The Jeonju International Film Festival, now in its eleventh year, may not be among the most heralded of film festivals—even in South Korea it is arguably overshadowed by Pusan—but it has developed into one of the most ambitious, impressive, and broad in scope. Unlike Cannes, Berlin, or the Viennale, it’s not famous for its world premieres; instead it gathers together the very best of the festival circuit, making it ideal for those who aren’t able to festival-hop all year round. And, not content to offer this invaluable service, the festival has grown increasingly ambitious and visionary, encompassing a broad range of categories: the International Competition vies with sections devoted to contemporary Korean cinema, classics from the country’s past, films from the immediate region, a panorama of innovative works of world cinema, and thematic and retrospective programs, this year focusing on politically radical cinema as well as on the work of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, German filmmaker Romuald Karmakar, Hungarian master Miklos Jancso, and Korean documentarian Kim Dong-Won.
Perhaps the most distinctive and valuable feature of the festival is the annual Jeonju Digital Project, a three-part film commissioned each year from three filmmakers, usually from a particular region, who are asked to make a film on a fifty million won (about $38,000) budget, with no restrictions aside from the requirement that the films run roughly thirty minutes and that they be made digitally. Filmmakers such as Jia Zhangke, Tsai Ming-liang, Bong Joon-ho, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Harun Farocki, Costa, and Eugène Green have participated in the past, and while the results have been inevitably mixed, the project has spawned a number of important films, including Weerasethakul’s Worldly Desires, Farocki’s Respite, and Costa’s The Rabbit Hunters. This year the chosen three were (for the first time) from North and South America—the Argentinian Matías Piñeiro, the Canadian Denis Côté, and the veteran American experimental filmmaker James Benning. The three films make somewhat strange bedfellows, with Piñeiro’s whimsical, delicate Rosalind and Côté’s dreamy, surreal The Enemy Lines—both impressionistic, sensual narrative films—contrasting sharply with Benning’s Pig Iron, a compact, materialist, single-shot document of one stage in the process of producing steel. But all three are accomplished and memorable films, and while their radically different sensibilities and modes of creation are jarring, this only calls attention to the admirably open policy embodied by the Digital Project, highlighting the freedom the filmmakers are given to pursue their visions.
Pig Iron was far from representing Benning’s only presence in the festival—and his several contributions displayed an exhilarating variety of their own. Aside from the thirty-one-minute Pig Iron, he presented two additional films, the exquisite one-minute-and-twenty-second-long Fire & Rain (created as a trailer for the 2009 Viennale Film Festival), and his most recent feature film, the 120-minute-long Ruhr, which represents a double departure: the first of his films to have been shot digitally and the first he has made outside the United States. Benning is one of the greatest of contemporary American avant-garde filmmakers, and he has spent the last decade refining an approach that has proven extraordinarily productive. Focusing on various locations (a selection of North American lakes in the aptly-titled 13 Lakes; Robert Smithson’s earthwork, the Spiral Jetty, in Casting a Glance; a variety of American landscapes in the train-centered film RR; and now the German industrial belt in Ruhr), Benning studies these landscapes intently, documenting them by means of a succession of fixed, carefully-composed long takes, a minimalist approach that yields maximal visual and aural rewards.
All three of the Benning films shown at Jeonju are linked by their focus on industrial processes, and all find Benning adapting his filmmaking to the realm of digital video. Pig Iron and Ruhr in particular see him employing an even more radical long-take esthetic than usual, a direct result of the possibilities offered by the new medium. Though he has long favored the long, fixed take, in Ruhr he has pushed this tendency to a new (and newly-possible) extreme. The film consists of two curiously (and somewhat awkwardly) distinct halves—the first contains six extended shots, each lasting between six and seventeen minutes, but the second half is simply a single, hour-long shot of a coke-processing tower which is majestically transfigured every ten minutes when steam comes billowing out of its base and then seeps through the cracks in its cement, eventually filling the screen and totally obscuring the tower for several minutes at a time. Though the duration of the shot (especially for those unprepared for it) represents a daunting challenge, the slow repetition and the sheer dramatic beauty of the repeatedly transformed image is profoundly hypnotic and overwhelming. And the narrative arc, so to speak, of the shot is provided by the imperceptibly gradual darkening of the image as dusk sets in. That Benning has artificially sped up this change in light, digitally changing the luminosity to simulate a visual effect that, in reality, would’ve demanded an even longer shot, brings up another subtle aspect of his work that he’s increasingly pursued recently—in Casting a Glance, which presents itself as a document of the Spiral Jetty over the course of its forty-year existence but which was actually shot within a single year, and in Fire & Rain, which takes advantage of digital video to condense a ten-minute-long process into an eighty-second-long piece via invisible edits.
