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Jeonju International Film Festival: Cutting-Edge Films in an Ancient Capital

My Missing Aunt

Jeonju International Film Festival, which has become over the last two decades one of the must-go fests in East Asia, prides itself on its innovative curation. The 25th edition in 2024 was packed with film folk, especially from East and Southeast Asia. They were making their way through a thicket of information on 232 films, almost half of which were Korean. (Translators helped with Q&A sessions, and with interviews, and films were typically subtitled in English.) In their spare time, attendees were wandering through historic streets (Jeonju is the origin city of Korea’s great Joseon empire, familiar to viewers of historical K-dramas) and meeting for chats in wooden teahouses under clay rooftiles.

Secrets of success.

With support from Disney and other corporate donors, as well as the local government promoting tourism, the festival had been able to weather a crisis created by the current, right-wing national Korean government pulling back its support. Korean festivals typically anchor their budgets in predictable government stipends. This government, however, cut back support for the entire independent film sector, where themes and perspectives might not align with governmental priorities. That included suddenly zeroing out festivals. It didn’t stop Jeonju, which also has sales (its shows are regularly sold out, and there are lines for its merch store) to draw upon.

But its thoughtful curation and design is what keeps Jeonju unique. The festival is committed to new voices in cinema; thus, its policy of inviting into competition only directors of first or second films, and its grants to new(ish) filmmakers. For Yosi Kim, whose Chronicle in Spirals links two stories of college kids in crisis, the festival’s acceptance of her first film—which incorporates part of her thesis work for her degree—is a proud badge of legitimation. “People think now you’re a ‘real filmmaker.’ It’s an honor,” she said. The fest is committed to the art of film, and thus its showcasing of experimental and nonconforming work, like Minwook Oh’s wistful Letters from a Shattered Landscape, set in Korea and Taiwan, and Victor Kossakovsky’s mind-blowingly spectacular Architecton, in which quarrying rock becomes an overpowering metaphor for the hubris of human civilizations.

The fest also supports local cinema, whose perpetual crisis is only exacerbated in the current Korean political climate. This year, the festival created a showcase for local independent cinema, some of which is supported by grants from the festival. Meanwhile, local filmmakers protested government cutbacks, while also cheerfully welcoming viewers, outside the cinemas.

It has not always been easy for the festival to maintain its focus on innovative, aesthetically adventurous cinema and carve out a safe space for cinematic conversation. Soyoung Kim, a filmmaker, academic and feminist, and a mentor for many, remembered the early days. A founder of the festival, she recalled the rocky relationship with authorities who had no experience—or comfort level—with a woman in authority. Finally, local government authorities replaced her. “But the festival has kept all the programs we started,” she recalled, over drinks in a party held in an ancient Joseon courtyard. “They have the local programs too, and they serve the people of Jeonju well.” The festival also was rocked by controversy a couple of years ago, when the conservative government brought in a film actor new to the indie scene, Junho Jeong, to co-lead the festival. Some stalwarts feared weakening of mission, but this year’s showcases speak for themselves.

Viewing pleasures.

Jeonju audiences are famous for their appetite for independent cinema, their risk-taking, and their ability to show up early and often. Polish director Pawel Hejbudzki, whose Early Apex showed out of competition, was impressed with the thoughtful and engaged questions from the mostly-Korean audiences. He also savored the respect he saw for the art of cinema, something he fears is getting washed away in the flood of commercial streamer product.

While Jeonju was celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Korean Film Archive was celebrating its 50th. Filmgoers sank into well-crafted dramas of the ’60s, ’70s and beyond, even as they sank into the state-of-the-art lounge seats of the cinemas. The existential angst of Mist (1967)—filmed in a velvety black-and-white captures a moment in Korean history, when after the Korean War had devastated the country, hyper-rapid industrialization and urbanization shocked the nation into a modernity in which they could not recognize themselves. A successful businessman leaves Seoul to visit his mother’s grave in the misbegotten backwater of a town he hated, to discover the same grasping commercial pursuit and alienation he had left. March of Fools (1975) is a riotous, goofy look at college kids trying to be cool, trying to find love, and backing into growing up. “I think these were some of my favorite films in the festival,” said filmmaker-critic Masato Kobayashi, visiting from Tokyo.

Remembering tragedy.

Korean documentaries were prominently featured at Jeonju’s 25th anniversary, partly because it was also another anniversary. This was the tenth anniversary of a marking tragedy in Korean public life: the Sewol Ferry disaster. On April 16, 2014, a ferry carrying hundreds of high schoolers on a school trip sank over three days. The crew escaped. But of the passengers, few were rescued; hundreds died, over the course of days. The victims were able to stream their plight on social media, call their parents, strategize how to save each other. Over the days the ferry sank, confoundingly, the Korean government did not coordinate a rescue, even as it announced it had. Since then, no one has been able to explain why, or even why the ship sank. In the absence of data, and in the presence of active governmental suppression of both information and protest, conspiracy theories have bloomed. So has general distrust of government and big media, and a militant movement of bereaved parents. Indeed, many dissident and protest movements have sprung up in Sewol’s wake; some were effective, along with the bereaved parents, in winning impeachment of the conservative president in charge during the disaster.

