The 18th Jeonju IFF: A Slight Change in Name, No Change in its Commitment to Cinema

by Dean Crawford and Jeonju International Film Festival
Groove Korea Magazine
There’s no denying that the previous 12 months have been fantastic for Korean cinema. The Handmaiden, The Wailing, and Train to Busan all received worldwide acclaim, being certified fresh on American review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes (94%, 99%, and 96% respectively), with the latter already being lined up for an American remake. And in February, The Handmaiden’s Kim Min-hee became the first South Korean actress to win the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for her role in Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone.
 
The last 12 months have also been an excellent time for the city of Jeonju. Once solely thought of as famous for inventing Bibimbap, it was named the third best destination to visit this year, on The Lonely Planet’s ‘Best in Asia’ list, ranking higher than more established locales like Hong Kong and the Trang Islands in Vietnam. On April 27th, some of the best new Korean filmmakers, along with some of the biggest names in world cinema, will spend 10 days in the third best place in Asia (Lonely Planet’s words, not mine…), as the Jeonju International Film Festival returns for its 18th outing. With roughly 220 films from more than 40 countries, the festival is only getting bigger and better every year.
 
Last year’s festival broke several attendance records with 503 screenings (the most ever) of which 219 of them were sellouts (again, the most ever). The popularity of last year’s festival almost certainly comes down to some great strategic planning from festival organizers. Where the festival was once held primarily on Cinema Street, with other screenings and performances dotted all over the city, the opening of a brand new CGV in Gosa-dong meant that all screenings were condensed to several downtown movie theaters, solely along Cinema Street. Outdoor screenings and musical performance stages were erected further along the road, creating a more convenient festival, making it easier to see several films in one day, or to finish off the night watching a live band in the performance zone.
 
As its profile continues to grow, JIFF (rebranded to Jeonju IFF) is now recognized as a “global barometer of current film movement that introduces Independent and Experimental films from around the world.” Whereas other festivals, like Cannes or Busan, rely on star names and sales, the real stars at Jeonju IFF are the films themselves, with former programmer Yoo Un-seong noting, “at Jeonju IFF, the real heroes are the filmmakers who are struggling to make films with uncompromising minds. Jeonju IFF is the best place not only for [relentless] filmmakers to find the right audience, but also for the audience to meet those filmmakers in person, on Cinema Street.” That’s not to say there aren’t films for a mainstream audience, because there are.  David Cronenberg, P.T. Anderson, and Takashi Miike, for example, have all had showings at the festival, but it just highlights the fact that Jeonju IFF isn’t afraid to take risks and challenge its audience with its line-up.
 
With several categories in competition, the talent pool is high. Last year, the Grand Prize in the International Competition was awarded to Elite Zexer’s Sandstorm, which went on to receive a nomination for Best Foreign Language film at this year’s Oscars, narrowly losing out to Asghar Farhadi’s, The Salesman. Past winners include Nobuhiro Suwa for his film Mother, and Canada’s Dennis Cotes for his film Drifting States. There are several other awards for short and feature length international films, as well as awards for Korean Features and Korean shorts.
 
Demonstrating the festival’s dedication to independent cinema and discovering new talent is the Jeonju Cinema Project. Born out of the Jeonju Digital Project, where three filmmakers had carte blanche to produce a short film to be screened at the festival, Jeonju IFF has expanded to feature-length movies, which they finance and then distribute entirely under the umbrella of the Jeonju International Film Festival. So far, the project has been a huge success. Park Jung-bum’s feature film Alive went on to win awards at festivals around the world and well-respected Korean Film magazine, Cine 21, voted another Jeonju Cinema Project, Kim Soo-hyun’s The Great Patriots, as one of the best films of last year.
 
