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Springtime in Jeonju
|Lost in the Mountains|
Since I started attending it three years ago, Jeonju International Film Festival, which just (May 2009) celebrated its tenth anniversary, has stood out for its excellent programming. Jeonju has established itself as a showcase for challenging films from around the world and, despite the greater draw of Pusan for Korean filmmakers, has sometimes managed to secure the premieres of worthy Korean independent films, while also putting its stamp on world cinema with the Jeonju Digital Project, which each year produces an omnibus of three shorts by well-known directors.
A considerable presence in its home town (a small city about three and a half hours by car, bus, or train from Seoul), for nine days the festival completely dominates an area of several blocks known as Cinema Street. Young volunteers in yellow windbreakers throng the streets, eager to help out visitors with directions. The interest of local audiences (also mostly young) is high, with sell-out screenings, especially over the weekend and the ensuing national holiday, for even the most "difficult" of cinephilic fare. This year, the dedication of audiences appeared to wane in the last days of the festival (or did this impression reflect the erosion of my own capacities under a regimen of four movies a day followed by nightly assaults of beer, soju, and makkeolli?), and applause at the end of films gradually became the exception rather than the rule - at the screenings I was at, anyway. Still, Jeonju is the only festival in the world where the three people who stayed to the end of a Thursday night screening of Pere Portabella's General Report on Some Questions of Interest for a Public Projection (1976), a three-hour documentary on the death of Franco and the perspectives it opened for Spain's left-wing political parties, might find themselves, on leaving the theater, greeted by smiling volunteers handing out sample-size jars of hair wax as farewell gifts.
Jeonju's edition of the Portabella retrospective that has circulated around the world over the past two years or so was one of the highlights of the festival. I'll have a few words to say about the Catalan filmmaker's amazing films below. First, for the international competition, which was exceptionally strong (the competition is notoriously the weakest part of many festivals). The jury gave its main prize to Sherad Anthony Sanchez's Imburnal (Philippines), an astonishing, intimate study of the lives of a group of young children and adolescents who spend their days and nights in and around the effluvia from a sewer. The older kids drink, talk about sex, or have sex, the younger ones hang out in the mouth of a sewer pipe, playing with cockroaches. The film eschews all formalisms of genre, whether narrative or documentary, creating its own vocabulary while immersing itself and its audience for three and a half hours in a private, self-contained world of seductive images and sounds (to which bursts of radio reports in unsubtitled Tagalog add ominous counterpoint). Sanchez evolves what must be called a truly personal style, using a range of special techniques - slow motion, reverse motion, and what look like composite images (in which cars speeding laterally in front of the camera appear in sharp focus, while the images of objects that linger on the opposite side of the road are soft and subdued) - in ways that are unschematic and apparently unsystematic, but intuitive and responsive to the particular qualities of each scene.
Winning the international-competition jury's second prize was Inland (Gabbla), Algerian director Tariq Teguia's follow-up to his excellent debut feature Rome Rather Than You (Rome plutôt que vous, 2006). Inland reflects the contradictory political situation of present-day Algeria through a narrative about a disaffected urban intellectual who accepts a land-surveying job in the desert, where he faces the arrogance and incompetence of local authorities and the threat of violence from unseen Islamist terrorists. Returning to his trailer after work one night, he finds a young woman hiding there, the survivor of a doomed attempt by a group of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa to flee to Morocco and from there to Europe. Instinctively, the surveyor decides to help the woman escape, a decision that radically changes the course of a film that has already shifted direction several times: Inland is a film of, and in, flight, striking in its contemplative treatment of landscape and movement, in love with the possibilities of freedom, the quest for which leads the characters and the film to a final whiting-out of borders.
Some other films in the international competition can be noted briefly. The Happiest Girl in the World (Cea mai fericita fata din lume), from Romania: director Radu Jade finds a natural, unforced way of letting what the film is about emerge behind, around, and in front of wherever his central figure, a rather stolid high-school girl who has won a car in a promotional contest, happens to be. Yet this very unforced-ness can sometimes seem a little forced, under the mounting pressure of the action (mainly, the tense production of a TV commercial on location in central Bucharest and the girl's parents' efforts to get her to sign the car over to them so they can sell it): not enough is left truly open, in this film that has some very specific points to make about its society and culture and a structurally very precise way of making them. A North Chinese Girl (Dongbei, Dongbei), from China: Zou Peng's debut feature shows a certain proficiency, if not yet mastery, in a familiar idiom of Chinese independent art cinema: the delineation of an urban milieu of money-driven toughs and hardened schemers, the focal point being a 19-year-old girl on the fringes of this society; everything is shot in longish takes from distant or oblique camera angles, with information necessary to the comprehension of what is going on in a scene held offscreen until the shot has run for some time.