Itinéraire de Jean Bricard, Jean-Marie Straub's last film with his recently deceased partner Danièle Huillet
Though the second half of Ruhr represented minimalist cinema at its most extreme, similar approaches surfaced throughout the festival, in Costa’s work; in The Anchorage, a documentary-fiction hybrid that portrays a woman living in semisolitude on the Swedish coast; in Wang Bing’s Coal Money, which unaffectedly documents the daily lives of Chinese coal workers; as well as in the films of Jean-Marie Straub and his recently-deceased partner Danièle Huillet. Like Benning, Straub and Huillet popped up throughout the festival: their 1991 film Antigone was included in a series devoted to the “Poetics of Resistance & Revolution”; their masterful Elio Vittorini-adaptation Sicilia! was shown as part of the Pedro Costa section, along with Costa’s film documenting its making, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?; and several recent films were showcased in the Cinemascape section, including Straub’s final film with Huillet (Itinéraire de Jean Bricard), and the three films he’s completed on his own since her death: Le Streghe—Femmes Entre Elles, Joachim Gatti, and Corneille-Brecht. Itinéraire de Jean Bricard was perhaps the most striking of these recent films, especially within the context of Straub and Huillet’s cinema. Their films are almost always founded on literary texts—novels, plays, or excerpts from other forms of writing—texts which they treat not as departure points but as inviolable and precious objects in their own right. But Itinéraire is unusual insofar as the “text” it’s built upon is not a literary one but rather the recorded testimony of Jean Bricard, an elderly resident of the Loire Valley who shares his memories of the region, its history and customs, and of the period in which the French Resistance was active in the area, a monologue in a far more vernacular key than Straub and Huillet are accustomed to presenting (their sources generally tend to the likes of Cesare Pavese, Vittorini, Friedrich Hölderlin, Brecht, and Kafka). But as in their other films, the text and image are in exquisite counterpoint—Itinéraire opens with a long, stately traveling shot, filmed from a boat making a circuit around an island in the river, a hypnotic introduction that eventually gives way to Bricard’s reminiscences and a series of typically gorgeous, rigorously framed images of the region he is describing.
One of the greatest advocates of Straub and Huillet, Pedro Costa, who was honored with a complete retrospective at the festival, is himself one of the giants of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century cinema, and has proven to be a trailblazing figure among his contemporaries. He has played a crucial role in the development of many of the most important, fertile, and influential paths that vanguard filmmakers have explored: his films feature a blurring of the boundaries between fictional and documentary filmmaking, an unparalleled grasp of the expressive potential of digital video, and the articulation of a style at once minimalist and monumental. The core of Costa’s oeuvre is the magnificent trilogy of films made with and about the denizens of Las Fontainhas, a Lisbon shantytown, in particular Vanda Duarte, a charismatic young woman who appears in the relatively fictionalized Ossos, and takes center stage in the magisterial, utterly unique In Vanda’s Room. Three hours long, shot on video, and largely confined to the claustrophobic apartment in which Vanda and her sister while away their time, talking and indulging in their shared drug addiction while the Fontainhas district is gradually demolished around them, In Vanda’s Room is a supremely paradoxical film: expansive yet radically intimate, lo-fi yet visually ravishing, and grim but somehow vital.
