The Jeonju International Film Festival has gone through a transformation in its now 24-year history, one that has some overlap with the broader movement of Korean cinema over this same time period. The festival began with a strong emphasis on international cinephilia, with many retrospectives of celebrated auteurs and the Jeonju Digital Project, which funded an omnibus of short films from acclaimed foreign filmmakers (Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Claire Denis, etc.). Over the years, and especially in the past decade, the festival has shifted its emphasis more towards Korean cinema, despite lacking the same size and prestige of its main rival, the Busan International Film Festival. Thus, in 2014, the Jeonju Digital Project became the Jeonju Cinema Project and shifted focus to feature films by younger, less established directors, with a greater emphasis on Korean talent. And with Korean mainstream cinema gaining in size, scope, and market share, the local independents have taken up a space where a greater variety of voices and perspectives can be recognized. This year’s festival marked a retrospective celebration of this local tradition while also attempting to add to this growing legacy with dozens of Korean independent premieres. 

Of course, the international cinephilia has not completely disappeared. The opening film was Tori et Lokita (Tori and Lokita, 2022), the latest from the acclaimed Dardennes brothers, who were at the festival and participated in various public talks. There also remain many screenings of cinema classics, with this year featuring the recently restored La maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustache, 1973) along with classics from Luis Buñuel, Seijin Suzuki, and others. There is also the “Cinephile Jeonju” program, with documentaries on auteurs both famous (Jean-Luc Godard, Sergio Leone) and more underground (Japanese experimental filmmaker Junichi Okuyama), and all notably male. But this was combined with two programs that focused on films largely unknown outside of the country. “Jeonju Cinema Project: A Film Festival as a Producer” showcased ten of the best films from the project’s last decade, including Cho-haeng (The First Lap, Kim Dae-hwan, 2017), one of the finest Korean works of the decade, as well as Roh Moo-hyun ip-ni-da (Our President, Lee Chang-jae, 2017), the biggest box office success of any film to premiere at the festival.1 “Focus: KAFA 40” was even more of a domestic indie celebration, marking the 40th anniversary of the Korean Academy of Film Arts, a film school that has had a prominent role in training the country’s major filmmakers, particularly within the independent sphere. There were seven subsections of short films made at KAFA over the past four decades, organized around themes, each named after a feature film created by a KAFA alumni, highlighting the growth of the industry and the role this institution has played. The section was a creative piece of programming, providing viewers the opportunity to see a variety of early works from well-known directors and actors, as well as the establishment and development of many of the thematic concerns that would dominate this cultural field. 

To turn to this year’s contributions, the Korean Competition section hosted 11 films, most of which were world premieres and/or first features, although not as many as in previous editions. Four films had their premieres at other festivals, a record high for this section, although this was not a sign of higher quality, as three of these were among the weakest of the group. Jude Chun’s first feature Mi-hwak-in (Unidentified) and Sohn Koo-yong’s sophomore effort Bam San-chaek (Night Walk) both premiered at Rotterdam earlier in the year, and while displaying promise, neither was effective overall. Unidentified was the more intriguing, an odd mixture of low-fi science fiction, music video, and mockumentary. The elements never quite congeal, and the filmmaking is often sloppy, but there is an endearing enthusiasm to the effort. Night Walk is more firmly in the experimental category, a silent film with some striking cinematography, but marred by the attempt to synthesize these images with animated drawings and selections of Korean poetry. Sohn’s imagery is strong, with an influence from James Benning, the experimental filmmaker who has had many of his works screened here, including as part of a Jeonju Digital Project (2010), and the film would have been more impactful if those compositions were allowed to stand on their own. More successful was Yoo Heong-joon’s first film, Uriwa Sang-gwan-eop-si (Regardless of Us), which premiered in Berlin, a black-and-white split narrative about an actress who has both recently completed a film and had a stroke. She is visited by various cast members in a series of long takes but is unable to remember the film’s story; the second half offers two different alternative versions of this forgotten text, featuring the same actors. If all this sounds familiar, it is because the influence of Hong Sang-soo is particularly pronounced, so much so that it does take away from the film’s impact. Hong, despite his tendency to repeat himself, always offers fresh variations, while Regardless of Us feels more like imitation than inspiration. 

