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DISPATCH FROM KOREA | Jeonju Fest: Eyeing Korean Film, and Some Major Talent

DISPATCH FROM KOREA | Jeonju Fest: Eyeing Korean Film, and Some Major Talent

This year’s Jeonju International Film Festival, the 9th, boasted ten world premieres of features and feature-length documentaries. There was a retrospective dedicated to Bela Tarr, and another to Alexander Kluge. There were works by James Benning and Nina Menkes and sidebars dedicated to Vietnamese and Central Asian cinema. But with the exception of a brief revisit to Kluge’s 1965 debut, “Yesterday Girl” (which still seems remarkable, more than four decades on), it was the Korean films that I chose to focus upon. It only made sense, having come so far to South Korea…

It’s worth pointing out, I think, that every Korean feature I saw at Jeonju was shot on HD digital, and irrespective of their success or failure as individual works, they looked little short of breathtaking — their jewel-like clarity due in part to recent refinements in technology, and partly to the high standard of Korean technicians.

It’s a long way, both in terms of time and achievement, from the muddy anti-aesthetic of the InDiGent and Dogme days, when visual shittiness seemed, for some obscure reason, to be a virtue worth cherishing, signifying some kind of “authentic” experience — a little like the tape-hiss on a Guided By Voices album. For better or worse, these looked like — movies. Real ones. Ones you’d pay to see.

Daytime Drinking,” by energetic multi-hyphenate Noh Young-seok (who according to the credits, served as director, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer, art director, editor and composer), was likened by the festival’s programmers to Yamashita Nobuhiro‘s “Ramblers” (2003), and from its rural settings, to the prevailing tone of bemused indifference, the comparison seemed apt. Maybe too much so: just as Nobuhiro’s films walk a fine line between charm and tedium, and fail more often than they succeed, Noh’s debut was a patchy affair — essentially just a loose series of vignettes, strung together by little more than goofy goodwill. At 116 minutes, though, it soon wore out its welcome.

As, regrettably, did “LaLa Sunshine,” a sleek widescreen murder-mystery. Kim, a creepily introverted young female screenwriter, research a real-life killing for a feature she’s writing, only to find uncomfortable echoes with her own, damaged past. Suddenly she’s confusing herself with her creation (who’s dressed, in a rather clumsy homage, exactly like Brigitte Lin in “Chungking Express“), chopping the heads off fish in a manner that can only be described as “enthusiastic,” and using a four-inch blade to deter the amorous attentions of her director — perhaps the film’s sole concession to realism.

Before long, certainly by the time it became apparent that the film Kim was writing was no more entertaining than the one we were watching, the whole thing began to smack of one of those erotic thrillers — neither erotic nor thrilling — which screen late at night on cable-TV. Worst of all, lead actress Eun-yong Jang, so beguiling in Cho Eun-hee‘s “Inner Circle Line,” wanders through this role like a sleepwalker.

Relief, at least of a kind, came with “Synching Blue,” by writer-director-cinematographer Seo Won-Tae, although its premise hardly inspired confidence. In some anonymous American city, a young Korean man sits around his nearly-empty flat jerking off while watching hardcore porn (judging from the number of used tissues around him, he’s a one-man bukkake show himself), while a Western girl with a limp wanders through various locations (a swimming pool, a highway tunnel) looking either alienated, or vacant, or both.

That these loveless and unlovable misfits should eventually meet, was only fractionally less surprising than the discovery that, when they did, they would hardly set the screen alight; not since Cruise and Kidman in “Eyes Wide Shut,” have an actor and actress so conspicuously failed to spark off each other. The catalogue note — written, like most of the entries, in the fractured Anglophone dialect known to expats as Konglish — concluded with the observation that, “Adhering to obstinacy of cinematic forms, the director aridly portrays the characters who cannot escape at all from their situated tedium.” Evelyn Waugh could not have put it better.

In a similar register was “My Dear Diary,” by Kim Baek-jun and Jung Seoug-wook — a romance so wistful, and in such overweening good taste, it might almost have been an advertisement for female hygiene products.

One could detect the influence of Hong San-soo in its premise (a young man, ostensibly pining for the girlfriend who’s just left for Paris, is soon diverted by another old flame), and also in its milieu: a group of young filmmakers unable to negotiate the unscripted tribulations of real life. But it lacked the acerbic humour of Hong’s films, not to mention the unsparing self-criticism of his best work. Uncritical and inconsequential, it concluded, after 84 very long minutes, with the main couple riding morosely together on a motorcycle – a scene, as my girlfriend observed, not so much “Amelie” as “Anomie.”

Thirsty, Thirsty,” meanwhile, followed the travails of a debt collector — overweight, compulsive, but essentially decent — who unwisely loses his heart to one of his clients, a single mother with dreams of being a pop star. Its vision of a debased world, with everyone in debt to someone else, recalled a weird melange of Japanese influences: the manic nihilism of Kon Ichikawa’s “Mr Pu” (our hero’s name – Mr Goo – seemed an obvious tip of the hat), crossed with the desperation of Naruse. But as the film went on, its tone grew darker, and its humour crueler, and by the time its protagonist, now disappointed in love, became the very monster he’d struggled so hard to outrun, the sour taste in one’s mouth was proving difficult to ignore.

Still, it was at least well-crafted, and no wonder: writer-director Hong Hyeon-gi having served as Lee Chang-dong‘s assistant director on the superb “Peppermint Candy.”

For this viewer, though, the find of the festival was the awkwardly titled “A Broom Becomes A Goldfish,” a debut feature from Kim Dong-Joo. Set in a slum-like complex on the outskirts of Seoul, a hive-like warren of tiny rooms and dismal corridors, it chronicles the days and nights of another decent man, fifty-year-old Jang-pil, who earns a meager living putting up posters around the neighbourhood. Cheated at every turn, his passivity mistaken for weakness, Jang endures the various humiliations visited upon him with stoic calm — right up to the very moment that he snaps, lashing out in a moment of violence as unexpected as it is horrifying.

From this point, the action became steadily more surreal, yet the filmmaker, a former TV producer, never for a moment loses control. Owing much to the unadorned realism of late Bresson (watching, I was reminded of “L’argent“), and imbued with the same stern preoccupation with notions of betrayal and redemption, it was also strikingly composed: framed in a succession of single shots, often mimicking the high vantage of a CCTV camera. As such, it had all the intellectual rigor and aesthetic satisfaction that “Synching Blue,” that other long-take movie, did not. Festivals should take note: it’s an almost defiantly small work, but one which signals the arrival of a major talent.

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