Blurring the boundaries between fiction and documentary, Pedro Costa has Vanda Duarte play herself in In Vanda's Room
The final film in the trilogy, Colossal Youth, finds the demolition of Las Fontainhas in full swing, with its residents largely relocated to a modern housing complex. Though Vanda reappears, the central figure in Colossal Youth is Ventura, an elderly Cape Verdean worker who haunts the increasingly ruined landscape of Las Fontainhas, as well as the new housing complex, like a ghost or a spirit. Visually, Colossal Youth is like no other film ever made—Costa’s mastery of digital video has advanced even further here, and he uses it as if he’s carving space out of the darkness, creating images with an almost sculptural sense of volume.
Like Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, Costa’s latest film, Ne Change Rien, is a document of an artist at work (the actress and singer-songwriter Jeanne Balibar) with a similar focus on the process of creation; and like the earlier documentary, it demonstrates Costa’s alchemical genius, his ability to create works of incredible visual richness with seemingly scanty means. Ne Change Rien is confined largely to Balibar’s recording studio, but in Costa’s hands this space is transformed into a variety of gorgeous configurations of light and shadow, while the painstaking, arduous process of rehearsing and recording becomes deeply compelling and hypnotic in its repetition. Costa is one of the bona fide visionaries of contemporary cinema, an artist in whose hands the medium seems to reveal a myriad of possibilities hidden from most others.
Portugal loomed large in my experience of the festival, thanks to Costa as well as to two of the finest films in the Cinemascape section: Eugène Green’s The Portuguese Nun and João Pedro Rodrigues’s To Die Like a Man. Green, a New York born filmmaker who lives and works in France, is possessed of one of contemporary cinema’s most peculiar and, for many, off-putting stylistic signatures, thanks to his proclivity for blatantly artificial performances; his Straub/Huillet-like privileging of literary texts; and his disarming combination of high seriousness and whimsical humor. But his willingness to wield a style that flirts with the ridiculous is intimately tied to his fearlessness in exploring unfashionably profound questions regarding faith, love, wisdom, and destiny. The Portuguese Nun is the story of a French actress of Portuguese ancestry who travels to Lisbon to star in a film. Beguiled by this unfamiliar and mysterious city, she wanders aimlessly through its streets, overcome with a melancholy yearning. Finding herself increasingly preoccupied with a beautiful young nun she observes repeatedly praying in a chapel, she ultimately engages her in a dialog that carries the force of an epiphany. The film finds Green working at the height of his powers, his seemingly fastidious, stilted, and supremely controlled approach achieving a surprising moral gravity and emotional power.
While To Die Like a Man could hardly be more different in subject matter and texture—it’s a sprawling, melodramatic, and hallucinatory portrait of a dying transsexual—it shares The Portuguese Nun’s emotional generosity and fearlessness. Tonia, To Die Like a Man’s protagonist, is an aging drag queen who has lived as a woman for decades without having taken the ultimate step of undergoing a full sex-change operation. Finding herself succumbing to illness, she is forced not only to confront her own mortality, and her relationship with her angry and sexually confused son, but also the physical body with which she has had a complicated, ambivalent relationship throughout her life. Fueled by a magnificent, tour-de-force performance by Fernando Santos as Tonia, To Die Like a Man narrates the physical, psychological, and emotional journey of this remarkable protagonist as she approaches her own death. By turns hilarious, grim, heartbreaking, grueling, and bizarre, but always utterly original and painfully honest, it is an unforgettable film.
Fernando Santos as Tonia in João Pedro Rodrigues’s To Die Like a Man
Aside from the terrific programming, part of the charm of Jeonju lies in its audiences—though its programming would seem to place it in the category of festivals that appeal primarily to the hard-core festival crowd (to career critics, editors, film programmers, and the like), the routinely sold-out screenings are dominated by locals. And a shocking percentage of these festivalgoers seem to be high-school-age students, leading to the bizarre, incongruous site of hordes of teenagers avidly pouring into screenings of films by Benning or Costa, and then dominating the postprojection Q&As. Indeed, one of the many pleasures afforded by the Jeonju International Film Festival is the opportunity to imagine, even to find yourself inhabiting, however briefly, a strange but wonderful world in which James Benning and Pedro Costa are teen idols.
Jared Rapfogel is an Associate Editor of Cineaste, and the Film Programmer at Anthology Film Archives.