I Barely Knew You, Jeonju
An American Indie Filmmaker’s Travelogue to one of Korea’s best events for Cinephiles-Jeonju International Film Festival – (JIFF)
By David Chien
This was my first trip to Korea. I dislike going to a new country if it involves tour groups and shopping. I need real purpose. I require a more complete schedule. A film festival – specifically the Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) – would be my reason to come.
Three things are true of Seoul: The food is great, the traffic is terrible, and you really need to know how to speak some Korean. In Jeonju, the food is even better, the traffic can still be a challenge and…you really need to know how to speak some Korean. But everyone I met was quite helpful. Perhaps they were amused, too, by the fact that I (apparently) look ethnically Korean. My Taiwanese family differs in opinion, of course.
The bus ride from Seoul to Jeonju takes less than three hours. I arrived during the evening of April 28, having missed the first three days of screenings. But I caught up. In five days, I watched 15 feature films and two short film showcases. That’s the thing about film festivals: You cannot watch it all, try as you might. Those who are part of the staff see even less and the hundreds of volunteers (in their bright yellow jackets) see none. I had an ambitious list of 30 films I wanted to catch. This list, as with all lists for nearly every festival, was written in vain.
What about the movies I did see? My favorite film of the festival was Alex Ross Perry’s ‘The Color Wheel’, a tragi-comic American film about the complicated relationship between a brother and sister. The best Korean film was ‘Sleepless Night’ by Jang Kun-Jae. It is a gentle, wise portrait of a young married couple as they decide whether or not they should have a child. Happily, it won the Korean Film Grand Prize and the JIFF Audience Award. Two other big discoveries were Eduardo Nunes’ ‘Southwest’ and Goncalo Tocha’s ‘It’s the Earth Not the Moon’. The former is a surrealist musing on death from the perspective of a woman who experiences her entire life again in a single day; the latter is a documentary of great detail and intimacy which showcases the day-to-day of the people of Corvo, Europe’s smallest island.
JIFF takes chances. They screen abstract, challenging content from the Phillipines like ‘Ex Press’ or the filmography of Laz Diaz (each of his films are six hours long). They program experimental loops typically seen only in museums, such as Martin Arnold’s work wherein a few seconds of Mickey Mouse proves that the sum of its parts can be more meaningful than the whole. They also program their schedule around the clock. It can be relentless. Don’t be surprised to see Japanese silent films being shown in the morning on a Tuesday; people do show up. Tickets are affordable and those college kids from Chonbuk National University definitely make good on that. People are respectful and turn off their smartphones, fight their urge to urinate, and mostly stay through the credits. Coming from the growing epidemic of rude behavior in the American multiplex, this was nothing short of mind-blowing.
In many ways, these events mirror film productions. The communication, coordination, producing, and time constraints involved are really no different from helming a feature film. And it can cost millions. This intrigues me. They become an ultimate week-long party. Film festivals might be the primary source of my wanderlust. What better way to spend time in a new city while avoiding the tourist traps and Zara shops and the growing (and unfortunate) ubiquity of KFC? Watching movies with the locals…it’s the best.
And it went by fast. My one week stay in Jeonju now appears to be a blurred montage of films, bibimbap, and KakaoTalk conversations (and some face-to-face dialogues, too). I spent a great deal of my time in a movie theater and, at times, I would feel like I barely knew you, JeonJu.
Perhaps another trip next April is due.
Since 2000, the Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) has been bringing a variety of alternative and independent cinema to Jeollabuk-do. JIFF brings about 50,000 visitors to the area annually. This year’s festival was held on April 26 through May 4.
David Chien is a filmmaker currently based in Los Angeles, California. He served as an associate producer on Etienne! (www.hamstermovie.com) and a producer on Salad Days (www.saladdaysfilm.com). He is directing a new documentary narrative, Fukushima.