BY Neil Young in Reviews | 21 MAY 19

Jeonju International Film Festival Review: Experiment and Immersion

Challenging films and installations were highlights at one of Asia’s most important festivals

BY Neil Young in Reviews | 21 MAY 19

Jeonju is a film-town from the ground up – quite literally: the manhole-covers in South Korea’s 16th city feature stylized representations of 35mm celluloid-strips. One short thoroughfare in this mini-metropolis (pop. 650,000), unofficially dubbed Movie Street, boasts eight cinemas including several multiplexes – the slightly rough-edged jewel being the gloriously mid-80s ‘Jeonju Cinema Town’. The area comes noisily alive for ten days in early May, when youthful crowds from the city and elsewhere in the country attend the Jeonju International Film Festival. Jeonju IFF has steadily grown since its inception in 2000 to become one of the most internationally respected such events in eastern Asia. 

This year a total of 275 films (201 feature-length, 74 short) from 53 countries were shown this year, with a record 86,000 tickets sold. Such success is all the more admirable given the fact that many of the films veer towards the more challenging end of the spectrum. The winner of the International Competition was among the more unconventional of offerings: From Tomorrow On, I Will (2019) is a 60-minute collaboration between two filmmakers who turn 30 this year, Serbia’s Ivan Marković and Hunan-born Wu Linfeng. 

Ivan Marković and Wu Linfeng, From Tomorrow on, I Will, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artists 

They operate very much in the spirit of semi-retired Taiwanese-Malaysian master Tsai Ming-Liang here, observing two lonely roommates existentially adrift among the vast ultra-urban complexities of present-day Beijing. A multi-layered slow-burner that seeks to find reflection and nature in the midst of densely-populated chaos, it accumulates narrative fragments and character details rather than following traditional methods of story development. Indeed, given a little reconfiguring it is quite easy to imagine the drama being shown as an installation in a gallery. Such interfaces were very much to the fore at Jeonju IFF this year thanks to its new section, Expanded Plus, inspired by the 13-year-old ‘Forum Expanded’ parallel-section of the Berlinale. This year, Expanded Plus took the form of an exhibition in the crumbling, decades-abandoned Sorex tape-factory in the industrial suburb of Palbok that, since 2016, has operated as the Palbok Art Factory.

Under the title Utopian Phantom, 12 artists contributed 13 installations – most of them directly or indirectly related to works showing on the film-screens. One of the most effective transplants was Communion Los Angeles (2018), originally a 68-minute impressionistic portrait of Los Angeles constructed by directors Peter Bo Rappmund and Adam R. Levine as a sequential diptych: half diurne, half nocturne. At Palbok, the two sections were projected simultaneously on two walls connected at right-angles, emphasizing the degree to which the images rhyme or diverge. As is often the case with such installations, the visual strength of the presentation came at a cost to the audio: in the theatrical version, Rappmund and Levine composed a superb eclectic soundscape; at Palbok this was reduced to an insectoid scratchiness, competing with neighbouring noise.

Jodie Mack, The Grand Bizzare, 2018, film still. Courtesy: the artist 

Audio-leakage can be a boon as well as a curse, of course: Birth of a Nation (2019) is a silent triptych by avant-garde veteran James Benning that comprises a trio of slowed-down, single-second excerpts from D. W. Griffith’s controversial 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation which are shown side-by-side, tinted red, white and blue on a three-minute loop. Benning, who is 77, could theoretically have met Griffith – he died in 1948 – but retains the profitably oblique political sensibility which has marked his output since the 1970s. Specifically created for Utopian Phantom, Birth of a Nation was given an extra layer of rousing intensity by being projected near Helena Wittmann and Nika Son’s Wildness of Waves (2018), benefiting from the latter’s surging oceanic soundscapes. 

The most fully immersive experiences, however, were provided by the sole Korean artist, Jang Woojin, and the experimental US animator Jodie Mack. Jang’s oneiric two-TV installation Shot Reverse Shot (2019) subtly conjures the psychic rupture of the demilitarized zone separating the Koreas via a shadowy phantom-space between two monitors facing in opposite directions. Mack’s The Grand Bizarre (2018) ‘opens up’ her antic 60-minute film of the same name by showing it in an airy oblong room where a breeze wafted through patterned fabric (similar to those depicted on screen) suspended from the ceiling. Entering the space was like stepping into the artist’s creative consciousness: an entrancingly ethereal bubble of calm, albeit concrete-walled, the rumble of Palbok trucks dimly audible beyond.

Main image: Peter Bo Rappmund and Adam R. Levine, Communion Los Angeles, 2018, film still. Courtesy: the artists 

Neil Young is a journalist, film-curator and film-maker based mainly in Vienna, Austria. He writes regularly for Sight & Sound and The Hollywood Reporter.