Simon El Habre's The One-Man Village (Semaan Bilda'ia, Lebanon) is a peaceful documentary keyed to the warmth and gentleness of its central figure, the filmmaker's uncle, a farmer in a small Lebanese village. The filmmaking becomes freer as the film progresses; good use is made of an uninsistent, almost unidentifiable percussion score in ways that feel intuitive but that go subtly against the image, opening it up rather than supporting it. Bradley Rust Gray's The Exploding Girl (USA) is the slight, ambling chronicle of a female student and a male non-romantic friend whom she houses in Brooklyn during a college break. These two and several other characters pad the running time mercilessly with their vapid vaguenesses (Gray's coy direction makes a big pay-off out of the moment when the heroine, instead of letting her cell-phone conversation trail off endlessly as is her wont, abruptly says "Bye" and hangs up). A scene in which the heroine comes upon her mother in the kitchen goes like this: "What are you making?" - "Um. [pause] a salad, or something." I realize many Americans talk like this, but does that mean we have to have it in a movie? What's wrong with having the daughter come in, see her mother pour oil on a bowl of lettuce, and say, "Hi, mom"? Hasn't Gray read Syd Field?
|Sex Volunteer: Open Secret 1st Story|
I saw two good films in the Korean competition. Sex Volunteer: Open Secret 1st Story (Gonggongyeonhan bimil cheot beonjjae iyagi), directed with great skill by Cho Kyeong-duk, tells of a young woman filmmaker whose arrest for prostitution in a love motel leads to the exposure of a sex-volunteer service for the benefit of the disabled. The multiple layers of the (presumably fictional) story unfold through various forms that function as documentary devices, enabling the film to criticize cultural and media constructions of sex work and the lives of the disabled. The prize winner, Missing Person (Sarameul chatseumnida) by Lee Seo, is a sustained work of bleak absurdism, with occasional moments of horror. The protagonist, a perpetually aggrieved real-estate agent who engages in multiple affairs with women and keeps a kind of dog-man as a slave to degrade and abuse, eventually turns out (as the different levels of the ambiguous narrative shift and reconfigure) to be the true "missing person," in this dark portrait of a society that has completely broken down. I saw some other films in the Korean competition and see no point in breaking the wall of silence that surrounds them (as it does, sadly, independent films around the world). I started to sample the "Korean Showcase" of films that had already received a theatrical release, but I gave up on this section after sitting through The ESP Couple (Chogamgakcouple; Kim Hyung-joo, 2008) and The Scam (Jakjeon; Lee Ho-jae, 2009): the former is a dopey mix of lightweight comedy and lightweight psychic thriller; the latter, which concerns stock-price manipulation, is done in the kind of hyped-up style that takes six cuts to show someone putting a friend in a taxi.
|Butterflies Have No Memories|
This year's Jeonju Digital Project featured good work by Hong Sang-soo and Lav Diaz. Hong's piece, "Lost in the Mountains" (Choepcheopsanjung) is a delightful film, both funny and uncomfortable, done in the director's most effortless style, concerning a troubled young woman who drives from Seoul to Jeonju to barge in on, first, a female friend, next, a former writing teacher with whom she once had an affair. When I left the theater I thought the Hong episode was the strongest, but with the passage of a few days I find that the Diaz, "Butterflies Have No Memories" (Walang alaala ang mga paru-paro) has left a deeper, if more troubling and obscure, impression. The film takes place in an island village in the Philippines whose fortunes have abruptly declined after the closing of a mining project. A girl who spent her childhood on the island and who then left to Canada returns alone on a visit, only to find that you really can't, or shouldn't, go home again. The tension of the story, which is filmed in clear, fluid black-and-white long takes, lies in the contrast between the girl's awkward and oblivious cheeriness and the more shaded attitudes, overt and covert, taken toward her by the villagers. Neither Hong nor Diaz is known for short-form works (in Diaz's case, saying that is an understatement, as the presence on the festival program of his seven-hour Melancholia  reminded us), and their episodes feel like they could easily have been (and maybe should have been) longer. Perhaps the third Digital Project director, Kawase Naomi, would have done better to donate her production stipend and running time to the other two, instead of using them on "Koma," her dreamy meditation on Korean-Japanese relations.
