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Jeonju 2024: Walker, A Chronicle in Spirals, Puan

A man with bare feet walks very slowly, surrounded by an observing crowd, in Korea.Lee Kang-sheng demonstrates his Walker technique at the Jeonju International Film Festival

“I’m so happy,” producer Park Tae-joon said at the Jeonju Cinema Project awards, one of the ceremonies indicating the festival was drawing to a close. “Every day I drank […] festival drinking.” Park’s admission was funny and honest, the kind of thing no one on-stage at an American festival would say even/especially if it were true (bad optics). But in fact, Jeonju was one of the most temperate festivals I’ve ever attended, with official parties ending by 10:30 or 11 and many choosing to go back and sleep after that. They could, if they liked, go to Soseul, unofficially dubbed “the Hong bar” (a letter from Hong Sang-soo to the owner hangs on the wall) and locally beloved enough to be the subject of a documentary, The Traveling Novel, shown at this year’s festival. But generally, the people around me didn’t go for more, which no complaints: I’ve aged out of that category, and the reasonableness of the proceedings was conducive to morning screenings and, even better, walks by the river cutting through Jeonju’s absurdly verdant mountains. Tsai Ming-liang was attending with a retrospective of his ten “Walker” films to date, in which a red-monk’s-robe-garbed Lee Kang-sheng walks as slowly as possible through various locales (see above). At a press conference, Tsai announced that the 11th installment will be shot in Jeonju during next year’s festival. While it would have been more surprising if he’d announced anything other than another Walker (minus Days, the series has constituted nearly his entire output since 2013), he’s going to have a spectacular location for it.

Of the 13 screenings I attended, five were old or new Korean films. The highlight of the latter was Kim Yi-so’s A Chronicle in Spirals, which begins in obscurity and only becomes more oblique as it goes along. The first shot immediately raises questions about what kind of film we’re watching, as a group of women stands with their backs turned to the camera; off-screen, a voice repeatedly says “Excuse me” until someone finally turns and acknowledges the speaker. Is this unapologetically non-naturalistic allegory or an experimental theater production? It’s eventually clarified as the latter, the first of several productive disorientations in a film presenting the stories of two displaced women, Ungbi and Eubin, before fusing them into one shared dream (?). First is Ungbi, who wakes every morning and tries to work through a low-grade depression in which, as she says, time feels like it’s stopped; she smokes a single cigarette, of the Time brand, to start her day. (The name is a little on-the-nose even if it’s a real brand, albeit an Israeli one unlikely to be found in Korea.) The roar on her apartment terrace is extremely loud despite there being no visible source of noise, a sonic Lynchianism to go along with the visual affinities—e.g., a sequence in which characters walk through a curtain slowly in a shot that gives way, in a really slow dissolve, to a landscape shot—but original in its color palette (50 shades of blown-out white) and political particulars. Some of the confusions introduced have no obvious precedents: Early on, Ungbi’s routine is soundtracked by a sentimental piano score of the kind common to so many Asian films—but then the music stalls as the player (revealed to be Ungbi herself) makes a mistake. More unnervingly, a series of outdoor shots are interrupted by sudden fades to black, as if the camera shutter itself were a blinking human eye nodding off in time to a start-and-stop noise that turns out to be Ungbi’s malfunctioning aquarium lamp.  

During a web chat, Ungbi tells Eubin, who acts as her therapist (everyone’s a multi-hyphenate to supplement their salaries—just like indie film!), about falling for what’s essentially an apartment rental scam, while the latter is facing the eviction of her theater troupe from their soon-to-be-demolished building. Both stories connect to the 2006 destruction of an elementary school in Daechu-ri to make way for the expansion of Camp Humphreys, an American army base. The Dauchu-ri protests are visualized as still photographs, with demonstrators’ faces unnerving smears like walking fingerprints; I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn these images were generated by DALL·E. Halfway through, it dawned on me that there were no men in the film, either speaking or background—this is a movie about women’s negative experiences, adding another layer of unease to multiple narratives of displacement. That move might be reminiscent of Céline Sciama’s repudiation of the male gaze in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but her hyper-pointed intentions were all too clear; Yi-so’s thematic contours are discernible, but the mode of their presentation commendably mysterious. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film so determinedly withholding, which is a compliment.

My favorite film of the festival was Puan, which was appropriate as I first became aware of the Jeonju Cinema Project when seeing Benjamín Naishtat’s second feature, The Movement. That product of the initiative was a fervid, narratively unmoored film, shot in shaky-cam black-and-white and following a blatantly allegorical cult through desert hysterics. His follow-up, Rojo, represented an unexpected and successful move towards populism, with high production values and a strong narrative, a good time despite the seemingly depressive, audience-repellant topic of Argentina’s “Dirty Wars.” Now co-writing and -directing with María Alché (perhaps best known as the star of The Holy Girl), Naishtat leans even further into making a film that’s as inversely audience-friendly as its logline (a comedy about philosophy) seems alienatingly arcane.

The first shot is literally a killer, observing professor Eduardo Caselli jogging through a park in a 270-degree circular pan to the jaunty strains of Charly García’s “Dos Uno Zero”; there is confusion about whether the song is diagetic or a tone-setter, but it’s revealed to be what the jogger is listening when he stops, grabs his chest and keels over. The shot’s confident choreography and tonal diffusion is immediately arresting. (It also helps that the film—an Argentine-Italian-French-German-Brazilian [phew!] co-production—is visibly expensive-looking, with lots of background players, cars and location resets). From that deliberately attention-getting opening shot, Puan continues with verve while following Caselli’s protege, Marcelo Pena (Marcelo Subiotto), a philosopher introduced lecturing on Rousseau. Balding and paunchy, Pena registers as default schmucky outside the classroom (unable to use his phone properly, inelegantly gobbling hot dogs for dinner, constantly forgetting appointments) but comes charismatically alive within it. His fiefdom is threatened by academic rock star Rafael Sujarchuk (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a charismatic silver fox fluent in German who, after teaching abroad for an extended period, wants to come back to Buenos Aires, drawing attention to himself and disrupting the only form of validation Pena has. Pena’s worldview is grounded in studies that seem archaic to some of his younger colleagues; Sujarchuk challenges his emphasis on Hobbes and “the old archaic pact of fear” with the relative optimism of Spinoza (!). 

All this is much funnier than it sounds, even as the Argentinian economic crisis percolates in the background, a Chekov’s gun that goes off in the final act. In its portrait of the University of Buenos Aires being threatened with a shutdown due to dubious claims of economic necessity, Puan—which premiered last year at San Sebastián (and is now available to stream on Amazon Prime for the curious)—has anticipated very recent attempts to do so by Javier Milei’s administration. Prescience aside, Puan is surprisingly moving in its portrait of a man who’s endlessly told that his frame of reference within a field of study that’s occupied his entire life is a static, self-made intellectual mausoleum. The surprise, for him and for us, is that when crisis strikes, that lifetime of study has actually meaningfully prepared him to take righteous action.

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