On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, the Jeonju International Film Festival has released a handsomely packaged compilation of 27 shorts by filmmakers from Asia, Africa and Europe. For the past decade, JIFF has been commissioning films from three directors a year, awarding them each 50 million won (USD 38,000) to produce a digital film of around thirty minutes in length. Bong Joon-ho, Zhang Yuan, Sogo Ishii, Shinya Tsukamoto and Pen-ek Ratanaruang are just a few of the recipients who have contributed to the project. Spread out over nine discs, and running from just 12 to 42 minutes in length, the films cover a broad range of genres, encompassing experimental, horror, drama, science-fiction and documentary. The latter address issues as diverse as the hardship of the homeless in Portugal and the plight of Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore; a sobering look at a transit camp for deportees to the gas chambers during WWII; and a decidedly unconventional portrait of a transsexual dancer. Six of the entries in the anthology are by Korean directors. No fewer than four of the films in the collection were subsequently expanded, and one of them, Song-il Gon’s Magician(s), was made into a feature-length film. The Jeonju Digital Project offers the possibility of seeing short films by some of the world’s most acclaimed directors, works generally relegated to the film festival ghetto.
Disc One (2000)
http://www.whitelover.com, Park Kwang-su, Korea. Drama, 32 min.
Hyan (Wang Yoo-sun), a former porn star who vows never again to disrobe for the camera, faces a difficult decision when she agrees to star in “Boiler”, an art film which calls on the actress to do a sex scene. Shot in commando style on a cluttered set, with recurrent unflattering wide-angle close-ups of the actress’ face, this gritty looking film about a woman trying to put her past behind her comes across as a film school exercise. Cameo by Moon Sung-geun ups the cheese factor. (4/10)
The Name of the Night, Kim Yun-tae, Korea. Mystery, 37 min.
After waking up from a heavy sleep, taxi driver Ahn Sung-il (Ahn Sik-kwan) wanders around the city trying to reconstruct the events of the previous evening. Bruises on his legs indicate he’s been in some sort of scuffle. When he locates his cab, his license turns out to have the picture of another driver, who has disappeared. He returns to some of the haunts of the night before: a nightclub, a movie theater, and a hotel room where he spent time with a younger looking woman. A few nice close-ups and sparing use of effectively eerie music can’t salvage this glacially paced mood piece, which is too enigmatic for its own good. (4/10)
Miss Jin Xing Story, Zhang Yuan, China. Experimental documentary, 37 min.
An androgynous looking young man with beautiful eyes and feminine hands gazes silently into the camera. A somewhat older, elegantly dressed woman with heavy makeup reminisces about a brief long-distance love affair between Tibet and Beijing, and an unusual sexual encounter with a taxi driver in Belgium. If you haven’t already guessed, the two are one and the same person. Born in China to ethnic Koreans, Jin Xing was already an internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer when he underwent sex change surgery in 1996 at the age of 29. Zhang’s documentary about multi-hyphenate Jin Xing, one of China’s few officially recognized transwomen, picks up four years after her operation. Ultimately, the film’s focus is on people’s need for love and intimacy, regardless of sexual orientation. The skillful juxtaposition of vivid color with luminous B&W images of Jin Xing prior to surgery powerfully illustrates Xing’s words, “the past is a beautiful memory”, while the fragmented narrative seems to challenge the very notion of a documentary being able to fix immutably a life on film. A fascinating glimpse of an intriguing personality. Awkward subtitles, some dropouts in sound. (8/10)
Disc Two (2001)
In Public, Jia Zhang Ke, China. Documentary, 33 min.
Jia Zhang Ke (Still Life, 2006) trains his unflinching camera on the weary faces of passengers at a train station, a bus stop in a mining town, and at a billiard hall. I’d sooner watch the test patterns on my television. (2/10)
Digitopia, John Akomfrah, UK. Experimental, 33 min.
What begins as a poetic contemplation about love transforms into something altogether different midway through this otherworldly experimental film. Bold images of mountains, lakes and clouds alternate with those of a man alone in his apartment or sitting on a park bench as he obsesses over a woman named Tanya. The stark beauty of the tinted landscapes recalls Sokurov’s earlier work. (7/10)
A Conversation With God, Tsai Ming Liang, Taiwan. Experimental, 32 min.
