This year’s Jeonju International Film Festival (JEONJU) was the first important Asian film event in May (28 May – 6 June). It first attempted to hold the event during its regular dates in April before the spread of COVID-19 but it was not possible. Against all odds, they held the festival the following month with these health precautions: online screening (28 May - 6 June), offline theater screening for juries and film delegates plus market programme (28 May - 2 June). Thereafter, the organisers will hold offline screenings in Jeonju cinema street theaters. Thankfully, JEONJU owns a 98-seat hall – the JEONJU Cine complex, and the films will be there until 20 September for the general audience. However, after 9 June, this extended screening was slightly delayed because of the spike of COVID-19 infections in Korea (On 11 June, there were 45 patients – 40 of whom were community-infected, while five were foreign).
This year, the 21st JEONJU introduced 180 films from 38 countries, of which 97 films were premiered and only available online. The Korean audience paid for 7,048 online views. Each film cost 7,000KRW (USD$6) for one feature film or one short programme. About 350 film delegates attended and participated directly in the festival. From this year, the new festival director, Lee Joondong (appointed last December), as well as the two programmers (CHUN Jinsu and MOON Seok) who have recently joined, had to struggle to prepare this pandemic era JEONJU. According to the programmers, 250 films were selected for this edition but only 180 were included because certain screening rights holders didn’t agree to extended or online screenings. Fifty-nine new Korean films were selected and JEONJU auteur favourites such as Denis CÔTÉ, Edgardo COZARINSKY and James BENNING had their online premieres here.
South Korea is a film festival country. Until last year, a variety of festivals were held annually from April to November. Since March this year, every festival has been looking for the best way to organise their event during this pandemic crisis. JEONJU decided on online screenings for the general audience with WAVVE (OTT platform for Koreans), and theater screening for juries and guests only. Recently, film festivals holding online editions used various platforms for copyright protection such as blocking restricted countries or fixing variable premiere screening time. Since total copyright protection for online screenings may not be achievable, film festivals should remember their two core roles - giving Koreans an opportunity to watch trends in new cinema and introducing good Korean independent films overseas. For JEONJU, this second role was not achieved as many foreign film festival programmers or press could not see them.
JEONJU did its best for protection against COVID-19. For theater screenings, the opening and award ceremonies, guests had to wear latex gloves/masks. At the entrance, they were checked for fever and the seats were cleaned with sanitizers. An award winner quipped that he could smell the Latex gloves even at the ceremony.
Furthermore, no guests from abroad were invited, and all competition sections had only Koreans as jury members. Some film festivals hold online jury discussions for the final selection but in my case, I felt it was important to hold the final jury debate in person. While our deliberation was lengthy, we could debate our thoughts and ideas fully. If we had to do this online, it would have taken far longer and it would have been harder to reach a conclusion.
However, theater screenings were arranged for international and Korean feature/ short competitions. For the NETPAC Award, we were requested to watch the nominated films by preview links. Nevertheless, our final decision was not hampered by online preview.
The NETPAC jury’s decision was The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs by Pushpendra SINGH (India). There were eight nominated films – all fiction. Five were from Japan, with one each from China, Hong Kong and India. The award-winning film successfully re-translates 14th century literary treasures into passionate and spiritual lyricism, filled with rich symbols and the magnificent Himalayan landscape. Singh’s directorial approach was enriched by fascinating cinematography. In addition, it was good to know that he had visited JEONJU as an actor in 2010 and that his next work is imminent.
The other seven nominees were Naito Eisuke’s Forgiven Children, Miyazaki Daisuke’s Videophobia, Yukiko Mishima’s Shape of Red, Ikeda Elaiza’s Town Without Sea, Ikki Katashima’s Naomi (from Japan), Leung Ming Kai and Kate Reilly’s Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down (Hongkong) and Diao Yi’nan’s The Wild Goose Lake (China).
This year’s special programme was the Quay Brothers’ retrospective (films will be shown by extended offline screening) and exhibition. For safety, we needed to book online one day before. At the venue, we had to provide personal information and get our temperature checked before entering. Every 30 minutes, only 15 people were allowed to enter free of charge. One of their famous shorts, Street of Crocodile (1986), was screened continuously and the Quay Brothers’ puppets in the deco box were absolutely enchanting. It was good to see their real, authentic, detailed work. Aside from JEONJU, some small film festivals held their events offline by following strict protection rules without any online screenings.
Fortunately, there has been no news so far of anyone being infected by the virus after watching films in the theatre. Recently, Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival announced both online and offline screenings for the coming edition. Also, Ulju Mountain Film Festival (which tried to hold its edition in early April had to change their dates to 23 - 27 October) is also deciding on its festival format.
Before a vaccine is developed, film festivals are challenged to overcome these socially-distanced times by inventing new formats of existence. But I still believe that festivals are essentially meeting places for cinema, film professionals and the audience. It’s just that a new version for this brave new world has yet to be found.
-- by Jinna LEE
Jinna LEE is currently Programmer at the Ulju Mountain Film Festival. Before joining Ulju, she started her film festival career at the JEONJU International Film Festival from 2005. She went on to the Jecheon International Music & Film Festival, DMZ Docs, Busan International Short Film Festival and the International Intangible Heritage Film Festival in Korea.