The Korean blogathon concludes today, so I thought I would contribute one final post for the week. Thanks to Martin at New Korean Cinema and to cineAWESOME! for hosting this week. You can find the blogathon's link page here.
In less than two months, the 12th Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) will open (April 28-May 6). This will be my fourth year attending, and it is my favorite of Korea's festivals, even more so than the Pusan (now Busan) festival. It does not attract the same prestigious new films as Busan, but it makes up for this with its retrospectives and JIFF master classes. In 2008, I was able to attend a screening of Bela Tarr's 8 hour SATANTANGO, followed by a Q & A with Tarr. In 2009, there were master classes with film critics Raymond Bellour, Richard Porton, and Adrian Martin. Last year, film directors Bong Joon-ho and Pedro Costa gave extended lectures as part of the master class program. These are experiences other festivals rarely offer, and why Jeonju is such a popular destination for true film lovers. Another unique aspect is the annual Jeonju Digital Project, in which three filmmakers are given 50 million won (approximately 50,000 dollars) to make a roughly 30 minute short film (the actual running times vary from 12 to 43 minutes, although most are close to the 30 minute mark). The festival has attracted a great range of directors, including many of the last decade's most prominent international auteurs. The full line-up is:
2000: Park Kwang-su, Kim Yun-tae, Zhung Yuan
2001: Jia Zhang-ke, John Akomfrah, Tsai Ming-Liang
2002: Suwa Nobuhiro, Moon Seung-wook, Wang Xiaoshuai
2003: Bahman Ghobadi, Aoyama Shinji, Park Ki-yong
2004: Bong Joon-ho, Yu Lik Wai, Ishii Sogo
2005: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsukamoto Shinya, Song Il-Gon
2006: Darezhan Omirbayev, Eric Khoo, Pen-ek Ratanaruang
2007: Harun Farocki, Pedro Costa, Eugene Green
2008: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Nacer Khemir
2009: Hong Sang-soo, Kawase Naomi, Lav Diaz
2010: James Benning, Denis Cote, Matias Pineiro
2011 (upcoming): Jean-Marie Straub, Claire Denis, Jose Luis Guerin
I have seen the 2009 and 2010 projects, and have purchased the box set issued by the festival that includes the 2000-2008 films. I've been (slowly) making my way through these films, and thought I'd offer a couple of reviews for two of the Korean films in the collection: Park Kwang-su's http://www.whitelover.com (2000) and Bong Joon-ho's Influenza (2004). Park and Bong are representative of two different movements and generations of Korean cinema. Born in 1955, Park made his feature debut in 1988 with Chilsu and Mansu and became one of the major figures of the Korean New Wave with such socio-political dramas as Black Republic (1990) and A Single Spark (1995). Over the past decade he has become less prominent within Korean cinema, as the shift has been made to the less politicized and more mainstream New Korean Cinema. Bong represents this newer movement. Born in 1969, he made his feature debut in 2000 with Barking Dogs Never Bite. He has gone to huge success over the past decade with Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006), and most recently Mother (2009). While certainly not without social interest, Bong's work is less directly political and certainly more exportable than the films Park and other New Wave filmmakers were making.
Despite this, the two films, perhaps because of their short, digital form, have certain similarities. Most notably, both are about the technological changes within the culture and the effect of this on individual characters. http://www.whitelover.com is a contemporary, Korean take on a familiar art-house genre, the film about filmmaking. The plot revolves around Hayan, a former internet porn star (hence the title) working in an art house film who is nevertheless subtly pressured into a nude scene.
The film opens with digital images of her porn site, and then with news that she will be starring in a "Chungmuro art film". The first dialogue is of Hayan on her cell phone, talking about the scene she is about to shoot and claiming it is not a sex scene, but a love scene, very different from the porn she used to make.
However, during the "love" scene, the director decides he needs to film her without any underwear, for "technical" reasons. Hayan eventually agrees, but the film ends by stating that she did not return after the first day of shooting, and that her website remains down. At first, the familiarity of the plot and theme makes the film somewhat off-putting, and there is a certain obviousness and didacticism here, things that are not uncommon in Park's work. However, by the conclusion, it ended up working for me.
While the exploitation of female actresses and their bodies is well-known and established, the actual emotion on Hayan's face as she fakes an orgasm has a visceral power. Park's cutting from this to the images on her porn site make for an effective conclusion, partly because it leaves open some interpretation to the audience. Why is this experience worse for Hayan than the porn films? Is it simply her shattered expectations? Is it the fact that she is not in control of the means of production? Has she realized her porn background has forever marked her as simply a porn actress and nothing more? http://www.whitelover.com is not as full and original a treatment of these themes as many of its art cinema predecessors, most notably Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963), but given its form it really can't be. What it does (at least partially) successfully is update this theme to the contemporary digital age.
Influenza is a film even more concerned with digital technology, as it is filmed entirely with CCTV footage, tracing a single man's descent into crime. There are ten different scenes, beginning with the man, Cho Hyuk-rae, contemplating suicide (November 12, 2000) and ending with him trapped and about to be captured following a robbery and assault.
Given the limitations of the running time and budget, Bong created a rather ingenious narrative and stylistic form, limiting himself to this kind of primitive, early cinema, moving from black and white to color, and even including one camera that pans, although mechanically and without concern for capturing the action. It also contains a great deal of social commentary, although without any explicit agenda. We can see the forces at work that cause this man's fall, reducing him to a homeless man who has to turn to crime. And the constant surveillance itself feels like part of the oppression, the idea that one man's life can be tracked and turned into a cinematic entertainment without his knowledge. Watching the film, especially the conclusion, I was reminded of Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold (2003). I do not know it was a direct influence, although Bong's Memories of Murder and Crimson Gold both played at many of the same festivals that year (Cannes, Toronto, Hawaii, Rotterdam). Like Panahi's great film, the crime here is seen within its context. It is not as rich a film in its social observation as Crimson Gold, but given the short form, Bong is able to create something special here, in my opinion his best work besides Memories of Murder.
Of all the Jeonju Digital Project films I have seen so far, my favorite, not surprisingly, is Hong Sang-soo's Lost in the Mountains. You can read my review from 2009 here.