Jeonju International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Cynthia Lucia

Amat Escalante's brutal The Bastards

Amat Escalante's brutal The Bastards

At a reception sponsored by the tenth Annual Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF), guests could pick up a booklet called “Korean Film Reinvention Project.” Beyond the title, all but a few words in this whimsically designed publication are in Korean characters. The English word, “Bubble,” written in blue script, adorns the centerfold, with tiny graphics depicting movie screens, box office tickets, credit cards, a fist full of money, and a trail of bubbles sprinkled throughout. The few other English words appearing later on facing pages include the acronym “FIT” (for “Fund,” “Insurance,” and “Tax”) and the alliterative 3-Ds (pun most likely intended)—“Digital Downloads,” “DVD,” and “Documentary.” Although promotional in purpose—appearing more like a children’s book than anything else—this booklet tells much about the film industry in South Korea and about JIFF.

Thanks to several Korean colleagues, I came to learn that “bubble” has connotations akin to “baby boom,” suggesting that “reinvention” and “procreation” go hand-in-hand as part of a plan to invest over a billion Korean won in the industry over the next two years (Fund), to create a content evaluation system and partnerships for lending and borrowing with various financial institutions (Insurance), and to regulate and provide tax deductions to stimulate film production (Tax). The industry will create a “new life cycle” for film, the booklet declares, by shifting its market from supply to demand and achieving global recognition of Korean cinema’s “authenticity” through greater freedom from censorship and expansion of production across varied genres. As for the 3-Ds, the industry will expand both public digital download platforms and DVD marketing, while documentary, the “umbilical cord” of the Korean film industry, will gain improved production facilities and wider distribution (its primary venue is currently Korean television)—theatrically, on new documentary channels, and internationally (right now, about seventy percent of documentaries distributed in Korea are made in the U.S. and U.K., according to a Korean colleague at the festival).

JIFF has decidedly tapped into this sprit of fertility and growth through its commitment to expanded documentary offerings and, especially, through its continuing sponsorship of the Jeonju Digital Project, funding the production of three digital films by accomplished international filmmakers every year since 2000, and distributing the films to foreign markets. The 2009 festival further highlighted Korean film through competition categories for both Korean features and shorts, a category showcasing noteworthy Korean features released within the previous year, and a section devoted to local films produced in Jeonju. Especially significant this year was the return of the Korean Cinema Retrospective (absent since 2003) screening Yang Ju-nam’s Sweet Dream (1936), the oldest existing Korean talkie, along with a newly restored version of Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960), Shin Sang-ok’s Bound by Chastity Rule (1962), and Lee Doo-yong’s The Last Witness, a controversial film about the Korean War, which has been restored to its original 154-minute length, after censors had cut fifty minutes before its 1980 theatrical release and another fourteen minutes before its 1987 video release.

As part of its “Discovery” section—which this year was wonderfully curated to present Sri Lankan films made from 1974-2005, the films of Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski and those of Spanish filmmaker Pere Portabella, many of which are otherwise unavailable—the festival added a new section featuring the work of independent Korean filmmaker Hong Ki-seon. Preferring the “street vendor” brand of cinema to “department store cinema,” as he refers to mainstream Korean film production, Hong’s socialist-realist features, The Sorrow, Like a Withdrawn Dagger Left My Heart (1992) and The Road Taken (2003), examine individuals struggling within confinement—whether on a shrimp barge that becomes a modern-day slave ship in the earlier film or a prison in the second film, that documents the life of Kim Sun-myung, a political prisoner since the Korean War from 1951 until his release in 1995. Whether overtly or in less explicit ways, so many past and present Korean films question authoritarian political regimes or social conventions and taboos that confine as they seek to stabilize. Set in Chosun, then under the influences of Japanese colonial rule and Western culture,Sweet Dream, with its inventive use of sound and image, centers on a young Korean housewife’s flight toward economic and sexual liberation—and its consequences. The Housemaid tells a noiresque tale about the destructive power of desire and an illicit love affair, and Bound by Chastity Rule also centers on the social constraints around desire that, in this case, crosses class boundaries.

Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo explores issues of gender and power in his contemporary and delightfully satiric Lost in the Mountains, one of the 2009 Digital Project films.In it, the young woman Misook learns that her best friend Jinyoung has been sleeping with her ex-boyfriend and their teacher. The middle-aged Sangoak feels perfectly entitled to profess his love, turn his back, and offer only the flimsiest of excuses in the guise of comfort, drawing on the privilege accorded him as an accomplished writer and on the basis of age—a pervasive cultural attitude the film hilariously sends up. Sangoak’s arrogance is laid bare when Misook and another of his students, with whom she has spent the night out of revenge, fail to greet him, “as their teacher” when they show up at the same restaurant where he and Jinyoung are eating breakfast after spending the night. In the end, even though Misook admits that she has always preferred the writing of her female professor to that of Sangoak, the film raises intriguing questions: Is Misook simply seeking another mentor to whom she can attach herself? Is she learning to manipulate just as adeptly as Sangoak, seeking the fast track to fame as a writer? Or are her insecurities as a woman so deeply rooted that she will remain a tool and toy to be used by the various influential men around her?

The toxic waste from an abandoned Canadian-owned mine that permeates the soil and air of an impoverished Philippine island seems to seep into the gray, filmy black-and-white cinematography of Lav Diaz’s Butterflies Have No Memories, simultaneously distancing viewers while drawing them into its murky, hopeless world. Also part of the Jeonju Digital Project, the film follows Martha, a privileged native of the island who returns to visit after leaving to be educated in Canada. Like a tourist with her 35mm camera, Martha visits former friends who, much as they may care for her, express a palpable resentment toward her relatively carefree existence. A trio of male friends plans to kidnap her with blackmail money in mind, until the most sensitive of the three suffers mightily over his genuine feelings for Martha who has done them no harm. In its forty-minute running time, the film cogently presents the contradictory tensions between the personal and the political, between prosperity and destruction in a despairing postcolonial setting.

Beyond its rich offering of Korean films, JIFF’s International Competition featured a strong collection of films, not always the case with many of the smaller festivals. Although it clocked in at 212 minutes, with an intermission—and jurors tend to like them shorter rather than longer!— Imburnal, directed by Philippine filmmaker Sherad Anthony Sanchez, deservedly won the top Woosuk Award (sponsored by Woosuk University) and the prestigious NETPAC Award (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema). Set in a Davao slum, Imburnal merges a neorealist esthetic—long-take shooting, improvisational work with nonprofessional actors who “reenact” composite moments of their young, unvarnished lives—with digital camerawork, ranging from extended stasis to fluid mobility. As the film opens, we see a young child sleeping (or dead?) at the mouth of a polluted sewer pipe with rancid water washing over his legs, as both he and the camera remain excruciatingly motionless for at least ten minutes. Almost experimental in its approach, Imburnal forces reflexive contemplation of image and sound, as gurgling water heightens anxiety concerning time, place, and circumstances surrounding this nearly inscrutable moment. Time itself seems suspended or radically redefined among the children and teens living in a world where it is divorced from production or productive activity.

Imburnal’s political and economic implications seep to the surface as kids incessantly talk about sex, engage in sex, move about and play—mostly preferring the island’s crowded, muddy interior to its idyllically clean and spacious seaside. The contrast is jarring, but not in the expected sense—there are no wealthy tourists living it up on the seaside to provide an easy contrast. The film, instead, hints at the psychological and cyclical nature of impoverishment, powerfully drawing the children to its dank interior. The analogy some critics draw between this film and Larry Clark’s Kids is misguided; Clark’s intention, it seems, was simply to shock with the promiscuous behavior of teens whose New York City milieu—a range of working-, middle-, and upper-middle-class households—seemed only marginally relevant. Sanchez, on the other hand, presents shocking material inextricably bound up with time, place, politics, and economics, while the film’s vérité-like approach refrains from drawing explicit conclusions.

On the other hand, the temptation to connect Michael Haneke’s Funny Games with the international competition film The Bastards, a coproduction from Mexico, France, and the U.S., directed by Amat Escalante, is more than real (clearly Escalante was influenced by the film). The altered social milieu of this home-invasion narrative—now it’s not preppy bastards invading an upper-middle- class vacation home but illegal Mexican immigrants invading the middle-class California home of a divorced mother and her less-than-communicative teenage son—would seem to carry the weight of a more focused political critique. In the end, though, we are left with the same sense of absurdist annihilation, though perhaps the hint of something like redemption is present when the surviving worker goes off the next morning to pick strawberries (rather than to perpetrate another in a series of crimes, as in Funny Games), He seems truly shaken by what has transpired, mainly at the prompting of his older companion. But redemption for whom or for what, the film seems to ask, for he is consigned to the same “in-between” status with little hope, and now has come to match the perceptions of the gringos who earlier taunted him—he now truly is guilty of heinous crimes.