Tsai Ming Liang’s pastiche juxtaposes images of carnality, superstition, ritual and the mundane: a trio of kitschy women sings onstage; an underage girl performs a striptease; long takes of an empty underpass and rotting carcasses of fish covered with flies; a shaman presumably ridding believers of bad spirits; and power lines against a cloudy sky. This film about a medium in a trance is likely to put the viewer into a stupor as well. The film’s more prosaic alternate title, “Fish, Tunnel”, more accurately describes this bad trip. (0/10)
Disc Three (2002): “After the War”
A Letter From Hiroshima, Suwa Nobuhiro, Japan. Drama, 37 min.
Suwa Nobuhiro ponders the nature of chance, fate, destiny, the elusiveness of memory and the unfathomable nature of genocide. Or does he? Exactly what this film is about is left open to interpretation. Nobuhiro has asked Kim Ho-jung, a Korean actress he met at a Swiss film festival, to come to Hiroshima to co-write the script for a film he is making. While waiting for him in her hotel room, she is visited by Lee Faji, a Korean national living in Hiroshima. Informed that the director won’t be able to come right away, Kim is asked to have a look around Hiroshima. The director, ready to drop the project altogether, spends a week wandering the city with his young son. Meanwhile, a conversation between Faji and Ho-jung, whose families lived through the ordeal of Japanese colonisation, offers a perspective on Hiroshima as seen through the eyes of Koreans. So what’s my take on all this? Well, leaving aside Hiroshima for a moment, I couldn’t help asking what sort of person would have someone travel all the way to a foreign country and not even meet them when they arrived—especially when that someone is as sensitive, intelligent and attractive as Miss Kim. Picture quality is quite good, as are the subtitles. (5/10)
Survival Game, Moon Seung-wook, Korea. Drama, 39 min.
Kim Hyun-sung (Jang Hyun-sung), a hard-boiled fund manager, spends an evening of heavy drinking with his co-workers at a restaurant. A colleague shows up with some airsoft rifles, and soon all of them are pointing their weapons every which way and firing them in the busy restaurant. The server asks the guests to put the firearms away, and Hyun-sung ends up getting into a brawl with the waiter. The next day, following a probe into the company’s financial dealings and the suicide of one of his associates, Kim flees to the wooded retreat of one of his friends, hoping to recover his equilibrium. Instead, his buddy convinces him to take part in a war game with some friends. This vigorous if not wholly original exploration of the ruthlessness of business culture firmly embraces the dogme esthetic, the camera crew and boom mike being plainly visible in one restaurant scene. (6/10)
New Year, Wang Xiaoshuai, China. Documentary, 33 min.
A woman returns to China to be by her father’s side after she learns that he has been diagnosed with stomach cancer. (2/10)
Disc Four (2003)
Daf, Bahman Ghobadi, Iran. Documentary, 40 min.
After enduring several hours of non-linear storytelling and self-conscious auteur posing, along comes this simple but affecting documentary about a rural craftsman who makes a traditional Iranian percussion instrument called daf. All able-bodied family members participate in the production, including a blind son, whom we see hitching a ride to market with his sister to purchase the sheep skins and wood planks used in the instrument’s manufacture. A doctor visits the father’s younger 3-1/2 year-old son, who has also lost his eyesight, and offers this advice: “Pray to God. Give to charity. Have ceremonies and have a dervish play the daf for him.” The greater part of the film focuses on the laborious work involved in the fabrication of daf and culminates in a rousing ritual for the ailing boy. The accomplished camerawork takes advantage of the surrounding scenery and local color. Sensitive individuals are warned of a brief but graphic segment of sheep being slaughtered. The image benefits from a solid transfer, with brilliant color and clarity. (5/10)
Like a Desperado Under the Eaves, Aoyama Shinji, Japan. Drama, 41 min.
Meandering tale of a destitute young man struggling to finish a manuscript while coping with an oddball assortment of neighbors and a teetering relationship with a mysterious woman. (4/10)
Digital Search, Park Ki-yong, Korea. Experimental, 33 min.
