Jeonju Fetes Decade of Promoting Indie Cinema

10th Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) to Be Held April 30-May 8

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

In 2000, Jeonju, a small town in North Jeolla Province with a reputation for traditionally Korean things, became home to one of the country's most future-thinking film festivals. Over the first decade of the new millennium, the Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) has grown to become a major attraction for independent and art house cinema ― as "the Locarno Film Festival of Asia".

JIFF celebrates its 10th birthday from April 30 to May 8 with a record lineup of 200 films from 42 countries. In addition to showcasing rare-to-see films from different corners of the world, various projects and events await festivalgoers for the special anniversary.

One of the JIFF's unique features is that it commissions special films for the annual event, festival director Min Byung-lock told The Korea Times, Tuesday, in Seoul. This year, Korea's Hong Sang-soo, Japan's Naomi Kawase and the Philippines' Lav Diaz take part in JIFF's hallmark program, Jeonju Three Digital Shorts Project ("Visitors"). Each year, the festival offers 50 million won to each of the three directors selected to produce a 30-minute work for the digital omnibus film.

"The Jeonju Three Digital Shorts Project has been like JIFF's faithful child", said Min. In 2007, the digital project won the Jury Award at Locarno. "It was the first time an omnibus film ever won the prestigious prize, and the Jeonju Festival became internationally known because of it. We received positive feedback from foreign cineastes, who urged us to push on with this project which gives filmmakers an opportunity to experiment", he said. For the festival's anniversary, a special DVD set of all 27 shorts made over the years will be on sale.

This year's event opens with another specially commissioned project, "Short! Short! Short! 2009". This omnibus film features works by 10 rising Korean directors. Choi Ik-hwan ("Life is Cool"), Kim Young-nam ("Don't Look Back") and Yoon Seong-ho ("Milky Way Liberation Front") among others each contribute a 10-minute piece that offers creative social commentary.

In recent years, both omnibus projects have reached a wider audience as Three Digital Shorts was broadcast on cable TV in Korea and other Asian countries and "Short! Short! Short!" was released online through the portal site Daum. This year however, the cable and Internet services won't be available because both franchises will be released nationwide in theaters this fall.

The closing film is "Machan", directed by Uberto Pasolini, who co-produced "The Full Monty" (1997). The neo-realistic comedy takes place in a slum town of Sri Lanka, where 23 people set out to become "a national handball team" in order to secure visas to Europe.

Jeonju, Asia's Locarno

JIFF has been committed to the discovery and promotion of new talent, and filmmakers are allowed to submit up to their second work for the competition sections.

"When I recently met the festival director of the Locarno Film Festival, he said our events are kindred spirits", said Min about the prominent Italian event for independent cinema. Last year, the award-winning indie flick "Daytime Drinking" premiered at JIFF and the Locarno programmer took notice and took it to Italy, where it won the top prize.

JIFF is the first Asian film even to host an exhibition of Cuban movies, even ahead of Japan, said the festival director. JIFF has been committed to cultural exchange through cinema, and has featured special exhibitions of African and Middle Eastern films. This year, festivalgoers can look forward to seeing a host of quality works from Sri Lanka.

Also notable is the retrospective of works by Spanish director Pere Portabella and another for Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski. The latter director will celebrate his 70th birthday in Korea during the festival on May 8. Other special guests traveling from afar are world-renowned European film critics Dusan Makavejev, Phillippe Grandrieux, Chris Marker and Maurice Pialat. They will meet Korean fans through masterclasses to speak about films, some of which they have directed.

Movies Not to Miss

Min, who is also a film studies professor at Dongguk University, said his idea of a good movie is one that makes the viewer think. "Regardless of genre, whether it's action, horror or melodrama, good movies voice a message and move your heart", he said. "JIFF can recognize a good movie", he grinned.

Of the 200 works shown this year, Min personally recommends Kim Ki-young's digitally restored "The Housemaid - 1960" (1960). A partially restored version was shown at Cannes and Pusan (Busan) last year, but the one at JIFF is the perfected film, he said. Another must-see movie is the Italian documentary "La Rabbia di Pasolini" by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Giuseppe Bertolucci.

The festival programmers recommend the following films as well: family-themed stories such as "Prince of Broadway" (U.S.A.); political, social or historical commentaries including "Laila's Birthday" (Palestine, Tunisia, Netherlands); melodious music-filled works such as "Sogyumo Acacia Band's Story" (Korea); star-studded features like "Shirin" (Iran); documentary films such as "The One Man Village" (Lebanon); movies parents might appreciate including "Dark Night of the Soul" (Sri Lanka); action-packed franchises such as "Embodiment of Evil" (Brazil); movies inspired by real life stories such as "The Silence Before Bach" (Spain); and tales about growing pains including "The Happiest Girl in the World" (Romania, Netherlands).

Future Perfect

Locarno, which hosts the prominent Italian film festival, was once a poor city. The launching of the film event helped spur the local economy, and Min suggested that something similar is happening in Jeonju.

Despite lacking infrastructure, Jeonju is one of the most popular film sites in the country. Its rich cultural heritage, proximity to nature, affordable prices and accessibility by car make it favorable, said the festival director. The small city is home to a large movie studio, and designs are underway for Jeonju Cine Complex, a new studio for JIFF with post-production facilities and a theater. Plans for a cinema library and museum are also being drawn up.

Also under construction are a couple of hotels that will resolve lodging issues within the next two to three years. For now, festival organizers have addressed complaints over limited lodging space by reaching out to "sarangbang" or traditional local inns. The festival, overrun with moviegoers particularly over the weekend, has also expanded theater capacity from 80,000 to 100,000.

Another development this year is the launching of the Jeonju Project Market, which combines the promotion plans and markets of previous years.

In the future, Min said he hopes to pour efforts into the restoration of old Korean films, such as the director's cut versions of movies that were butchered during the militant censorship of the 1970s and `80s and works waiting to be recovered from the film archives in China, Russia and Hong Kong.

"We're pursuing a step-by-step growth. Even if we had more than enough funds, we'd still take it slow so as not to over-expand in a short amount of time, causing `indigestion' like the staggering Korean film market. We are looking at a long, bright future", said the festival director, smiling.

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