, but as for film, in the form of theatrical exhibition, that future feels much less secure. 

It is therefore not surprising that this year’s Festival, in addition to offering the usual Korean Competition section of debut features, also focused on Korean cinema and its legacy. Most notable in this regard was the retrospective on director Lee Chang-dong, one of the most critically acclaimed directors of the past three decades and one often seen as an exemplar for local independents trying to examine social and political issues. All six of his features were shown, many of them in digitally restored versions, along with the world premiere of a documentary overview of his career by veteran French filmmaker Alain Mazars, Lee Chang-dong: The Art of Irony.3 Taking the chronological structure of Lee’s breakthrough masterpiece Bak-ha Sa-tang (Peppermint Candy) (1999), Mazars travels backwards through Lee’s career, including many interviews with both Lee and many of his collaborators, such as Jeon Do-yeon, Moon So-ri, Song Kang-ho, and others. A fairly standard documentary, but valuable in getting the normally reserved director to open up about his filmmaking process and look back over his long career, which includes many years working as a novelist before turning to cinema in his 40s. Mazars is also able to film in many of the locations where the original films were shot, which adds a more dynamic visual element and sense of uncanny nostalgia to an expository approach that could have been reduced to talking-head footage. This adds greater enjoyment and meaning to those who know Lee’s work intimately, while giving neophytes a useful introduction to the filmmaker and his themes.4

The real highlight of the Lee retrospective, however, was his new film, Shim-jang-so-ri (Heartbeat), the first short of his career and his first to premiere at a domestic festival since Peppermint Candy opened the Busan (then Pusan) International Film Festival in 1999 (his subsequent films all played in competition at either Venice or Cannes). It showcases both Lee’s interest in examining Korean social issues as well as his increasing desire to move his cinematic form into greater virtuosity. The story centres on a young boy, beginning in his elementary school classroom before following him through the school, out past the playground area, through the local city streets, back to his apartment complex, and finally ending on the building’s rooftop. All of this is achieved in a single 25-minute long take, or at least with the illusion of such a take (there is likely some digital trickery here, especially given how dangerous one stunt appears). Within this single-take, Lee manages an astounding aesthetic variety, following the boy in hand-held close-up as he runs across the playground, and then retreating into long shots as he traverses busy city streets, highlighting the boy within a larger environment. By the time we reach the apartment complex, and finally to the rooftop finale, the camera ends with a stunning 45-second close-up of another character as they gaze across the cityscape. The cinematic flair here follows upon Lee’s previous work, Burning (2018), especially its pair of long-take final shots, showing Lee evolving past the more “ordinary” style of his earlier features. But Lee also makes a strong effort to merge this aesthetic with social commentary both global and local. The short is part of an upcoming omnibus work commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) on the subject of depression, and thus will eventually be viewed within that international context. However, the local aspect is a large part of the meaning as well, as the father is staging a worker’s protest, which is perhaps one of the factors leading to the mother’s depression. The casting of the parents suggests another reading, as the father’s voice is played by Sol Kyung-gu (Peppermint Candy, Oasis) and the mother is played by Jeon Do-yeon (Secret Sunshine). These are not only veterans of Lee’s films, but they also played the married couple of Saeng-il (Birthday) (Lee Jong-un, 2018), a melodrama about the 2014 Sewol disaster, in which hundreds of high schoolers were killed in a ferry sinking.5 Thus, there is the suggestion, through casting, of another reason for the mother’s depression, and Lee decides, in making his film about this illness, to stress the sociological rather than the psychological dimension. 

The 2nd Repatriation

In the “Masters” section, there was the newest work of another key figure in the history of contemporary Korean cinema, albeit one with a lower profile than many of the more critically acclaimed auteurs. Kim Dong-won, born in 1955, one year after Lee Chang-dong, is often acknowledged as the Godfather of Korean documentary, having made social issue cinema under his production company P.U.R.N Production since 1991. His latest, 2-cha Song-hwan (The 2nd Repatriation), is a follow-up, nearly 20 years later, to his documentary Song-hwan (Repatriation) (2003), which detailed, over a ten-year period, the story of North Korean prisoners, accused of being spies, who had been released and were attempting to return to their homeland. This sequel took even longer, as the second repatriation of the movie’s title never arrives. The film picks up the story from the original documentary in 2005 and continues to the present day, as the North Korean subjects, with whom Kim has formed a very close bond, grow old and pass away as politics continue to prevent their ultimate dream of unification. In telling this tale, Kim also covers the recent political history of the country, expressing disappointment with the ineffectiveness of the progressive president Roh Moo-hyun and then resignation after the election of conservative anti-Communists Lee Myung-bak in 2007 and Park Geun-hye in 2012, then circling back to disappointment that the election of liberal candidate Moon Jae-in did little to change the situation. Kim’s perspective attempts to humanise these characters even as he and I think many viewers disagree with their politics, especially their reactionary anti-foreigner sentiment and inability to recognise North Korea’s obvious flaws (and in a final sequence, we even see our lead character cheer for Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. election). A moving film that is ultimately about more than simply North Korea and its relationship to the South, touching on themes of aging, family versus political obligations, honour, and where one’s loyalties should lie. 

