Jeonju International Film Festival celebrates its 20th year with aplomb, welcoming tourists and locals with remarkable curation, warm hospitality, and impressive organization. With over 270 films from 53 countries and new sections introduced specially for the occasion (Newtro Jeonju and 100 Years of Korean Cinema), the festival, held in South Korea’s food capital, remains a massive cultural attraction for the city. Thousands of film professionals and young students alike flock to the screening venues, filled with anticipation for local and foreign films, both on the big screen and on VR. The lovely spring weather is perfect not only for indulging in the wide array of movies (whose tickets have sold out fast) but also for trying the nearby restaurants that offer some of the finest Korean cuisine — art and culture coming together in one of the world’s most vibrant cinema cities.
This year’s NETPAC program in Jeonju is notable for its diversity not only in terms of subject but also in terms of the storytelling form. With almost half of the selection being documentaries, there is a clear statement on the significance and urgency of telling stories outside the conventional narrative. In the eleven films under the NETPAC program, the audience is treated to various studies of life in the midst of war, in the difficulties of growing up in a society full of trouble, and in the complexities of bridging the past, present, and future.
Two films from Syria are powerful documents of war: Still Recording (dir. Saeed Al Batal and Ghiath Ayoub) is a distillation of over 450 hours of footage shot on the ground between 2011 and 2015 by several young filmmakers (one of who has died during the production), smuggled out of the country before getting picked up by European producers and winning in Venice. Timely and urgent, skillfully edited and vigorously delivered, the film transports the audience to the actual war zone with gangs and soldiers and civilians in between, framing them in both their human spaces and political positions. It creates a nuanced and moving picture of lives spent in fighting, of people who choose to live and die for their country. On the other hand, Commander Arian: A Story of Women, War & Freedom (dir. Alba Sotorra) centres on the eponymous Arian, a 30-year-old Kurdish resistance leader of the YPJ — Women Protection Units — whose goal is to emancipate the people, particularly the women, in Kobane from ISIS. It is a simple film with complex undertones, allowing the audience to walk a mile in her shoes as it captures Commander Arian at her bravest and most vulnerable.
Meanwhile, the four films from Japan are curious takes on various life themes such as finding connection, solidarity, love, and coming of age. Makuko (dir. Keiko Tsuruoka) is about a meek, ordinary boy befriended by an intimidating transfer student who, as it turns out, is an alien from another planet. It is a charming, little romance that has its share of quirky and touching moments, along with contrived plots and dramatic devices that weaken its premise. As far as love stories go, Speak Low (dir. Akira Yamamoto) may be more satisfying overall, but it requires patience. Not only does it unfold slowly; sometimes it does not get anywhere — and perhaps that’s the point. It follows a couple, Sara and Ryo, on a trip to Atami, as he expresses his desire to marry her but she is indifferent to his proposal. Borrowing from the leisurely styles of Tsai Ming-liang and Hong Sang-soo, Yamamoto delivers an assured debut film, but one whose indulgence does not always work.
Moonless Dawn (dir. Harika Abe) shares the languid pace and amorphous form of Speak Low, except that it is not about a romantic couple but about three teenagers who seem to be very unhappy about living in this world, troubled at school and in their homes, their facial and body language expressing not just discontent but also indifference. For audiences looking for a change in tone and genre, The Kamagasaki Cauldron War (dir. Leo Sato) can offer a respite, with its mix of comedy and tragedy that alternates between slapstick and weepy melodrama, and sometimes both at the same time. Kamagasaki, a slum community in Osaka that the Japanese government does not recognize, is home to thousands of homeless laborers, and in the film these people manifest are shown as human characters.
The most beautifully photographed film in the program is The River (dir. Emir Baigazin). Every frame of it is a painting, every silence a piece of music, and every movement a dance. It is a visual masterpiece set in a dry and dusty village in Kazakhstan, where the routine lives of five brothers under the strict command of their father are suddenly disturbed by the visit of a city boy with his tablet. As the film’s director, writer, cinematographer, and editor, Baigazin crafts a beguiling tale of the perils of patriarchy and tradition in the age of new media. The Gold-Laden Sheep and the Sacred Mountain (dir. Ridham Janve) is not as sophisticated as The River, but visually its efforts have achieved something close. Shot in the mountains and vast plains of the Himalayas, the narrative treads between truths and myths, creating, along the way, this enigma that reveals the power of nature and the smallness of man.
What the last three films from the NETPAC program share is the keen sense of innovation as well as the courage of their directors to break away from conventional forms of cinematic storytelling. For instance, Present.Perfect. (dir. Shengze Zhu) challenges the traditional components and notions of the documentary. Through the collection and selection of actual video footage, the film draws attention to the popularity of live streaming in China, where people of different age groups and social classes use the platform to share their day-to-day personal experiences and engage strangers in their lives. Erased, Ascent of the Invisible (dir. Ghassan Halwani) is an essay film that examines the civil war in Lebanon and the thousands of people who disappeared during those years. Articulated through painstaking research, deep introspection, reflective conversations, and the physical acts of excavating the vanished on the concrete walls of the streets which lay witness to the many battles fought, the film is remarkably personal as it is movingly political.
Finally, The Harvest (dir. Misho Antadze) hails from Georgia, the country best known for wine production and bitcoin mining, two means of production and labor process which the film brilliantly links and explores as entities of time. Contained in this broad intersection between agriculture and cryptocurrency are the sounds and images that render the present as a philosophical problem, and as it progresses it raises questions that confound one’s understanding of existence and challenge the future of capitalism and culture.
-- Richard Bolisay
-- Edited by Latika Padgaonkar