DVD Review (Part One): Jeonju Digital Project 2000-2008

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.

The Films

Disc One (2000)

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)

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