Another Korean cinema retrospective focused not on an individual auteur, but rather on the founder of a production and distribution company, Lee Tae-won, whose Taehung Pictures played a key role in the rise of the Korean New Wave of the 1980s and 1990s. “Legacy of Chungmuro, Taehung Pictures” was a collaboration between the Festival and the Korean Film Archive, who ran the same retrospective of eight films at their cinematheque in Seoul in May. They also co-produced a book, Great Expectations: Taehung Pictures 1984-2004, that details the production company’s history, including all of the films it produced as well as the foreign films that it distributed, mostly Hollywood blockbusters such as Aliens (James Cameron, 1986) and Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) but also curiosities like Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), a film that could not pass through Korean censorship upon its initial release and only came to Korean theatres in the early 1990s.6 The retrospective included films such as Gi-bbeun Woo-ri Jeol-meun Nal (Our Joyful Young Days, aka Our Sweet Days of Youth) (Bae Chang-ho, 1987), Gagman (Lee Myung-se, 1988), and Gyeong-ma-jang Ga-neun Gil (Road to the Racetrack) (Jang Sun-woo, 1991), all key films in the rise of a new cinematic realism in Korea and all by directors who have been marginalised with the rise of the New Korean Cinema of Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and even Lee Chang-dong, although his work has its roots in this earlier movement. Thus, the program had a certain nostalgic feel, especially given the context of the past two years. 

In fact, when looking at the Korean cinema landscape today, the legacy of the Korean New Wave is arguably best exemplified by the independent features that debut at domestic festivals such as Jeonju and Busan. However, unlike the Korean New Wave, and unlike a great deal of the current mainstream and auteur-centred Korean cinema, these contemporary festival films are leading the way in terms of diversity, especially in terms of gender. This year Jeonju’s Korean Competition section featured, for the first time, more films by female directors than male, continuing a trend that has been a clear emphasis of the Festival’s recent history. And this investment in diversity is paying off cinematically, as this year was, in my opinion, the best collection of Korean Competition films in the Festival’s history. Normally, the competition is divided between a few good/very good films, a few mediocre, and a few very subpar. This year, I thought six of the nine were in the good/very good category, and none of the nine were seriously lacking. 

The Hill of Secrets

My favourite of the group was Lee Ji-eun’s first feature Bi-mil-ui Eon-deok (The Hill of Secrets), which was unusual amongst competition films in not being a world premiere, having been accepted to the Berlinale in February, a rare and much deserved honour for a Korean indie. The story revolves around elementary school student Myung-eun, who feels ashamed of her working-class family and attempts to express these feelings through her writing. Also, like many children, she is a habitual liar, most of which are created to hide her deeper secrets. Lee’s film follows in the line of recent Korean works that focus on a young girl, with similarities to Yoon Ga-eun’s Woo-ri-deul (The World of Us) (2016), Kim Bo-ra’s Beol-sae (House of Hummingbird) (2018), and Yoon Dan-bi’s Nam-mae-ui Yeo-reum-bam (Moving On) (2019), although it manages to find a distinct tone of its own. Like House of Hummingbird, it is set in the mid-1990s (1996 in this case, as opposed to 1994), but unlike the more ambitious earlier film, the period setting seems mostly to reflect the director’s own autobiography (she was born in 1985) instead of any political commentary. It is conventional in its stylistic approach, but well-written and with a standout lead performance from Moon Seung-ah, which Lee also deserves credit for creating. Moon had debuted in Kim Sol and Lee Ji-hyoung’s Heu-la-jin Bam (Scattered Night), which won the Jeonju Korean Competition Grand Prise in 2019, but this performance is on another level entirely, remarkably open emotionally and really making the character and thus the film resonant. Lee subtly and graciously acknowledges the importance of her actor in the end credits, by unusually putting Moon’s name first, ahead of her own writer-director title. The Hill of Secrets won the CGV Arthouse Award Upcoming Project Prise and will hopefully lead to more work by this filmmaker going forward. 