As unrelenting as The Bastards may be in its atmosphere of impending and real violence, so too is the atmosphere of family bickering in Radu Jude’s ironically titled film (as “The Bastards” well may be) The Happiest Girl in the World, a Romanian-Netherlands coproduction, also part of the international competition. Delia, a small town teenager, has won a car in a contest sponsored by a soft-drink company. As part of the deal, she and her parents travel to Bucharest where she must make a short TV spot declaring herself, “the luckiest and happiest girl in the world,” as she swigs orange drink and drives off in her car. But complications ensue—she can’t drive, she suffers menstrual cramps, she doesn’t smile enough, the producer detects a “moustache” that requires waxing, the soft-drink CEO suddenly demands a change in location just as available light is beginning to fade, a generator blows, and her parents relentlessly pressure her to agree to sell the car immediately so they can convert her grandmother’s home into a boarding house. Her parents’ reasonable arguments—their financial pressures will be relieved by the boarding-house business, the expense of even filling the new car with gas is prohibitive, the car will fetch the highest price if sold immediately—begin to sound less so when countered by Delia’s retorts, which, although immature, gradually paint her parents as a pair of parsimonious parasites—grandma hasn’t even agreed to give them the house, they’ve never allowed Delia anything of her own, not even a party, the car is hers and they offer her nothing in return (are they planning to steal grandma’s house also?), why can’t she learn to drive and take the car to the seaside before selling it? In combination with an increasingly commercialized, capital-driven culture, the authoritarian hold of the parents (and of the soft drink CEO, who insists on darkening the orange drink with cola as Delia is commanded to gulp hugely on camera) becomes lethal. A biting satire, the film gradually transforms the initially benign parents into a cloying, clawing force, heightened by Jude’s unblinking, static long takes.

Similarly, static-sequence shots, often framed by windows, doorways, or narrow alleys invite dispassionate contemplation in Good Cats (not in competition), a black comedy by Chinese filmmaker Ying Liang, who won the 2007 JIFF International Competition. In this case the vultures are real-estate developers willing to bribe, steal—or kill—in an attempt to buy land on the cheap from rural peasants, only to demolish their homes to build high-rise apartments they could never afford. The layers of equivocation beneath the slogan, “Today’s ‘Social Harmony’ puts progress ahead of profits,” is given ironic, reflexive resonance through Ying’s high-definition digital cinematography, which calls attention to crisp detail, while long-shot framing keeps us at a distance from the people and their reactions. The quirky, incongruous appearance of a rock band—in a hospital room, an apartment courtyard, and on a river as the conflicted protagonist, drawn into negotiating these scams, lies dying—serves to heighten the playful reflexivity and dark humor in this film about demolished humanity and lives.

Beyond its consistently superior selection of films and its hospitable location—several colorfully-lit streets, with no fewer than four multiplex theaters only steps apart, a variety of street performers, stands selling yummy Korean treats, and filled with amazingly welcoming JIFF volunteers, mostly students, donning yellow jackets and directing traffic and the occasionally befuddled foreign press—what makes JIFF truly unique is its dedication to cinema education, for lack of a better term. While all festivals have their special tribute screenings and panels of experts commenting on this or that trend in contemporary cinema, JIFF offers a series of in-depth master classes. This year, noted film scholar and critic Raymond Bellour offered two lectures to sold-out audiences—one titled “ Trafic and the Films of Philippe Grandrieux,” that included a screening of Grandrieux’s A Lake (2008), and the other, “Chris Marker and Level Five.” Richard Porton and Adrian Martin—both accomplished film critics, scholars, and Cineaste editors, also offered master classes—Porton on anarchist realism in Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Martin on Manny Farber’s creative criticism, using Maurice Pialat’s Open Mouth (1974) as a springboard for his discussion.

In addition, the festival offered cinema classes on the festival sections devoted to Sri Lankan cinema, the films of Jerzy Skolimowski, and those of Philippine director Raya Martin and U.K. director John Smith, both of whom were featured in the quirky and fascinating “Stranger than Cinema” section, devoted to experimental film. Beyond the work of Martin and Smith, this section screened new shorts from Ken Jacobs, as well as Bruce Conner’s much-studied 1958 short A Movie and his 2008 Easter Morning, along with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Meteorites (2007) and Jean-Luc Godard’s one-minute film, Une Catastrophe (2008). Such intelligent curatorial effort clearly distinguishes JIFF as the premiere international festival that boldly and refreshingly places serious consideration of contemporary cinema and cinema history ahead of festival glamor and glitz that inevitably wear thin.

Cynthia Lucia, professor of English and director of the film and media studies progam at Rider University, is the author of Framing Female Lawyers: Women on Trial in Film and co-editor of The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.