This year marks the first time that three Korean directors will take part in the project, with Lee Chang-jae directing Project N, Kim Dae-hwan helming The First Lap, and Kim Yang-hee making her feature length debut with The Poet and The Boy. It’s interesting to note that Kim won the ‘Feature Film Pitching Grand Prize’ at the Jeonju Project Market in 2016. So it isn’t simply all talk and a catchy slogan, but Jeonju IFF actively encourages and funds new talent.
 
However, it is often the movies and events that are not in competition that generate a great deal of buzz. The ‘Speical Focus’ section allows audiences to become familiar with prominent figures in world cinema such as Pedro Costa, Bela Tarr, and the great Pier Paolo Pasolini.
 
This year’s ‘Special Focus is showing the works of Michael Winterbottom. Regarded by Jeonju IFF as “the filmmaker across the boundaries,” it’s easy to see why they’ve invited this master.  Winterbottom has been making films for over 20 years and if ever the word “eclectic” could be used to describe a director, it would be him. From the acid trip that is 24-hour Party People, to the criminally underrated Sci-Fi love story, Code 46, it feels as if Winterbottom is a director that can do anything. Winterbottom will be participating in the ‘Master Class,’ which is a program to help the audience understand the cinematic artistry of the director, whose filmography consists of over 40 films. This exhibition aims to focus not only on Winterbottom himself, but as programmer Lee Sang-yong explained, to also show “the various points of views on the circumstances in Europe after the 90s.”
 
At the time of writing, 15 of Winterbottom’s works from his vast catalogue are due to be screened.  Highlights being the aforementioned 24-Hour Party People, docudrama The Trip and the controversial 9 Songs, which follows two lovers and their passion for music and each other. Described by The Guardian as “the most sexually explicit film ever made,” 9 Songs was notorious at the time of its release due to graphic scenes containing unsimulated sex. Winterbottom was not the first to use real sex as a storytelling device but, 13 years on, the film does seem tame by today’s standards. You could argue Winterbottom is something of a trailblazer when you consider Blue is the Warmest Color won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and one of the hottest tickets at last year’s Jeonju IFF was Gasper Noe’s Love, which contained full penetrative sex and ejaculations, all in glorious 3D.
 
Elsewhere, there is a healthy selection of animated and short films, and one of the more recent additions to the lineup is ‘Cinematology,’ which aims to educate audiences on filmmakers through film. But for many, including myself, the highlight of the whole festival is Midnight Cinema. This section is comprised of midnight screenings on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, showing three films that run into the early hours of the morning. Whether it be a triple-header showcasing blaxploitation, music documentary, or horror movies, these nights always sell out QUICK, especially the horror movies. From vampires to cannibals, clowns to zombies, there’s a load of fun to be had watching Korean and foreign audiences alike jump out of their skin. It’s even better comparing the zombies on screen to the zombies in the aisles at 6am as students wander aimlessly, honing in on free milk and snacks. After six-plus hours in a theater, the resemblance is staggering. If you can manage to stay up all the way through, it’s a great night.
 
Cinemafest is likely to be the most audience friendly of all the sections showing more mainstream movies. But if you want to see something different and original, ‘Expanded Cinema’ comprises of more experimental and challenging films. However, this section can ultimately be the most rewarding as the whole point of a festival like Jeonju IFF is to find something new and broaden your horizons. And while the festival has always been friendly to local filmmakers, starting this year the Jeonju International Film Festival has introduced the official ‘Local Cinema’ section to support home-grown talent. The majority of the films submitted were made by residents of Jeollabuk-do and mostly shot in and around the area.
 
If you’re not content with a wide array of films from all over the globe costing a mere KRW 6,000 per ticket, or the opportunity to meet legends in their field discussing their movies, the Jeonju IFF lounge provides lectures given by specialists on Korean pop culture, murals displayed by local artists, games, bike rides, and a kids zone where they can engage in arts and crafts. Each year, stands are erected so that festivalgoers can take a break from the movies and watch various live bands perform—all for free! Last year, free beer helped highlight the atmosphere as Long D performed for 1000 fans who were dancing and jumping til the early hours of the morning. Keep an eye out for some of the names that will be performing this year.
 