Small Fry

However, the fourth competition film not to premiere at Jeonju, Park Joong-ha’s first feature, Jan-chaeng-i (Small Fry),2 would have been my selection for the Grand Prize, which instead went to Shin Dong-min’s second film, Dang-sin-eulo-buteo (From You).3 Both films, like many of this year’s entries, share a common characteristic in being about filmmaking, but only Small Fry takes this trope in new directions. It stars co-writer and producer Kim Ho-won as a fishing vlogger who gets into a comical dispute with a strange man at a fishing complex. As the story unfolds, we learn the other man is an acclaimed indie film director about to make his mainstream debut, and the vlogger is himself an actor who has never broken through. The rest of the story, which takes place over a single day, involves the two men and their interaction with the actress whom the director has promised the lead role. With this setup, Park updates the meta-textual indie to discuss the role of commercialization within this evolving yet familiar media landscape. But the film ultimately works thanks to its understated style and pace, allowing the rather contrived story to feel more naturalistic than it should, and giving space to the three fine lead performances. By comparison, From You is both more familiar and more mannered, not quite as obvious of a Hong Sang-soo imitation as Regardless of Us, but just as derivative. The first two parts of the story, one involving a fashion designer and the other an actress, both studying at a university, are solid, but the third act, in which director Shin Dong-min stars with his own mother, taking a return trip to a theatre in his hometown to screen his film, is empty self-reflection. Apparently, this is a follow-up to Shin’s first feature, Ba-ram-a An-gae-reul Geod-eo-ga-dao (Mom’s Song), which was part of the cancelled 2020 version of the Jeonju festival and thus little seen, and perhaps would work better with knowledge of the earlier work. 

Of the fiction films in competition, my two other favourites were both queer-themed dramas (unfortunately a topic still mostly confined to the festival circuit in Korea), although the approaches of the films were radically different. Pok-seol (Heavy Snow) is the second film from Yun Su-ik, whose debut work, Groggy Summer, premiered at Jeonju a full decade ago in 2013. The story involves the teenager Suan (Han Hae-in), who meets and falls in love with fellow student and celebrity actress Seol (K-drama star Han So-hee);4 years later, after Suan herself has become a star actress, the two cross paths again. At just 78 minutes in length, there is a lack of character development, and the final act relies too much on its surfing and weather metaphors. But Yun is undeniably a talented visual stylist, with an especially striking use of texture and colour reminiscent of early Wong Kar-wai, and hopefully this impressive sophomore effort will lead to more opportunities in the future. This flair is especially on display in the earlier parts of the story, taking advantage of his photogenic stars and the use of red to convey both their passion and vibrancy. There is a magical sequence where the two characters travel to Seoul late at night, a scene likely shot during the pandemic because of the emptiness of the streets, where the characters feel like they have entered another planet, with hazy, soft-focus cinematography that captures this sensation perfectly. The film is also notable for including a scene of drug use (which is punished particularly harshly in Korea compared with countries like North America or those in Europe, for example) without resorting to the usual Reefer Madness-style hyperbole common in Korean dramas.5 In fact, the whole film is positioning indie cinema in opposition to K-drama, which the film sees as both vapid in its commercialisation as well as destructive to the mental and physical health of its two protagonists. One of its most memorable images features Han So-hee confronting her own advertisement on their night adventure in the city, a reminder of the world she is both trying to escape and yet self-destructively drawn to. 

No Heaven, But Love

Han Jay’s Uri-neun Cheon-gook-e Gal Soon Ebps-ji-man Sa-rang-eun Hal-su Iss-gess-ji. (U. Cheon. Sa., No Heaven, But Love) offers a far different take on the lesbian romance, with a story that begins closer to an indie drama but moves in its conclusion more heavily into the type of melodrama one might expect to find in a K-drama. It is Jay’s second feature, but her first, Dam-jaeng-i (Take Me Home) was another casualty of the cancelled 2020 Jeonju festival and thus remains mostly unseen. It is set in 1999 and has a much broader scope and running time than Heavy Snow, which relies more on atmosphere. The story revolves around the relationship between Ju-young (Park Soo-yeon), a high school wrestler dealing with an abusive coach and teammates, and Ye-ji (Lee Yoo-mi), a foster child who is taken in by Ju-young’s Christian mother. The development of their relationship is treated in a more realistic vein, and includes, like Heavy Snow, beautiful images of the couple’s courtship, in this case a stunning use of shallow focus cinematography on a beach vacation. The first half, in fact, reminded me often of the Dardennes brothers and their handheld intense rendering of everyday dramas. The final act, however, is pure melodrama, with the coach becoming a caricatured villain with the style veering into sequences of slow-motion expressionism. Coincidentally, there is a scene in the film that is very similar to Tori and Lokita but handled very differently. In both films, a character is hiding in a room while someone close to them is sexually abused. In Tori and Lokita, the character is forced to simply watch and endure; in No Heaven, But Love, the character intervenes, which is emotionally satisfying but not in keeping with the earlier realism. That said, this modular shift is still effective, as the audience is aware that although the situations have been heightened, they are nevertheless a reality facing many of Korean society’s least powerful individuals. Jay handles the supporting characters very well too, particularly Ju-young’s mother, an otherwise empathetic woman but for her homophobia which causes her to act unethically and to lose her daughter’s love. 

