Jeonju Journal Part II: Is This Cinema Utopia?

jeonju film festival

It was somewhat fitting that the 12th Jeonju International Film Festival concluded last Friday with awards to two films that, in their own way, deal with the search for utopia. In some ways the festival is a surreal variation of a cinephile’s paradise, where screenings of challenging art films are packed with hundreds of chirpy Korean teenagers. With 200 films in the program, the festival’s scope is anything but modest. Yet the delegation of distinguished non-Korean guests is small enough that one has opportunities to chat at length with the likes of Claire Denis and Jose Luis Guerin, any number of talented first-time directors, and notable members of the festival jury, like directors Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself) and John Gianvito (The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein). I have yet to attend a festival that offered so much access to so many filmmakers whose work I genuinely admire.

Andersen and Gianvito served on the international jury, which awarded its prize to Jean Gentil by Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán. The title character is an Haitian professor looking for work in the Dominican Republic after being displaced by last year’s devastating earthquake in his homeland.

Jean Gentil is gorgeously shot, almost to a fault (in that it prettifies Jean’s desperate plight), but its camera and staging offer the right mix of observational detachment and humanist empathy towards its subject. It’s a quietly observant chronicle of his vain efforts to rebuild his life in a strange land, while happening upon unexpected moments of poetry. In depicting the dehumanizing effects of the immigrant experience, the film shares much in common with one of my favorite films at the San Francisco Film Fest, Oscar Godoy’s Ulysses.

For another riveting film about migration, watch Mojados on Fandor.

Anyang, Paradise City (dir. Park Chan-kyong)

The award to best Korean feature went to Anyang, Paradise City by Park Chan-kyong, whose brother is Park Chan-wook of OldBoy fame. The film is a poetic, shape-shifting blend of documentary and fiction that explores its title city’s troubled past and multifaceted present. It’s almost certainly influenced by the likes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Jia Zhang-ke (but if you’re going to draw from anyone, it might as well be two of the best directors working today). Whatever precursors it may draw from, the film confidently establishes its own incantatory presence, weaving through political demonstrations and outdoor dance routines, architectural discussions and erotic dream sequences, moving fluidly from one evocative space to the next.

Watch great South Korean films In Between Days and Tell Me Something on Fandor.

Not everything in Jeonju was a vision of paradise; certainly not the world of Marxist filmmaker and theorist Noël Burch, who gave a two hour presentation following a screening of The Forgotten Space, which he co-directed with artist Allan Sekula. The documentary is a film essay on dystopic state of modern sea trade, a largely hidden manifestation of global capitalism, which the film argues is bringing the world to economic and environmental collapse. Spanning across sea ports around the world, The Forgotten Space is as manifold in observational incident as Anyang, Paradise City, though less artfully crafted (perhaps to its credit, as artfulness risks distracting from the state of crisis being presented).

Burch’s presentation focused on the art and history of the film essay, and offered a small trove of hard-to-find samples from the genre: Georges Franju’s Hotel des Invalides, Joris Ivens’ Rotterdam Europoort, excerpts from Dziga Vertov’s Kino Glaz and Francoise Romand’s stunningly neglected Mix-Up / Meli-Melo. I don’t know how many of the kids in the audience realized how lucky they were to see these super-rare treasures, but the 79 year-old Burch’s fusty manner of discussing them probably didn’t engender much enthusiasm. Burch used these film essay precursors ultimately to lament his own self-described failure to make The Forgotten Space an effective work, bemoaning its failure so far to secure a distribution deal and consignment to “minor festivals” (among which he included Jeonju).

For a powerful look at the cost of globalization, watch A Killer Bargain on Fandor.

Claire Denis (still recovering from her epic drinking party with Hong Sang-soo) speaks to the press while Noel Burch sulks

Remarkably, Burch held up Michael Moore as a shining example of someone who had figured out how to make the leftist film essay connect with today’s popular audiences; otherwise, his talk left a terminal air of bitterness and disillusionment. It was maybe the only time that I saw members of the fest’s young Korean audience, unbelievably polite and seemingly game for anything, walk out in mid-session. (Claire Denis fared somewhat better in her masterclass, though she was visibly hampered and slow to speak, and ended her presentation with a curious coda: “Korean directors drink too much!” It turns out her condition was caused by an epic night of partying with Korean director Hong Sang-soo [and anyone who has seen Hong’s films would know what is involved]).

On the far opposite of the festival guest spectrum there was Jose Luis Guerin, who affably greeted anyone wanting to talk with him.  He was spotlighted in a sidebar retrospective of his films, coinciding with his new short “Memories of a Morning” for the Jeonju Digital Project. In addition to “Memories,” I caught up with his newest feature, Guest, a first-person docu-chronicle of a year of his life on the world festival circuit. Over time, the film gradually spends more time outside the festival venues and wanders into adjacent neighborhoods, taking in public spaces and chatting up the locals, leading to some remarkably intimate moments (most memorably a conversation in a young woman’s bedroom in a Havana hovel). The film seems to be a reaction against the coddled culture of festivals, juxtaposing its insider-ness with the realities of the outside world, and what role cinema has in filling the forgotten space between.

For more festival insider action, watch the documentary con job Cannes Man on Fandor.

But if we want to talk about creating completely new spaces on screen, we need to talk about Ben Rivers. His 45 minute four-part whats-it Slow Action was perhaps the most uniquely inexplicable thing to play at Jeonju, even though it seems comprised of familiar elements.

Foreboding footage of desolate island locations are set to creaky music and narrated text sourced from some kind of encyclopedic travelogue of alluringly nonsensical factoids (“Anus Isle, rich in dingleberries.”) The overall effect is one of trance-like disorientation, like getting lost in a distant world whose darkening danger is part of the allure. In other words, the utopia of the movies.

Watch amazing avant-garde and ephemeral films on Fandor.

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