On Cinema Street, in Jeonju: The 12th Jeonju International Film Festival
by Dennis West

Park Chan-kyong's fiction-nonfiction hybrid, Anyang, Paradise City

Park Chan-kyong's fiction-nonfiction hybrid, Anyang, Paradise City

This was my first visit to the Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF), which held its twelfth edition April 28–May 6, 2011 in that South Korean city, located 240 kilometers south of Seoul. As a first-time attendee, my jet-lagged reaction the first morning as I walked several blocks to the press office was amazement at what I encountered: a major international film festival geographically set up like a mega-sized Monopoly board along a busy, more-or-less pedestrian thoroughfare actually called Cinema Street, which is, most appropriately, lined with multiscreen movie theaters. This giant Monopoly-board impression only increased when I soon stumbled onto the festival’s two visually striking official posters, which are described in festival publicity in the following manner: “Each of the two different images of Cinema Street, where most festival events take place, represents a city as an imaginary space on Smartphone, and the real world where people of today gather to cure their loneliness through the movies, in Jeonju.” Along Cinema Street swarmed literally dozens of yellow-jacketed, super-enthusiastic young volunteers who directed both foot and wheeled traffic, jumped up and down in unison in front of theaters while raucously calling out the titles of movies about to unspool, and generally assisted disoriented or greenhorn visitors by offering free bottled drinking water and maps showing the locations of the movie houses and social venues.

After arriving at the press office and examining the beautifully produced and hefty catalog awaiting me in my welcome bag as a visiting critic, I started to fully appreciate what I was participating in: a friendly and cordial event where local support—for example, students and young people in general packing into screenings—was strong and cinephilia ran rampant thanks to astute and wide-ranging programming dedicated to the Korean scene, highlights of recent world cinema, sidebars illuminating the history of film, a “Stranger Than Cinema” program presenting the best of recent international experimental work, and the showcasing of edgy contemporary directors. Major retrospectives were offered of the work of Spanish maestro José Luis Guerín, the young and rapidly up-and-coming Mexican director-screenwriter-producer-editor Nicolás Pereda, the “Father of Philippine Independent Cinema” Kidlat Tahimik, and the prominent contemporary Korean screenwriter-director Lee Myung-se. All attended the festival, and they were frequently glimpsed in amateur photo opportunities strolling along Cinema Street.

The twelfth edition of JIFF also offered many promotional and pedagogical opportunities. The long-running Jeonju Digital Project is the best known of the promotional efforts, and it is officially described as a “core program.” Every year this highly acclaimed initiative selects three renowned international directors, each of whom receives funding ($45,500 plus digital film equipment) for the production of a thirty-minute digital film, which premieres in JIFF and then is distributed worldwide. The goal is to stimulate distinguished cinéastes to explore the esthetics of filmmaking. This year’s recipients were French auteur Claire Denis, Guerín, and French cinéaste Jean-Marie Straub. The festival’s highest- profile pedagogical effort was the series of well-publicized master classes given by Denis, the famous film scholar and cinéaste Noël Burch, and the prominent Korean cinematographer Kim Woo-Hyung.

The spotlight this year at Jeonju, not surprisingly, was on Korea. Of the 190 films programmed in the festival, fifty-seven were Korean. The festival emphasized new and recent Korean work in three separate programs: a noncompetitive showcase of fiction and nonfiction features and competitive selections of shorts and of independent documentary and fiction features. At previous editions of JIFF, the winner of the International Competition was screened as part of the closing-night ceremony. That tradition changed this year when festival organizers decided to highlight their own nation’s cinema by showcasing at the closing ceremony the winner of the prestigious Korean Feature Film Competition—the South Korean “documentary,” Anyang, Paradise City.