Given the number of female directors, it is to be expected that there would be a focus on women and the issues they are currently facing in Korean society, but this extended into some works overlapping in terms of both themes and even storylines. However, this led to some interesting comparisons and contrasts rather than simply redundancies, the most obvious example being Jeong Ji-Hye’s Grand Prize winner Jeong-sun and Kim Jung-eun’s CGV Arthouse Award Distribution Support Prize recipient Kyung-ah-ui Ddal (Mother and Daughter) (the literal translation would be Kyung-ah’s Daughter). Both deal with the issue of the illegal distribution of videos taken by a woman’s partner and then shared online through chat rooms and eventually pornographic websites, a problem that has gathered headlines across the country in recent years and is often cited by young women as one of their major fears.7 In Jeong-sun, the titular character is a middle-aged factory worker who begins a relationship with a new co-worker, who then shares a video of her with the younger male boss in an attempt to ingratiate himself within the new workplace. In Mother and Daughter, it is the younger woman’s private sex video that is distributed by her spurned ex-boyfriend, leading to her withdrawing from society and her job as a teacher. Not only are the ages of the characters different, but the mother/daughter dynamic is distinct, with Jeong-sun showing a supportive daughter fighting for her parent and Mother and Daughter featuring a much more conflicted and painful relationship, with the mother blaming the daughter for the video, partially because she had been hiding her sexual life more generally from her mother’s judgment. Both are fine feature debuts, especially given both filmmakers are under 30, although the story and performances are stronger than the direction. Great to see the character actors Kim Keum-soon (Jeong-sun) and Kim Jung-young (Mother and Daughter) receive such rich lead roles, and both are the highlights of the respective films. The two make for a fine if rather dark double bill, even though each end with a spirit of perseverance and even, in the case of Jeong-sun, class rebellion. 

Two of my other favourites amongst the competition selections dealt with toxic masculinity of a more general variety, and with strikingly different reactions from the female characters. Choi Jung-moon’s first feature Nae-ga Nu-we-i-sseul Ddae (When I Sleep) is an odd mixture of road trip drama /art thriller involving three women: Sun-ah, who works at a company in Seoul and is having an affair with her superior; her younger cousin Ji-su, who was raised by Sun-ah’s parents when she was orphaned as a child; and Ji-su’s friend Bo-mi, who still sees the ghost of her stillborn child. The trio’s car breaks down and they are forced to deal with a pair of unethical and threatening male mechanics attempting to extort them. However, this plot line is played in a minor key, with most of the running time devoted to the women and their relationships, which also includes flashbacks to earlier points in their lives. Some obvious dialogue at times, and the unusual structure is sometimes a hindrance, but I admired the unique approach, and the performances and character connections are all realistic and moving. Lee Wan-min’s Sa-rang-ui Go-go-hak (Archaeology of Love), her second feature, following 2016’s Noo-e-chi-deon Bang (Jam-sil), is a quieter work, a character study of Young-sil, an archaeology graduate student and later independent scholar, over the course of a decade of her life. The plot, such as it is, mainly focuses on an emotionally abusive relationship she develops with a composer, whose insecurities around his own sexuality make him obsessively jealous. But unlike the characters in many of the other female-directed films at this year’s Festival, Young-sil is a rather passive character, unable to break free of this unhealthy and almost sadomasochistic bond, even after the romance itself concludes. Although very long, as fitting the character and her profession, Sa-rang-ui Go-go-hak has a mature and nuanced perspective and a deep and haunting beauty, exemplified in the soulful lead performance by Ok Ja-yeon, who deservedly won a Best Actor prize. 

The two competition entries directed by men were both genre films, and while they were well-made first features and had effective moments, neither were able to execute their premises into satisfying conclusions. Lim Sang-su’s Pa-ro-ho (Drown) is a psychological thriller/horror exercise about a man running an old motel in Hwaseong, where a local military base is located. There are a series of suicides, and when the man’s elderly and senile mother disappears, police and others in town begin to suspect his involvement. If that description sounds like many other movies, that is because this set-up is all too derivative. However, for the first half, the specificity of the setting and quiet direction and lead performance by Lee Jeong-ok are quite compelling, until the familiarity of the tropes become overwhelming, especially when a doppelgänger character enters and plays a prominent role. In addition, the gender aspects feel as cliched and outdated as the genre elements, which is not a coincidence. The opposite problem plagues Hong Yong-ho’s Pyok-ro (Havana), an old-school style courtroom drama that one does not often find in Korean indies. It centres on a woman accused of killing her abusive husband and the public defender who believes she is innocent despite her initial confession. The final act and plot twist here is politically progressive from a feminist perspective, at least on a surface level, but also obvious, clunky, and dramatically ineffective, which really weakens the otherwise solid film. 