I mostly skipped the Jerzy Skolimowski retrospective (since I had recently immersed myself in the Polish director's work in order to write some articles for a book published by Jeonju) and managed to see only two films in a retrospective of Sri Lankan cinema. Both were excellent, and they are comparable in a number of respects. Asoka Handagama's This Is My Moon (Me mage sandai, 2000) uses mostly static, disconnected shots with actors always facing either toward the camera or along a line parallel to the camera plane (i.e., 180 or 90 degrees to the camera's line of view) - a style that (the director explained in the Q&A) was derived from temple paintings and that gives the film (a study of a Sinhalese village near the war zone in northern Sri Lanka, where the arrival of a Tamil woman who has been raped by a soldier from the village exposes the extent of a social breakdown caused by the lengthy war) an appropriately hieratic and distanced mood. Vimukthi Jayasundara's The Forsaken Land (Sulanga enu pinisa, 2005; Caméra d'or winner at Cannes) is also outstanding for its atmosphere and for its loving accumulation of scattered, elliptical perspectives on a scratchy and undernourished horizontal landscape. The film is a succession of details and incidents among which the direct connections are often missing: a couple fucking in a tree; a soldier who is put upon by his comrades, first relatively harmlessly (they drive him out to a pond, throw him naked into it, and leave him there), later terribly (he is woken up in the middle of the night to be given the task of smashing in the head of a captured man whom the other soldiers have been torturing). The narrative has both a sense of blockage, of something being kept from emerging, and also an implied cyclical movement that suggests that renewal might be around the corner.
The Pere Portabella series was a revelation. I had previously seen his latest film, the superb The Silence before Bach (Die Stille vor Bach, 2007), and saw for the first time at Jeonju the beguiling Warsaw Bridge (Pont de Varsóvia, 1989), which helped me somewhat to understand the progression of the Catalan director's work, but the major discoveries for me (belated, I know) were two early avant-garde features, Cuadecuc-Vampir (1970) and Umbracle (1972).
Cuadecuc-Vampir was shot at and around the production of Jess Franco's Count Dracula (El conde Dracula) in Spain in 1970. Portabella's film uses Franco's production in order to reveal the incongruity of its people - actors in period costumes and crew in modern dress - in the castle where they are shooting. The emphasis on incongruity (and the absence of direct sound) means that everything Portabella shows appears suspended, hesitating between meanings, ungraspable. Such an attitude toward visible reality is necessarily one of protest.
The location of Cuadecuc-Vampir in relation to commercial cinema is marginal and sidelined, but in that margin there is considerable freedom, as Portabella demonstrates by having his camera revolve around Franco's actors. Portabella's film reveals that there is a lot of space around Franco's film, a space that he defines as one of abandonment. Franco's actors and crew are stranded, not part of anything, in transition. They are images of themselves, living only through these images, players in a game of images that sometimes seems to bore and depress them. When Portabella shows fog and cobwebs being sprayed over the sets, the point is not simply the revelation of the artifice. The fake fog and the fake cobwebs are also real, because they are visible; and seeing how they are produced just adds to the oddness of their appearing. We have the sense that a ritual is being performed. Of course we know the nature of this ritual, it's not so strange: they're making a vampire movie. But because of the general transformation undergone by everything that Portabella shows, we see something that we are unable to put into the category of a "making-of movie" (a genre that, in 1970, was not yet fully institutionalized, and of which Cuadecuc-Vampir can therefore be called a subversion in advance).
Electronic music (by the excellent Carles Santos) adds to the mood of displacement and dispersion: individual sounds are discrete and specific, suggesting that the images they accompany should also be accorded their own weight. There is also another kind of music in the film, a lush Morricone/Nicolai-style pop theme, probably borrowed from a music-scoring library, that reminds us of the commercial and cultural context of Franco's work only to estrange that context, while bringing out in the images their latent content of unsatisfied longing.
At the end of the film, the scene of Christopher Lee's introduction to and recitation of the account of the death of Dracula in Bram Stoker's novel suddenly lessens the distance between us and the material of the film (for one thing, by introducing, for the first time, direct synchronous sound) while adding a new dissonance. Lee's final fixed stare at the camera (note, by the way, the theme of eyes in Portabella's film: Maria Rohm winking at the camera; Lee, in a shocking moment, sticking a rod-shaped instrument into his eye and pulling out an opaque contact lens) underlines his spoken emphasis on the "look of peace" on Dracula's face as he expires, an emphasis that transforms Cuadecuc-Vampir into a commentary on a political system that secretly wants to die and that lives on only because it cannot (cf. Jack Taylor's unsuccessful attempt to behead Soledad Miranda).
