Eastern promise: Dispatch from the Jeonju International Film Festival
David Jenkins heads to South Korea's Jeonju International Film Festival to sample new films from Claire Denis and José Luis Guerin and finds a lost Portuguese masterpiece in the process
When you finally arrive in town, its immediately apparent that that you’ve strayed into a pocket of frenzied cinephila, as throngs of trendily attired students (never adults) enthusiastically fill out every militantly organised screening. The predominantly youthful vibe of the festival reminds you of ‘Soylent Green’: it’s like all locals over a certain age have been herded into mincing machines and reconstituted into bar snacks.
One of the constant fixtures of Jeonju – and an aspect that gives the festival an essential niche – is its Digital Project, in which programmers annually distribute 150,000,000 Korean Won (which converts to about £85,000) between three filmmakers to produce a bespoke short to be premiered at the festival. In the past, lauded auteurs such as Jia Zhangke, Pedro Costa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang have all delivered short works, and this year showcased a crop of names likely to have any film lover palpitating with delight: Jean-Marie Straub, Claire Denis and José Luis Guerin.
Straub’s ‘An Heir’ was first out of the traps, a pastoral reflection of recent Alsatian history that was made as a companion piece to the 1994 film ‘Lothringen!’ which he made with his late wife and collaborator, Danièle Huillet. Consisting of unadorned medium shots framing a scruffy young man reciting passages from a turn-of-the-nineteenth-century novel by Maurice Barrés, the film succeeds in supplying a vivid sense of a bygone era with the absolute minimum of visual and aural means.
Next was Claire Denis’s ‘To the Devil’, which was largely poo-pooed by festivalgoers but which I found rather revealing. It’s a rough-and-ready 45-minute film in which Denis chronicles a recce to French Guyana where she touches base with the enigmatic Jean Bena, a purported outlaw, ex-Rasta and gold digger who lives in a plush villa that faces the border of adjoining Surinam. Her intention is to use the experience as deep research for a future project, so she duly hauls along a young actor that she hopes to be her Bena. But as matters creep forward and the film’s lack of purpose becomes evident, it suddenly mutates into autobiography: it’s a film about how Claire Denis makes films rather than a straight document of poverty, warfare and expansion. Bena’s descriptions of how he played football alone in the lot behind his house, or how he travelled to Miami to purchase a bulldozer (only to have the government accuse him of facilitating smugglers), already feel like the exotic colour of an as-yet-unmade Denis film.
Last but not least was a new film by Spain’s José Luis Guerin, whose stunning ‘In the City of Sylvia’ was released in the UK back in 2008. His beautiful, on-the-lam essay, ‘Memories of Morning’, continued a preoccupation with the idea of voyeurism, playing off the inborn voyeuristic instincts of the average person against the voyeuristic act of making cinema. He starts by presenting footage of a man playing violin at an open window in an apartment opposite his, then upon announcing that the man committed suicide by leaping from said window, proceeds to piece together his story from the testimonies of those living in the area. It’s beautifully simple, edited and ordered with great delicacy and offering revealing insights on the chasm between physical and emotional closeness.
Elsewhere, the festival delivered a robust line-up of new Korean work, especially the documentaries. ‘Out of the Cave’ by Ahn Kearn-Hyung sought to sum up the workings of humanity and the nature of government by filming some stray cats that had assembled outside the director’s grubby housing complex. It was eccentric and charming enough to stand out, but it could have done with a polish around the edges.
Kim Hee-Chul’s ‘The Time of Lovelessness’ comprised an investigation into the supposed suicide of a young South Korean army lieutenant in 1998. The dead man’s father is the film’s focal point, and his tireless efforts to expose a conspiracy involving the corrupt power structure of the military giving it a good deal of dramatic thrust. Kim bluntly stresses the far-reaching ramifications of what initially appears like a small case, even if, formally, his film is somewhat workmanlike and repetitive.
Cumbersome title aside, the most impressive of the Korean films was Kim Kyung-Man’s ‘An Escalator to World Order’, which almost works as an Asian counterpart to Andrei Ujica’s similarly intoxicating ‘The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu’. Built up from blocks of newsreel footage and propaganda film, the film depicts the nauseously chummy international bond between South Korea and the US during the post-war period. Offering no narration, interviews or intertitles, the film is left open for viewers to ponder the degree of cultural crossover and whether protection from the North Korean nuclear threat was the only reason for this prolonged social and economic affiliation.
One European documentary that greatly impressed was Peter Von Bagh’s magnificent, 250 minute ‘Sodankylä Forever’, which accumulated 20 years' worth of press conference interviews from the ultra intimate Midnight Sun Film Festival in northern Finland – and it's much more exciting that that description suggests. Resolutely unromantic and unorthodox, Von Bagh assiduously pieces together a fascinating alternate history of twentieth-century cinema from the testimonies of film folk as wide ranging as Richard Fleischer, Jerzy Skolimowski, Francis Ford Coppola, Emir Kusturica, Milos Forman, Samuel Fuller, Chantal Ackerman, Abbas Kiarostami and Jonathan Demme, to just skim the esteemed guestlist.
Archive discoveries were also plentiful, as there were no less than four retrospective strands constantly beckoning one away from the new films. A festival highlight for me was the sidebar of rare titles by Portuguese husband-and-wife team Antonio Reis and Margarida Cordeiro. I could have probably spent this entire column (and more!) cheerfully endeavouring to dissect their otherworldy oeuvre, but these films are like newly unearthed fragments of lost ethnographic history, ascribing to few, if any of the tenets of conventional Western filmmaking. Yet, the spellbinding otherness of their style clearly blazed a winding trail for such modern Portuguese masters as Pedro Costa ('Colossal Youth') and Miguel Gomes ('Our Beloved Month of August').
The stand-out title – and one truly in need of widespread rediscovery – was 1984’s ‘Ana’, which focuses on the travails of an extended rural family, with a wayward girl witnessing the passing of her stoical grandmother acting as a metaphor for the inexorable decline of artisan tradition in the countryside. Occasionally this theme is dealt with directly, as in a fascinating 20-minute discourse covering the history of flotation devices and their importance to Portuguese culture. But elsewhere, gorgeously framed shots of colourful rugs, battered rowing boats and a woman carefully placing peppers in the sun to dry speak volumes about the roots of this rich culture. A real find at a film festival clearly unaffraid to probe the farthest fringes of film culture for the sake of a richly diverse programme.
Author: David Jenkins
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