By Shelly Kraicer

The small South Korean city of Jeonju celebrated a milestone this year: the 10th anniversary of the Jeonju International Film Festival, which over its first decade of existence has been exemplary in discovering uncompromising and innovative new films as well as laudable rediscoveries of the old. While actively fostering new cinema through its Jeonju Digital Project, which annually commissions three short works from prominent directors (who have included Jia Zhangke, Tsai Ming-liang, Bong Joon-ho, Sogo Ishii, and Pedro Costa), its international retrospectives—which this year include Pere Portabella and Jerzy Skolimowski—highlight independent cinema of the past, while its geographically-specific sidebars, such as this year’s ambitious 12-film series on Sri Lankan cinema, bring regional cinemas into mainstream view (or into the independent film festival mainstream, at least).

Small enough to be able thoroughly to surrender itself to the festival atmosphere for nine days, this year Jeonju dubbed a substantial section of the downtown core “Cinema Street,” which for the duration of JIFF is transformed into a pedestrian mall dotted with event venues and decorations. Teeming with mostly youthful crowds (largely hailing from Seoul) who throng to this city to enjoy indie cinema, there’s a level of celebrative activity at JIFF that makes the often stale word “festival” wholly appropriate. Reaching outside the theatre with street performances, concerts, and public events, Jeonju insists that cinematic discovery is an intrinsic part of a city’s civic tapestry. Big-city film festivals take note: there are working, thriving alternatives to merely exploiting an annual glitzy film event as another bauble in one’s marketing of cosmopolitan identity.

The flip side of Jeonju’s liveliness occasionally rears its head in interesting ways. South Korea is an impressively—or frighteningly, depending on one’s political predilections—regimented society, where rules of proper behaviour (even cinematic enthusiasm) are enforced and internalized. The intro short, played before each film, introduces the prim pop-star couple Joan and Lee Jee-hoon as JIFF 2009s “publicity ambassadors”, but they’re actually drill sergeants issuing a formidable list of behavioural rules, from the expected (“no picture taking, no outside food”) to the distinctive: “And the last thing,” they intone with ominously perky energy, “please remain seated until the end of the credits. Now you are ready to enjoy the film.” Even enjoyment, it would seem, has its rules. And Joan and Jeehoon are serious, as I found out when I opted to skip some endlessly scrolling SFX listings to exit to a washroom, and was met with cheery staff firmly guarding the doors until the lights went up. And just try crossing an empty intersection near Cinema Street against the light.

Apart from learning to obey traffic signals, I spent my time in Jeonju concentrating on the international competition and Korean film premieres. This year’s Jeonju Digital Project was titled Visitors, and boasted two hits and one curious mystery. Hong Sang-soo’s Lost in The Mountains is a delight, wryly funny and brilliantly crafted. Beautiful young Mi-sook drives to Jeonju to visit her friend Mi-young, who is too busy, so Mi-young stops in on her teacher and ex-boyfriend Sang-oak. Infuriated at discovering a secret relationship between Sang-oak and Mi-young, she summons another ex-boyfriend to meet them. But further romantic entanglement aligns the four into a pair of love triangles. Hong’s familiarly amusing zooms and medium shots are amply deployed, but there are real innovations here: a female voiceover (his first?) and a relatively fast cutting rate. Formally, it’s a perfect update of a Feydeau farce, involving surprising entrances and exits, knotted romances, and a hilariously absurd climax knitting everything together. The local audience loved the film; perhaps Hong compressed into 30 minutes reveals the pop cinema impulse buried within his wryly savage gender critiques?

The second segment, Naomi Kawase’s Koma, tells a ritualized tale in her usual mode, as a Japanese man returns to Korea to honour the memory of his grandfather, who saved a local boy’s life. Kawase recovers here from the forced solemnity of The Mourning Forest (2007), creating a natural intimacy between the gently observed characters and forested landscapes that hints at a spirituality hovering palpably behind the images. Lav Diaz’s contribution, Butterflies Have No Memories, is a strange and awkward piece. While perhaps deliberate, the film’s visual choice of a perpetual grey wash over the images does no favours for its sparse story of post-colonial repression and environmental degradation, and the final revenge of the impoverished powerless seems both schematically obvious and dramatically arbitrary—though perhaps that’s the point.

The Korean film competition suffers from the hegemonic aspirations of JIFF’s bullying older brother, the Pusan Film Festival, whose ambition to dominate the field vacuums up most independent Korean premieres. One delight that remained was Min Kwan-ki’s Sogyumo Acacia Band’s Story, a documentary of an alternative rock band from Seoul that, though as laidback and engaging as its main protagonists, has a quietly accumulating force. Min’s discreet hand-held camera captures an intimate portrait of about a year in the life of the titular university-bar circuit band on the margins of the Korean commercial music scene, headed by musician/producer/composer Kim Min-hong and his partner, the soulful female lyricist and singer Song Eunji. Their songs are delicate, charming confessionals, mirroring this (non-romantic) couple’s personal dynamic, until up-and-coming starlet Yozoh, a discovery of Min-hong’s, breaks into the band. Pop-cute, narcissistic, and destined for stardom, Yozoh dominates and distorts the band’s spirit even while landing them more lucrative gigs, and precipitates a climax of sorts that reasserts a balance between creativity and survival in a thoroughly commercialized world. The film won a Special Mention award in the Korean feature film competition, but was far more interesting than the first prize (JJ Star Award) winner, Lee Seo’s debut Missing Person, a nasty, derivative, occasionally repugnantly violent would-be thriller about a real estate agent who gets his kicks torturing a mentally handicapped co-worker. There’s bleak, empty sex punctuated by some admittedly effective scenes of black humour, all of which has a certain currency in today’s art cinema marketplace.

The absolute highlight of JIFF, and the deserving winner of both the International Competition’s Woosuk Award and the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) Award, was Philippine director Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s 215-minute digital experimental epic Imburnal (which translates as “Sewer”), a film about the life of young people in and around the slum sewers of Davao City on the Philippine island of Mindanao. A bevy of adolescent girls function as something of a chorus, recounting explicit sexual tales, while their male counterparts opt to explore their budding sexualities on their own bodies, on those of their friends, and in some cases on the girls around them. A few select adults thread in and out of the narrative, as well as a fisherman and a ghost-lover who, bald, nude, and seemingly dead, inhabits the mid-section of the film in a series of dreamlike images.

Though epically conceived, Imburnal refuses to be narratively “well-behaved.” Incidents cut abruptly into others, many moments go unexplained, while others come and go organized only by geography or association. Sanchez orders his work through a play of light and time. His shots can be extremely long, even static (like the opening, six-minute shot of the dark partial outline of a boy in a sewer, barely moving), but each contains an angular tension, some coiled energy waiting to spring: sculptural groups of girls on a flatbed van, a boy lying on a boat, an empty outrigger canoe set against distant volcanic mountains. The film’s lively sound design tends to break free from the images, and vice versa: at the film’s midpoint, a nine-minute segment of black screen set to music is followed by a corresponding nine-minute silent segment of barely discernible images which appear to be torches against a black forest.

Sanchez distends and hammers his images to the point of incomprehension, but they always sing, reverberating with the unformed, fearful beauty of youth. Though Jeonju’s house rules keep you in your seat through the very final credit of the film’s 215th minute, you’re more than compensated by the excitement that discoveries like Imburnal can excite, an energy that JIFF celebrates both inside and outside the theatre.