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Jeonju Film Festival 2008

By Nicolas Rapold

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The exquisite pairing of Korean hospitality and fine documentaries at the 2008 Jeonju Film Festival, as related by Nicolas Rapold

I was scarcely off the three-hour bus from Seoul to Jeonju before a complete stranger, concerned over my jet-lagged state, bought me a soda. Similar acts of kindness and hospitality brightened my visit for the ninth edition of the Jeonju International Film Festival. This well-curated, nigh-200-film affair, best known for its annual Jeonju Digital Project commissions, takes place in a park-encircled city with the becalmed feel of a quiet European burg and a plentiful supply of bibimbap.

Jeonju also boasts an inspiring number of movie-mad filmgoers, a fact driven home by a sold-out weekday-morning screening of short(er) works by Béla Tarr. Tarr and Alexander Kluge were the subjects of extensive retrospectives, alongside the festival’s recent domestic and international offerings. This year’s Digital Project recruited three African filmmakers—Idrissa Ouedraogo, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, and Nacer Khemir—while Vietnamese and Central Asian cinemas received intriguing sidebars.

The Vietnamese features, while not unknown, comprised one highlight worth quickly mentioning. These films are sometimes slotted as representatives of an underexposed national cinema, chronicling a war-torn period through a native perspective. But Little Girl from Hanoi (75) and When the Tenth Month Comes (84), about an orphan and a widow respectively finding their footing, are entrancing by any standard. The fluid, winding camerawork of Little Girl is virtuosic, while the mournful Tenth Month, also shot in black and white, has the eerie, poetic feel of an artifact surfacing from another era.

Among the Korean productions on display at Jeonju were an unexpected variety of documentaries. Children of God, the standout, follows the gimlet-eyed ragamuffins that live on the sacred grounds of a Hindu temple in Katmandu. Mourners launch funereal offerings into the nearby waters of the Bagmati, and the homeless children dive in to grab coins and any floating items, to no apparent disapproval. Director Yi Seung-jun has rendered an unforgettable portrait of life at the border between the spiritual and the material, in more ways than one. The children’s heightened sensitivity and intelligence, as well as their penchant for harmonizing, make the title not the cliché that it sounds.

The docs of note, perhaps signaling the smaller-scale approaches making inroads during the Korean film industry’s current case of the blahs, also included some rawly emotional works. Despite a television-ready feel and an intrusive voiceover, director Kim Dong-won’s 63 Years On resounds with the defiant voices of its subjects: surviving sex slaves of the Japanese Army during World War II. Breaking taboos of silence, these women comprise not just Koreans but also a Dutch woman from Indonesia, who, demonstrating some of the predictable obstacles at work here, proved instrumental in garnering attention.

Other doc subjects also included a Korean leper colony, and the direct-to-camera long-take recollections of figures surrounding two famous self-immolation protests in 1986. But then there was Action Boys, a freewheeling account of some stuntmen in training. Very hit-or-miss and more tag-along reality-TV than documentary in spirit, it was nonetheless a crowd-pleaser. On the flip side, fiction feature A Broom Becomes a Goldfish fulfills an almost documentary function through its middle-aged sad-sack’s closet-like room in a Korean dormitory, all shot with a glassy, high-angle gaze.

Which brings us to the indefatigable but entirely different eye of James Benning, who was present to introduce Casting a Glance and RR. Both have screened elsewhere, but Benning’s deadpan Q&A sessions again underlined something underacknowledged about an oeuvre that’s become a byword for hands-off still-subject immersion: Benning’s films are also intricately intertextual and filled with elaborate and expressive sound editing, thereby requiring a variety of active attention from the viewer.

And to conclude with the beginning: The Kiss, from Japanese director Kunitoshi Manda, about a woman randomly infatuated with the murderer of a family, was a tough sell for an opening-night film with its long wind-up. But it proved the exception to the rule of a satisfying festival whose 10th anniversary next year will be well worth celebrating.