My least favourite of the competition features was, like Drown, a KAFA (Korean Academy of Film Arts) production, which is usually a sign of quality. This year, however, I found both of their entries to be artistically lacking, even if the two films do have some obvious commercial potential. Kim Jin-hwa’s Yoon Si-nae-ga Sa-ra-jyet-da (Missing Yoon) has an intriguing premise and interesting themes around celebrity culture but fails to execute on these elements. The plot involves a famous singer from the 1970s, Yoon Si-nae, who goes missing before a comeback concert, leading to a young YouTuber, whose mother is a long-time impersonator of the singer, exploiting the situation to increase her subscription numbers. Yoon is a real Korean singer, and appears as herself in the film, and the best moments involve the songs and performances, showing the important role popular music can play in people’s identity. Unfortunately, the themes are played out very didactically, with the younger YouTube star espousing the wrong values and needing transformation, which she achieves through her mother’s more authentic fandom. Oh Min-ae was awarded a prize for Best Actor, and she is the best part of the film, but unfortunately Lee Joo-young’s performance as her daughter is not nearly as strong, partially because the character is so simplistically conceived. 

The Girl Who Dreams About Time

In addition to the eight fiction films, the competition also included one documentary, Hong Da-ye’s Jam-ja-ri Goo-ha-gi (Saving a Dragonfly), a project that Hong, who was born in 1996, began as a high school student in 2014 before completing seven years later. It begins by showing the stress of the Korean high school exam culture, which has been dealt with more comprehensively in other documentaries, most notably Steven Dhoedt and Choi Woo-young’s Gong-bu-ui Nara (Reach for the SKY) (literal translation Land of Studying), but as it progresses it is more about the director and one of her friend’s issues with depression and self-harm. As the title indicates, there are some obvious metaphors here, probably too many, but there are also some undeniably powerful moments, including a scene with her parents that she films from the backseat of the car. The long timespan we get to spend with Hong and her friends is also a major benefit, especially when she returns to a few of her friends many years after their initial interview. That said, portions of the documentary feel like watching a sloppily assembled video diary, and there is a clear trade-off between the advantages of seeing Hong tell her own story and the thought that the material might have been better served with an experienced filmmaker as a collaborator; in other words, a participatory mode as opposed to a performative one. And this is what we are given with another documentary from the Festival, the Jeonju Cinema Project entry Si-gan-eul Ggoom-ggu-neun So-nyeo (The Girl Who Dreams About Time), directed by veteran documentarian and cinematographer Park Hyuck-jae.8 The protagonist is Su-jin, whom we follow from high school to early adulthood as she attempts to study hard and enter university while also being pulled towards the family tradition of being a shaman, a tension that plays out through her intense bond with her grandmother. The result is a more polished and engaging work, as director Park provides a distanced perspective on the characters, although he smartly avoids giving much exposition, staying primarily in the observational approach. But Saving a Dragonfly, despite its weaknesses, does have sequences that will stay in my mind much longer. 