This debut feature, which was cowritten and directed by the well-known photographer and visual artist Park Chan-kyong, has been described as a metacinematic and postmodern fictional/nonfictional essay whose central plot line is the investigation of a tragic fire in 1988 at the Greenhill textile factory in the satellite city of Anyang, near Seoul, that killed nearly two dozen women workers trapped inside. But the director does not stop with this inquiry; and other investigative threads follow topics such as the city’s mayoral elections, the pros and cons of an urban renewal scheme, the search for a mythical, centuries-old “grandma tree,” the etymology of the name “Anyang,” and public debate concerning the proper approach to preserving an important archaeological site. In addition, folkloric and performance elements appear, as in a colorfully enacted folkloric dance sequence. Too loosely structured for my taste, the handsomely filmed Anyang, Paradise City nevertheless succeeds in presenting a fascinating historical and sociopolitical mosaic of a city.

Another metacinematic project, the fiction feature Pong Ddol, captured the Movie Collage Award in the Korean Feature Film Competition. This award is sponsored by a Korean art-house chain committed to exhibiting the winning feature. Screenwriter-director O-Muel’s beyond-absurd comedy suggests just how difficult it is to produce a feature film about catching the legendary Dotdom—not a typo!—fish off the shores of Jeju Island when an easily offended, overly excitable, and egomaniacal caricature-of-a-film-director possesses an unyielding stubbornness to realize his dream project but unfortunately has no script, no cameras, few actors, and no budget whatsoever. Nor does the semidemolished “office” he works out of have a roof. All this absurd plotting to make a poor-man’s Moby-Dick without appropriate resources and to catch this mythic fish—which may magically possess life-saving powers—represented comedy too broad for me; but it was well received by the young audience at the screening I attended.

Most of the screenings at JIFF were sell-outs; and I was unable to see all the features in the International Competition, which presented a dozen recent documentary and fiction features made by newcomers and “showing the potential of new esthetics in cinema,” as the official catalog description put it. Of the films I did see, one fiction feature stood out. The single-shot Philippine film The Dream of Eleuteria is the debut feature of the twentysomething screenwriter-director Remton Siega Zuasola, a native of Cebu who is now reportedly regarded as a champion of Cebuano culture. In this single travelling shot, lasting ninety minutes, a smoothly dynamic camera follows the central character, a beautiful young woman raised in poverty, who walks along dusty roads and byways with accompanying family members in an effort to leave her impoverished fishing village behind and to reach a port from which she will travel to Europe, where she will become the mail-order bride of a wealthy old German man. Along this route she encounters many of the major figures in her life, such as her boyfriend; and she hears and weighs the principal pro-and-con arguments concerning whether or not she should “sell herself” to a rich person in the developed world for the benefit of her unfortunate family financially mired down in the underdeveloped world. It is easy to criticize this sort of project as being overly minimalist: perhaps the long-take esthetic applied to someone simply walking along is too facile for a feature film; perhaps some of the encounters seem too convenient; perhaps some of the dialog sounds too expository. But for an hour and a half Zuasola does maintain dramatic tension (will the protagonist actually leave her village or not?) while also presenting at the most personal level and in a nutshell the economic dynamics of the unequal North-South relationship. There is even plenty of humor, some of which is provided by a thoroughly-engaging village idiot who just refuses to stay out of the frame. The Dream of Eleuteria deservedly captured the Special Jury Prize.

JIFF’s proliferation of enticing programs caused critics to routinely make tough scheduling decisions; and I did not catch up to the “Stranger Than Cinema” selection, which showcased recent experimental films that represent, in the jargon of the catalog, “the vanguard of alternative cinematic esthetics.” This was the terrain of Jean-Luc Godard (Film socialisme) and Edgardo Cozarinsky (Notes for an Imaginary Biography). However, at this edition of Jeonju edginess and alternative cinematic esthetics were not confined to this program; they repeatedly cropped up elsewhere.

The two edgiest new fiction features I saw were both Spanish. In The Last Circus, screenwriter-director Alex de la Iglesia follows the violent struggles of a “Happy Clown” and a “Sad Clown” for the affection of a beautiful female trapeze artist. The setting is the Spanish Civil War and the postwar period, when Francoism ruled. The film’s allegorical dimensions are clear: Spain is a sacrificed motherland brutally disputed by fascist and antifascist factions that claim to love her, much as, on a personal level, the clowns battle each other for the love of the trapeze artist. The Last Circus is a difficult-to-characterize potpourri of absurd horror, black and macabre humor, cartoonish characters and situations, sensational violence, and historical and epic elements stirred together by master chef de la Iglesia into a cult film, which unabashedly strives to take its Hitchcock and Browning influences to new levels of outrageous excess. The grand finale is a Hitchcockian vertigo-inducing chase sequence atop the giant cross at Valley of the Fallen, the Caudillo’s pharaonic monument to himself outside of Madrid. This overwrought sequence kinetically and succinctly sums up de la Iglesia’s entire project—perhaps not so much edgy as over the top, or, perhaps more accurately put, off the top.