Warm Welcome

Turning to non-fiction, the festival’s Documentary Award went to Night Walk, but there were three others that I think were far more deserving, two from the Competition section and one other from the Jeonju Cinema Project. Yoo Su-yeon’s Su-gung (Sugung: The Underwater Palace) profiles Jung Ei-jin, a female pansori (a traditional Korean musical storytelling genre) performer and descendent of a long line of pansori male artists. As she ages, she worries about finding a successor to carry on the tradition. Yoo is still a novice in her structure, with a lack of clarity at many points, but the main protagonist and the bigger themes (around gender, art, and tradition) are enough to make it consistently engaging throughout. Park Marisol’s Eo-jjeo-da Hwal-dong-ga (Warm Welcome) was a more personal work, a profile of the director’s mother, a fierce advocate for the rights of immigrants and refugees within the often-xenophobic Korean society. Park makes herself a part of the narrative, which might be seen as taking away from the more central character, but I think she is successful in using herself as an audience surrogate, showing the influence her mother has had on her and hoping the viewer will be similarly inspired.6 Also impressive, if necessarily downbeat, was the Jeonju Cinema Project by the indie veteran Yun Jero, Soom (Breath), his fifth feature, which combines interviews with an undertaker and a trauma cleaner with Yun’s own story of dealing with the slow death of his mother. This examination of mortality could have used more material on his two main characters rather than generalisations on such a vast topic but was still deeply moving and disturbing at points. 

In closing, the festival’s celebration of its own indie film culture was supported by a diverse and generally impressive collection of works, which also included Kwak Eun-mi’s first feature Mi-deul Soo Iss-neun Saram (A Tour Guide), a character study of a North Korean immigrant trying to reunite her family while serving as a cultural guide to Chinese visitors, as well as Jung Hyung-sik’s fourth feature Persona I-sang-han Yeo-ja (Persona A Strange Girl), a self-reflexive examination of the world of local theatrical production from a veteran of that scene (Jung came to cinema in 2017 after many years producing plays). While even the best of these films was not of the same high quality as this year’s Busan festival (or even of Jeonju itself in the past), it was still encouraging to see a significant number of worthy contributions from both newcomers and seasoned professionals. Overall, the Korean independent scene has always been greater as a cinematic whole than any of its individual parts, and the this year’s Jeonju program continued in this tradition of offering an alternative vision of the nation than the more mainstream film and television products. 

Jeonju International Film Festival
27 April-6 May 2023
Festival Website: https://eng.jeonjufest.kr/


  1. Lee Chang-jae made a sequel of sorts as one of this year’s Jeonju Cinema Projects, Moon Jae-in im-ni-da (This is the President). Unfortunately, it is a much duller affair, mostly because Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s most recent ex-President, is not very interesting as a person, and the film veers too close to hagiography to seriously consider his politics.
  2. The film debuted a few days earlier at the 31st Arizona International Film Festival, where it won the prize for Best First Feature (http://www.filmfestivalarizona.com/index.php?pg=15)
  3. A list of the winners from the festival can be found here: https://eng.jeonjufest.kr/Community/notice/view.asp?idx=7986
  4. For a discussion of the film and Han So-hee’s immense stardom within the Korean drama fanbase, see Pierce Conran, “Heavy Snow movie review: Korean drama star Han So-hee makes big screen debut in evocative queer indie drama,” South China Morning Post, 1 May 2023.
  5. The anti-drug climate within the country has basically ended the career of Yoo Ah-in, the star of Burning (Lee Chang-dong, 2018) and the Netflix series Ji-ok (Hellbound, Yeon Sang-ho, 2021). See Bryan Pietsch, “A top South Korean actor tested positive for drugs. His downfall was swift,” The Washington Post, 8 March 2023.
  6. Given South Korea’s rapidly declining birthrate, the documentary implies that the country’s anti-immigration stance is not only inhumane but self-destructive. See Justin McCurry, “South Korea’s birthrate sinks to a fresh record low as population crisis deepens,” The Guardian, 22 February 2023.

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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