To return again to the idea of genre: Portabella's camera frees Franco's actors from their characters, their dialogue, and their plot and allows them to exist in two dimensions: that of the stereotype (hero, ingenue, vampire, etc.) and that of their own specific physical form, behavior, and mannerisms. Broadening these dimensions and enhancing their resonance are two kinds of disruption: a radical disruption of continuity, exemplified in the interruption of takes, and a disruption of the rhetoric of the reverse shot (as in the moment when two younger actors, Jack Taylor and Fred Williams, are made, through cutting, to appear to stare astonished at Lee's removal of his own eye).
Both these devices are extended in Umbracle, which I take to be Portabella's masterpiece. Umbracle again features Christopher Lee, not, this time, as an actor working on some other film, but as - well, partly as "himself," partly as himself "as actor," partly as.; frankly, I'm not sure what Lee thought he was doing while he was making Umbracle, but it doesn't matter because it all works and amounts to what must be one of the greatest and most complete performances in cinema. Lee appears first as a visitor to a museum of natural history. He stares at dead wildlife in glass cases; we stare at him (as does an onscreen character). He is an alien presence, well dressed, a little self-conscious in posture and bearing, and he is Christopher Lee, so we must wonder, when we see him, whether he is playing himself or some other role, or if he is "acting" at all and not simply looking at the exhibits (though then his "action" would be that, looking at the exhibits).
Outside the museum, Lee appears in further enigmatic, menacing scenes: walking on a sidewalk, he witnesses, through the magic of shot-reverse-shot, the apparent "disappearing" of a man by plainclothes police. This moment is amplified and exploded later in the film when, on the repetition of the effect, Lee apparently confronts inserted footage of Laurel and Hardy ("The Music Box"), Chaplin (dressed as a cop), Lloyd, and Keaton - footage that finally overwhelms its place in the context created by the editing, suggesting a riot of filmed images. A sense of the liberation of energy also informs the tremendous scene devoted to Lee as a performer on a theater stage (successively divesting himself of jacket and tie, as if the performance were a self-revelation), with the camera and Portabella as his audience. He sings, beautifully and with obvious pleasure, in German and French and recites parts of Poe's "The Raven." There is byplay between the actor and the offscreen director concerning cutting and not cutting (in anticipation of Wenders and Ray in Lightning over Water), as Portabella says "Cut," but, as Lee points out to him, the cameraman is still rolling. Lee also has several scenes with a young woman (Jeannine Mestre, from Count Dracula) over whose naked body, lying abed, he hovers, not to bite her neck but to embellish her with a bracelet, earrings, and a ring.
Portabella makes astonishing use of a long, seemingly intact section from a Spanish commercial movie of the 1950s by Pedro Lazaga, recreating episodes from the Spanish Civil War: it's détournement by lengthy quotation. There's an extraordinary scene in a shoe store, filmed in a manner that somewhat suggests an avant-garde fashion commercial, scored with an easy-listening choral version of "I'll Be There." The music links up this scene to a later sequence showing live chickens being trussed up and turned by degrees into packageable dead meat (scored with "Close to You": "why do birds suddenly appear."). The concise end credits go on under the beginning of a version of "Harper Valley PTA," which then continues to run its course over black leader for about two minutes. It's the rule at Jeonju that the audience is supposed to stay, out of politeness, till the very end of a film, so the screening of Umbracle I attended concluded in a manner that I am driven to call ideal: eighty strangers facing a dark screen and being forced to listen to a woman ponderously chant, with "aah-aah" choral accompaniment, "Then you have the nerve to tell me that you think that as a mother I'm not fit."
Obligations to other parts of Jeonju's program kept me from attending master-class lectures by three great critics - Raymond Bellour, Adrian Martin, and Richard Porton - but I was able, happily, to revisit the films that Bellour and Martin chose as the subjects of their lectures, Philippe Grandrieux's A Lake (Un lac; France, 2008) and Maurice Pialat's The Mouth Agape (La gueule ouverte; France, 1974). (They were two of the best films at the festival, as they would be at any festival.)
issue #5 (5.2009)