The festival showcased new work of remembrance around Sewol, some of which opened up new perspectives. Prominent among the works was that of the Pinks, a Korea-famous gender-activist filmmaking group. The Pinks originally approached Jeonju about doing the showcase, in fact. Their omnibus film Three Sides to Every Story, features films by three directors, each of which goes beyond the themes and tone of previous work. In one, by Hyunsook Joo, journalists describe their frustrations in trying to report what was actually happening, while editors headlined government lies (“Everyone has been rescued!”), and changed or killed their reporting. In another of the omnibus films, by Younghee Han, two bereaved families describe coping in the aftermath. A mother describes not being able to cancel her son’s phone account; she still texts him. One young man looks nostalgically back a decade: “We were always happy. All my friends were still alive, then.” And in the third, by Jisoo Oh, two friends describe the holes in their lives made by the absence of the third of their BFF trio. A fiction film also produced under the Pinks’ aegis, Kyoungsoo Shin’s When We Bloom Again, features a father driven mad by his grief, and the efforts of his family, friends and neighbors—also grieving—to bring him back to his life. In the young tradition of Sewol storytelling, the engrossing tale innovates in its focus on how people find courage, after a decade of marching, screaming and demanding the truth, to live again after their personal physical and emotional catastrophes.

Remembering brutality.

Remembering can be a fraught enterprise in South Korea, where the last 150 years could be construed as one long national trauma. Japanese colonialism, followed by civil war amplified unbearably by Cold War politics, and decades of authoritarian rule followed by fragile democracy have left land mines in public memory everywhere.

But Korean filmmakers persist, often riding the tide of social movements. Their memory work resonates far beyond the Korean peninsula, as well, both for the stories they tell and the ways they tell them. Gwangcheon-dong, Mr. Kim offers a new perspective on a well-known massacre, the 1980 brutal suppression of a pro-democracy movement in Gwangju, which now has its own museum, cemetery and memorial there. Codirectors Donghee Park and Hwangyeong Kim get to know the last residents of an apartment building that grassroots democratic supporters built out of the wreckage of the Korean War, led by one of the leaders of the pro-democracy movement. He became a martyr in 1980, when he was tortured so brutally he never recovered. Kim moves into the complex, now scheduled for demolition, to salvage memories before it’s gone. The man’s widow befriends him, and community forms across generations as memory revives.

The force of recent feminist and gender-nonconforming activism are evident in several of the Korean documentaries at Jeonju this year. Sungwoong Kim’s Arirang Rhapsody rescues the stories of the last remaining survivors of the 1930s-1940s generation of Korean women who went to work in Japan, by a Korean-Japanese director honoring his own mother’s memory; they recount bitterly hard lives, and they dream of return. Wonsik Lee’s A Song of Korean Factory Girls recovers the stories of Korean girls—often recruited in their tweens—who worked imprisoned and nearly enslaved in Japanese textile mills in the 1930s and 1940s. The film artfully combines graceful re-enactment with interviews of ancient women still living with indelible, nightmarish memories.

Hyewon Jee’s Voices recovers long-hidden women’s histories from the infamous massacres of 1948 on Jeju island (known in Korea as 4/3, using the same kind of shorthand Americans use for 9/11). The U.S.-backed government’s suppression of support for grassroots, socialist democracy party (the party also supported in the North) was so brutal that entire villages were eliminated and perhaps a tenth of the population murdered. This film tells the story of young women, who often tried to find sanctuary in local caves from rape, sexual enslavement, or forced marriage. But if they were found there together, they were often murdered in groups, not before being used sexually. The film tells this story not only with the testimony of people whose parents survived, and the historical record. It also uses the unspoken evidence of trauma and the shame-enforced smothering of memory—one ancient woman has been silent her entire life, for instance. Silence speaks loudly in the powerful storytelling of Voices, which has carved out new space in women’s history.

Finally, Juyeon Yang’s My Missing Aunt explores a long-forbidden topic—domestic violence—through the story of the director’s aunt, who is mysteriously missing from the family albums. Recovering her story becomes a recovery of family relationships, and it involves breaking patriarchal traditions that have long suffocated the truth. Its interwoven narratives of detective work and remaking of family relationships is superbly crafted, and the film will travel well.

Music and masters.

Not all memory-making involves trauma. Hee Yang’s Words from the Wind is that rare delight, a Korean music documentary with a soul. Using deep archives from the Korean broadcaster KBS, she and producer husband Wook Steven Heo use interview, archival clips and sound to recreate the life story of Korea’s most beloved songwriter, Hee-gap Kim.

If you needed a break from looking for new talent (the selection of Korean shorts was sifted from more than a thousand entries!), there were reliable masters to turn to. Valeria Sarmiento rescued work of her husband Raúl Ruiz done during the Allende years in Chile, a sometimes sardonic and darkly funny revisiting of that time, Socialist Realism; although the work is unfinished, it is full of rewards, including the electrifying verité scenes of joyous workers. Japanese observational documentary master Kazuhiro Soda’s latest work The Cats of Gokogu Shrine was a sold-out ticket. 

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