A more successful—because of its artistic coherence and unity—and truly edgy Spanish feature is director-screenwriter-art director Sergio Caballero’s experimental opera primaFinisterrae. In this bizarrely humorous existential road movie, two white-sheeted, hollow-eyed, Russian-speaking ghosts on foot, on horseback, or in a wheelchair travel northern Spain’s medieval pilgrimage Route of Santiago de Compostela in a determined effort to become reincarnated—or simply incarnated. Their spiritual quest eventually leads them to the ocean at “the end of the earth”—hence the title—but not before they have run an interminable gauntlet of weird adventures along the way. These experiences might be characterized as surreal, folkloric, painterly, otherworldly, religious, mystifying, or largely inexplicable: the passage through a forest of words where overly large, pinkish, humanlike plasticized ears sprout directly from tree trunks; an encounter with a solemn, head-swiveling, anthropomorphized “eagle-owl” who wisely communicates his advice from atop a boulder; and an appropriately attired prince who does not hesitate to kiss the first frog he finds snuggled down on the mossy outdoor staircase of his palace. Edgy stuff, indeed. Much of the film’s considerable visual power must be attributed to Eduard Grau’s memorable cinematography, which succeeds in capturing the eeriness of the landscapes, for instance in a mesmerizing, stationary-camera, extreme long shot showing apparently reflected riders moving ghostlike and upside-down along the edge of a pool of blue—is it a lake or is it the sky? Are these apparitions earth-bound or actually “ghost riders in the sky,” as the well-known Western song puts it?

2011 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Portugal and the Republic of Korea. An article in the festival catalog notes the historical similarities between the two countries: in the second half of the twentieth century both experienced sociopolitical crisis, transitions to democracy, and sustained economic growth. Now in the twenty-first century both are enshrouded in an “official mantra of prosperity.” And each country knows little about the other. To pull back this curtain of ignorance, this edition of JIFF mounted, with much fanfare, two extraordinary archival programs of the best of Portuguese cinema produced in the decades immediately before and after the Carnation Revolution in 1974. Since Portuguese cinema is generally little known worldwide, these programs represented unique opportunities for visiting cinephiles, such as myself.

The black-and-white documentary feature Belarmino (1964) is one of the foundational films of the Portuguese Cinema Novo movement; and it is one of the most memorable boxing movies I have ever seen, in part because it unflinchingly reveals the ingloriousness of that business and in part because it unforgettably stars the past-his-prime but still fascinating pugilist Belarmino Fragoso, a man who rose from poverty, hardship, and illiteracy to become a national champion. Director Fernando Lopes skillfully blends probing interviews with footage showing Fragoso in familial, occupational, and leisure situations in order to create an in-depth and multifaceted portrait of this at times hungry, woefully undereducated, and physically battered warrior, and also of the social milieu in which he moved: a shabby bas-fonds Lisbon society mired in backwardness and subjected to the propaganda of Salazar’s authoritarian Estado Novo, which emphasized the (rapidly declining!) glory of Portuguese colonial power and celebrated poverty as an appropriate level of existence for the nation’s people. Space considerations prevent me from discussing the many other gems that appeared in these outstanding archival programs.

The Jeonju Festival seems to have found the perfect formula for interested locals as well as globe-trotting filmmakers, critics, and cinephiles: a warm and cordial atmosphere, well-thought-out organization, engaging pedagogical and promotional outreach, and superb programming. I forgot to pack my Smartphone, but I was never lonely on Cinema Street in Jeonju, where people of today do indeed gather to cure their loneliness through the movies.

Dennis West is a Contributing Editor at Cineaste.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.