The much anticipated Jeonju IFF poster has been released which, this year, is meant to symbolize “Outlet for Cinematic Expression” and is a demonstration of the festival’s commitment to diversity and dynamism. With a simple design using a swash of red and one of blue, the imagery is supposed to represent “light.” With Jeonju IFF being a spring festival, this image has been used before, particularly in the 13th and 14th editions. But this year the symbolism has been drastically changed, supposedly becoming more vibrant, looking like a butterfly ready to soar. The hope is that this in turn implies “Jeonju IFF will provide an outlet of expression through diverse movie programs.” This is one area that cannot be doubted when it comes to Jeonju IFF’s programming. The commitment to art and diversity is clear when you look at some of the films shown in previous years, such as Khavn De La Cruz’s Mondomanila, described as a “psychedelic/apocalyptic musical tour of a carnivalesque slum,” which has been a standout of all the Jeonju Film Festivals to date.
 
Compared to Jeonju, the Busan Film Festival feels a lot more commercial, which of course it is—the whole point of a film festival like Cannes or Busan is to find a distributor for your film. But from an audience perspective, a film festival is a place to discover something new and unique. For example, it’s all well and good watching one of the biggest films at 2015’s BIFF, which was Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, starring Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt. But with all the talent behind the camera and in front, it was always going to get a wide release—it was just a matter of when. Consider a film like the aforementioned Mondomanilla—when do you ever get a chance to see a film like that? Those outside of Jeonju IFF who have seen it are few and far between. That is exactly what this festival is all about. As Asian film expert Paolo Bertolin notes, Jeonju was “practically the sole event to place independent productions and avant-garde cinema at the core of its programming.” And despite getting bigger every year, this sentiment still holds true today. Whereas BIFAN aims to astound and BIFF aims to sell, the Jeonju International Film Festival really does keep the art of cinema at its forefront.
 
Besides, even if you don’t like the films, you can always eat the bibimbap.
 
Directions: After taking a bus or train to Jeonju, tell a taxi driver “Geksa Megabox” to get to Cinema Street. From here, follow the yellow jackets who can help you pick up a booklet or buy tickets. Or visit www.eng.jiff.or.kr to purchase tickets in advance. 
 
Four of the best at the 18th Jeonju IFF
 
The line up for the 18th Jeonju International is as impressive as ever. Here are just a select few that have been chosen as potential standouts.
 
On Body and Soul
 
 
On Body and Soul has been given the honor of being this year’s opening film, and it’s easy to see why. The Hungarian drama directed by Ildikó Enyedi has been described by Patrick Gamble of CinemaVue as “a romantic melodrama about the duality of our sleeping and waking personas.” It has excellent reviews and won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
 
The Untamed
 
 
Another big hitter on the festival circuit is The Untamed, which won the Best Director prize at the Venice Film Festival for filmmaker Amat Escalante. Part Mexican realist drama, part love story, part sci-fi, part erotica. Escalante’s previous film, Heli, also won him the award for Best Director at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, so expectations are high for his fourth feature length film.
 
The Emperor’s New Clothes
 
 
One of two documentaries being shown from this year’s “master,”  Michael Winterbottom, follows Russell Brand as he tries to make sense of the growing disparity in earnings between the rich and poor. Love him or hate him, Brand is passionate about the subject matter. “When I was poor and complained about inequality they said I was bitter; now that I’m rich and I complain about inequality they say I’m a hypocrite.” The combination of Brand and Winterbottom should make for compelling yet hilarious viewing.
 
The Trip and The Trip to Italy
 
 
Made for the BBC but released as feature length films, The Trip and its sequel follow comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, or fictionalized versions of themselves at least, as they eat and drink their way around two different countries. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes somber, The Trip and its follow up are a highlight in Michael Winterbottom’s vast back catalogue and well worth your time.
 

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