Tuesday, 5 May 2009

2009 Jeonju Film Festival Overview

I attended this year's Jeonju Film Festival and was able to see 15 films over the course of just over 4 days here, probably the highest volume of cinema going in one week for me personally. Obviously, with any large festival, my experience was limited, but overall the festival was strong, if not as exciting as last year's (it is hard to top Satantango).

Of the films I saw, I would rank them as follows:

5 stars

The Mouth Agape (Maurice Pialat, 1974)
High in the Mountains (Hong Sang-soo, 2009)

4 1/2 Stars

Level Five (Chris Marker, 1997)
Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)
A Lake (Philippe Grandrieux, 2009)
Butterflies Have No Memories (Lav Diaz, 2009)

4 stars

The Housemaid (Kim Ki-Young, 1960)
Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain, 2008)
WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Dusan Makavejev, 1971)
Goodbye Solo (Rahim Bahrani, 2009)

3 1/2 stars

A North Chinese Girl (Zou Peng, 2009)
Moonlighting (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1982)

3 stars

Koma (Kawase Naomi, 2009)

2 1/2 stars

Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1971)
The ESP Couple (Kim Hyung-joo, 2008)

Unlike last year, I did get a chance to see a number of newer films, of wildly varied quality, as is to be expected. The ESP Couple was my least favorite, although still mildly amusing. Poor writing and rather broad farce sunk an interesting premise. A North Chinese Girl was at the opposite scale, an exercise in Asian minimalism that felt, unfortunately, like just that, an exercise. The film was enjoyable for me because I prefer long take cinema and the film had a promising opening, but it never came together. The final shot, in its own minimalist way, was just as heavy handed as any mainstream action film.

There were two newer features I quite liked. The American indie Goodbye Solo is an intriguing variation on Abbas Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry, but told from the perspective of the cab driver. The film creates a vivid and unique take on the immigrant experience in America with very few of the cliches. The central relationship is not entirely convincing, but overall the story achieves an understated but resonant impact. Another fine film is Tony Manero, a Chilean drama set during the Pinochet era. The lead character, Raul, a small-time thug, becomes obsessed with Saturday Night Fever and John Travolta's "Tony Manero". This is set against the backdrop of political oppression, in which Raul's behaviour is reflective of the predatory nature of authoritarian capitalism and the American popular culture that accompanies it. Many other films would have turned the basic premise into a disarming comedy, but Larrain is not interested in a simple celebration of consumer culture. The style is at times overblown, but overall a small yet socially astute drama that deserves a wider audience.

My favorite new film was this year's Jeonju Digital Project, in which three directors are asked to make a digital short film for the festival. Hong Sang-soo's film was especially great, and I'll try to write a full post about it shortly. But also very strong was Lav Diaz's Butterflies Have No Memories. The story concerns the hostility felt by the former workers of a goldmine, a resentment that reaches a climax when a former resident, now a Canadian, comes back to visit. The ending of this short uses the form to make a moral statement: the act of passive resistance by one of the characters literally turns the plot of a feature genre film into a 40 minute piece calling for a move forward for the characters and Filipino society. The weakest of the three was Koma by Kawase Naomi, which had some images and threads of intrigue but yet remained too obscure and mystical for my taste.

The director spotlight this year was on Jerzy Skolimowski, whose oeuvre I was unfamiliar with. I saw two films, on the basis of which I am not overly enthused to see more. Moonlighting was the better of the two, a pretty good satirical drama about illegal Polish workers stranded following the declaration of Marshal Law in Warsaw in late 1981. Deep End, from 1971, has not aged well. Its absurd take on a young boy coming of age in London offered nothing that many other films haven't done better, and its truly odd and bizarre ending left me cold. It is strange enough that I probably won't forget it, though.

In addition to many contemporary Korean films, there was also a Korean film retrospective. I was able to see the recently restored 1960 melodrama The Housemaid by the now acclaimed auteur Kim Ki-Young. A heavy stylized drama with a sexually charged plot, it resembled nothing like the traditional reserved classical melodramas from the 1950s. It even contains a framing device in which the same actors comment on the story that we watch. It concludes with the husband directly addressing the audience in a mock warning about the dangers of young women to married men. Kim's heavy-handed style serves to further the distanciation of the audience from the story world, so that the drama is always symbolic and heightened rather than resembling any type of realism. The reality that interests Kim concerns the desires and repressions underlying the traditional Korean family unit.

I'll write about the films of the JIFF Film Critics' masterclass in a separate post. Overall, like I mentioned at the opening, a fine festival this year, although with a weaker retrospective than last year's focus on Bela Tarr. The festival was busier this year, partly because it coincided with some Korean holidays. It certainly does take advanced booking to see the films you want (or any films at all if you wait til the weekend). But the festival still remains committed to the love of cinema itself over the more business centered (and larger) Pusan festival, and is certainly an event I will not miss as long as I am here.

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