Structurally similar to Tsai Ming Liang’s joyless A Conversation with God, Park’s irreverently playful portrait of Seoul would benefit from a little judicious editing. The film is divided into five sections: 1) “Two Views”. Split frame, with busty sex workers on the right, while on the left, seemingly incongruous images appear: a young boy taking a shower, meat in a butcher shop window, and a glove lying in the middle of the road; 2) “Documentary”. Firefighters put out a blazing building; 3) “Panorama Seoul”. A 360 degree view of the smog-covered skyline as seen from an observation tower overlooking the Han river. Above the horizon, statistics dart past enumerating the number of foreigners, public servants, prostitutes, daily liters of excrement, etc.; 4) “Run Horse Run”. A chaotic neon light show of the city at night, to the exuberant strains of Crying Nut’s raunchy punk anthem “Run, Horse, Run”; 5) “Digital Search”. Graffiti, a kindergarten class and distorted telephoto images of pedestrians. (6/10)
Disc Five (2004)
Influenza, Bong Joon-ho, Korea. Faux documentary, 29 min.
One of the highlights of the collection, Bong’s disturbingly humorous mockumentary traces the downward spiral of an unemployed 31 year-old man as he is captured on Seoul’s omnipresent CCTVs and observation cameras. The film, divided into four sections, opens with a distant B&W shot of Cho Hyuk-rae (Yoon Jae-moon) standing alone on the Yanghwa Bridge overlooking the Han river. In the first section, entitled “Mr. Cho Works Hard” and announced in bold red letters with a drum roll, our protagonist is seen in a public restroom rehearsing a sales routine with a metal can, leather belt and instant glue before being forceably escorted off the subway by security personnel. Later, joined by an unnamed female accomplice (Ko Soo-hee), Cho is encountered in various underground parking structures, banks and ATM kiosks doing bad things to people. By employing a diversity of techniques: B&W and color, split screen, wide angle, static and panning shots, as well as a liberal dose of black humor, the director keeps the proceedings from becoming monotonous. Bong’s film, whose frenzied climax at an ATM fortells the director’s merciless skewering of mob behavior in The Host, has forever changed the way I view subway panhandlers. (8/10)
Dance With Me to the End of Love, Yu Lik Wai, Hong Kong. Science Fiction, 30 min.
Masochists only need apply. (0/10)
Mirrored Mind (Kyoshin), Sogo Ishii, Japan. Drama/occult, 41 min.
A woefully inarticulate and emotionally wraught young actress (Miwako Ichikawa) abandons a film her boyfriend is shooting. One evening, while strolling the streets of Tokyo, she runs into a mysterious woman. A life altering event sees her transported to an island paradise, where she is once more visited by the woman, who informs her that she will be staying, but that the actress must return home, where loved ones and meaningful work await. Deadly dull monologues, monotone acting, and an unsatifsying paranormal twist made this a difficult film to sit through. There is a longer, and presumably duller 61-minute version. (3/10)
Disc Six (2005)
Worldly Desires, Apichatong Weerasethakul, Thailand. Experimental, 43 min.
The longest and most unabashedly self-indulgent piece in the set, Weerasethakul’s ode to the jungle is a boring slog. A young couple runs off to the jungle to find a magical tree; a camera crew trades jokes about Brad Pitt and beer ads; five women do a song and dance routine about finding love; a frisbee-like toy flies through the air; moths flutter around a flourescent lightbulb. Nighttime images are soft and lacking in shadow detail; highlights are burned out in the daytime shots. (0/10)
Haze, Shinya Tsukamoto, Japan. Horror, 25 min.
Peerless Japanese horror filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto’s Haze navigates the tortured psyche of a man (Tsukamoto) struggling with his conscience after awakening to find himself trapped in a tunnel and covered in blood. The more lucid his conscience becomes, the more agonizing his ordeals become. Closer in spirit to Tetsuo than to Nightmare Detective, Haze is a virtual assault on the senses: wedged between narrow walls, forced to walk along barbed wire or struck repeatedly in the head by a hammer, with tight close-up’s of the victim’s grimacing perspiration soaked face, this Boschian descent into madness feels more like a sketch than a finished film. However, one iconic image that leaves an impression as indelible as the films of Bergman or Dreyer, a close-up of Tsukamoto’s weary face as he hears a woman’s (Kaori Fujii) remorseful voice shortly before the film’s ambiguous conclusion, of itself is worth the price of admission. Odd that the digital medium, which Tsukamoto found to be so liberating, should produce the most claustrophobic work of his career. Lighting, editing and sound design are all top-notch, but the otherwise beautiful image is all too often noisy and grainy. There is also an extended 49-minute version of this film. (7/10)
Magician(s), Song Il-gon, Korea. Drama, 41 min.