Before concluding, I should note that not all the Korean premieres were of the highest quality, and their failures return us to the beginning of this report and the sense of pessimism facing the industry. Outside of the competition films, the movies were not only much worse but also of a fundamentally different character, resembling the type of cheaply made but highly commercial content that tends to prevail on local streaming services. Tellingly, there were two omnibus films, both of which showcased the episodic form that has recently become more prevalent. Ma-li-ya Ba-reun Ma-li-ji (Citisen Pane) was the better of the two and has a closer connection to the omnibus works of the independent cinema past, especially the If You Were Me series, which focused on human rights issues.9 Each of the short films takes on topical issues, both explicitly (unionisation, regional bias, online male backlash against feminism, workplace sexual harassment) and implicitly (conflicts around housing and religion amongst young couples), mostly from a satiric point of view. The directors are a mixture of veterans such as Park Dong-hun and Yoon Seong-ho along with younger indie filmmakers such as Choi Ha-na and Han In-mi, but this collection is simply much less interesting than even the worse of the competition works, and yet could very well gain a larger audience given its format. Even more depressing was Na-ui Sa-ram-a (My Only Love), a series of tales for which the word maudlin is far too mild. If we have extreme horror and extreme porn, this could be described as extreme melodrama, and what is most curious is that the four directors are not newcomers, but rather veterans who have been making genre pieces in the industry for the past couple of decades (Kim Kyung-hyung, Cho Jin-kyu, Chung Hung-soon, and Park Young-hoon). Cynically, this can be seen as an attempt by these filmmakers to stay relevant within this new environment, and it could even be successful in that regard. Thus, this year’s Jeonju Festival was a great success in many ways: the quality of the films was very strong, Korean cinema’s past was represented and celebrated, many newer voices, especially from women, were being showcased, and, most of all, the Festival felt festive once again. But the theatrical landscape into which these talented filmmakers are entering is more unstable than ever, and the slogan of “film goes on” feels more like a question than ever before.

Jeonju International Film Festival
28 April – 7 May
Festival website: https://eng.jeonjufest.kr/


  1. Jean Noh, “US Films Take Biggest Market Share at South Korea Box Office for the First Time in a Decade,” ScreenDaily (January 19, 2022) https://www.screendaily.com/news/us-films-take-biggest-market-share-at-south-korea-box-office-for-the-first-time-in-a-decade/5166647.article
  2. Todd Spangler, “’Squid Game’ Is Decisively Netflix No. 1 Show of All Time With 1.65 Billion Hours Streamed in First Four Weeks, Company Says,” Variety (November 16, 2021) https://variety.com/2021/digital/news/squid-game-all-time-most-popular-show-netflix-1235113196/
  3. The festival also published a collection of essays, Lee Chang-dong: Films That Never Stop Asking Questions (Seoul: Jeonju Film Festival, 2022), which includes a foreword by Jean-François Rauger, a career overview by Kim Young-jin, essays on each individual film by Park Inho, Jang Byung-won, Richard Peña, Quintín, Jung Jihye, and Jonathan Romney, and an interview with Lee conducted by Kim Hye-ri. The book was published in both English and Korean language versions.
  4. It should be noted that this year’s Festival Director was Lee Joon-dong, Lee Chang-dong’s younger brother and a veteran producer of many films, including some of his brother’s. This explains not so much why Lee Chang-dong would be so honored (his reputation is firmly established) but perhaps why Lee debuted his new short at Jeonju rather than a larger festival.
  5. This tragedy spilled over into the Korean festival world, with a 2014 screening of an anti-government documentary about Sewol almost leading, indirectly, to the canceling of the Busan International Film Festival in 2016. See Marc Raymond, “The Festival That Almost Wasn’t: The 21st Busan International Film Festival,” Senses of Cinema 81 (December 2016) https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2016/festival-reports/busan-international-film-festival-2016/
  6. Great Expectations: Taehung Pictures 1984-2004 (Edited by the Jeonju International Film Festival and the Korean Film Archive) (Jeonju: Jeonju International Film Festival, 2022). The book was published in both English and Korean language versions.
  7. For some contextual background, see Park Jun-hee, “(Video) What is ‘Nth Room’ Case and Why It Matters,” The Korea Herald (April 24, 2020) http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20200424000512
  8. The Jeonju Cinema Project has been a feature of the festival from its beginnings. It began as the Jeonju Digital Project, an omnibus film with three chosen directors each contributing a short. In 2014, it switched to giving each filmmaker a feature-length film, and the name was changed to the Jeonju Cinema Project the following year. Normally, there are 2-3 Korean directors along with 1-2 foreign directors chosen, but this year 3 of the 4 were by non-Koreans: Dane Komljen’s Afterwater, Eric Baudelaire’s A Flower in the Mouth, and Alan Martin Segal’s Via Negativa.
  9. The original If You Were Me was released in 2003, followed by If You Were Me 2 (2006), If You Were Me 3 (2006), If You Were Me 4 (2009), If You Were Me 5 (2011), If You Were Me 6 (2013) and If You Were Me 7 (2016).

About The Author

Marc Raymond is an Associate Professor in the Communications department at Kwangwoon University in Seoul. He is the author of the book Hollywood's New Yorker: The Making of Martin Scorsese (SUNY Press, 2013) and has published essays on Hong Sang-soo in the New Review of Film and Television Studies and Style.

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