The three remaining members of the rock group Magician(s) get together at a woodside tavern on New Year’s eve, the third anniversary of the death of Ja-eun (Lee Seung-bi), the band’s guitarist. The gathering leads to a whole lot of soul-searching, the general gaiety barely concealing pent up feelings of loss, guilt and worries about the future. Shot in one take, the contrasty image and saturated color palette heighten the dreamlike quality. The transfer benefits from vibrant color and good shadow detail. There is also a 95-minute version. (7/10)
Disc Seven (2006): “Talk to Her”
About Love, Darezhan Omirbayev, Kazakhstan. Drama, 38 min.
Based on a novel by Chekhov. Kairat, an impoverished university professor, runs into Askar, a former physics classmate, now a successful businessman, who invites him over for a New Year’s dinner. Kairat straightaway takes an unsound interest in his friend’s beautiful wife. The characters lack three-dimensionality, and apart from perfunctorily establishing Kairat’s liberal leanings, the script never adequately articulates the characters’ individual particularities. Consequently, Kairat comes across as a presumptuous cad, Askar is little more than the caricature of a smug beaurocrat, while his wife Togjan is reduced to a mere ornament. The wooden acting and voice over narration, coupled with grammatically awkard subtitles, make this Chekhov adaptation singularly unrewarding. Picture quality is very good, if a little too contrasty. (4/10)
No Day Off, Eric Khoo, Singapore. Documentary, 40 min.
Singaporean director Eric Khoo’s deceptively simple yet hard hitting documentary is a scathing indictment of the exploitation of domestic workers. With the promise of easy work and good pay, Siti (Syamsiah, outstanding), like thousands of other Indonesian women, leaves behind her husband and child to work as a maid in Singapore. Before beginning her employment, she must undergo a couple months of training at a facility that resembles an army barracks designed by Martha Stewart, where she is taught rudimentary English and is shown how to operate common household appliances. A sample question on a test given to trainees shows pictures of a toaster, a tea kettle, a refrigerator, and a clothes dryer and asks, “which of these items is used to boil water?”. The 24 year-old woman, working for pennies a day, endures countless taunts, threats and insults over the course of four years, during which time she changes households three times. The director’s decision not to show the faces of her employers, whose threatening voices are heard off camera, is chillingly effective. Very good picture quality. (10/10)
Twelve Twenty, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand. Drama, 30 min.
Based on Beauty and an Airplane, a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marque, Ratanaruang’s film tells the story of a man (Ananda Everingham) who falls in love with a woman (Khemapsom Sirisukha) he sees at the check-in counter of an airport. Most of the film takes place in the sleek blackened interior of the plane’s cabin—the camera panning between the two seats, lighting now one, now the other of the occupants. The two passengers never exchange a word, title cards occasionally allowing us to know what the man is thinking. Those familiar only with his work on Dumplings or Wong Kar-wai’s films might be surprised at cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s uncustomary restraint. Both touching and funny, it is gems like this that make the task of a critic worthwhile. Christopher Doyle doubles as both taxi driver and captain in the film. Very good picture quality. (10/10)
Disc Eight (2007): “Memories”
Respite, Harun Farocki, Czech Republic. Documentary, 39 min.
The Dutch built Westerbork camp in 1939 for Jews who had fled Germany. In 1942, the Germans took control of Westerbork, converting it into a transit camp for deportees to Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and other death camps. A model of efficiency, it was the inmates themselves who registered new arrivals, served in the camp police corps and helped make the lists of people to be deported. In 1944, the camp commander, SS officer Albert Gemmeker, ordered a film to be made, presumably as a demonstration of just how resourcefully the camp was being managed. Rudolf Breslauer, who had fled Germany with his family to the Netherlands, was chosen to make the film. Using two 16mm cameras, Breslauer shot 90 minutes of film, but the project was never completed, the filmmaker meeting the same fate as thousands of other inmates at the camp. Instead of images of prisoners being tortured, starved, subjected to medical experiments, escorted into gas chambers, or buried in mass graves, the film records a very different reality. Inmates are seen almost gleefully going about their chores: farming, doing laundry, taking care of the sick at the camp’s hospital; and even partaking in athletic activities, classical music concerts and vaudville shows. Farocki has edited the B&W silent footage down and added intertitles, but any commentary seems almost superfluous in the face of these deeply unsettling images. (7/10)
The Rabbit Hunters, Pedro Costa, Portugal. Documentary, 22 min.
Whereas Jia Zhang Ke’s In Public alienates with its unrelentingly grim message of loneliness and despair, Costa’s implicates the viewer, asking us to care about the lives of Alberto, Ventura and Alfredo, three homeless men with nowhere to go and no one to turn to. With striking wide-angle compositions and vibrant use of color, Costa manages to discover beauty even in the bleak urban landscape. Excellent image quality and subtitling. (8/10)
Correspondances, Eugène Green, France. Drama, 39 min.
Lofty sentiments and youthful idealism might appeal to a certain aging art house crowd. (3/10)
Disc Nine (2008): “Return”
Expectations, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Chad. Drama, 29 min.
A frustratingly ambiguous parable about a man trying to escape the misery and poverty of his village, Expections did not fulfill mine. The washed out image has a disagreeable cyan cast. My Oppo player experienced momentary difficulty reading the disc at the 22 minute mark. (3/10)
The Birthday, Idrissa Ouédraogo, Burkina Faso. Comedy/Thriller, 12 min.
A wealthy man takes revenge on his wife and her lover on her birthday. Clocking in at a mere twelve minutes, with only the slightest pretense of a plot and a poster prominently on display endorsing another of the director’s own films, this one-liner can’t have amused festival organizers. (7/10)
The Alphabet of My Mother, Nacer Khemir, Tunisia. Drama, 34 min.
Yet another navel-gazing work about a director who has promised to finish a film for a festival. (4/10)
The Jeonju Digital Project (2000-2008) is housed in a sturdy black outer box with an inner orange box containing three folding digipacks holding three discs apiece. A bilingual booklet provides largely incomprehensible synopses for the individual films.
Menu options are very clear. Image quality varies from acceptable to quite good, with overall quality improving substantially in the last few discs, undoubtedly owing to the enormous strides in digital technology over the past decade. Combing, aliasing, ghosting and a general softness crop up in the worst offenders. Subtitling is good, with exceptions noted in the individual capsule reviews. There are no supplements.
This comprehensive anthology of digital short films furnishes a unique opportunity to discover how some of the world’s finest directors respond to the challenge of making a film on a shoestring budget, and those seeking out more challenging fare will certainly find it here. Although the lack of editorial restraint has resulted in widely varying production values and an unfortunate lack of cohesiveness, the project has also inspired some of the most engaged cinema we’ve seen in some time. Most successful in this respect are the documentaries: in particular, the films of Eric Khoo, Pedro Costa, Bahman Ghobadi and of course, Bong Joon-ho’s mockumentary. Less happy in this regard are many of the experimental films, which seem blithely unconcerned with reaching beyond a small coterie of art house afficiandos, and by way of compensation don’t even offer the peripheral delights of stimulating visuals. A few appear to even flaunt their utter disregard for technical matters. Whether from narcissism or lack of inspiration, no fewer than five of the films deal directly or indirectly with filmmaking, with predictably uneven results.
Proof that low budget doesn’t necessarily mean shoddy production values, several of the entries distinguish themselves with remarkable cinematography. For those taking advantage of DV’s unique capabilities, we would single out the films of Zhang Yuan, Park Ki-young, John Akomfrah, Shinya Tsukamoto, Song Il-gon, and Pen-ek Ratanaruang. While there are several instances of fine lensmanship, in terms of acting, (aside from the wonderful ensemble piece Magician(s)) there are lamentably few standout performances across the twenty-seven short films in the compilation. First place would have to go to Jin Xing for her “role” as herself in Zhang Yuan’s documentary. Because of the lackluster transfer, the eclectic nature of the collection, the lack of bonus material and the pricetag, this set can only be recommended to the more intrepid collector. The Jeonju Digital Project (2000-2008) is available at JIFF’s website.
Single-layer, all-region, NTSC, non-anamorphic presentation. Optional English and Korean subtitles, 915 minutes.