Interview with JIFF Programmer Yoo Un-seoung

Since it’s inception in 2000, the Jeonju International Film Festival has seen its line up of films include the works of Asian masters such as Japan’s Takashi Miike and Korea’s own Park Chan Wook, through to master auteurs David Cronenberg and Jean-Luc Goddard.  Not content with simply providing big names to draw an audience, JIFF programmers scour the globe looking for the best line ups cinema has to offer including screening the rare works of great filmmakers such as Bela Tarr and Jerzy Skolimowski in a bid to challenge and stimulate it’s audience.   The monumental task of bringing 100s of films to a festival is no easy feat, and I managed to talk to one of the programmers for this years Jeonju International Film Festival who discussed his role as a programmer, his love of film and the role of JIFF compared to other films festivals around the globe.

Before we talk about JIFF, I believe you have just returned from the Berlin Film festival.  How was that and what were you doing there? 

Mainly watching movies, meeting with directors, festival people and sales agents. And aside from selecting films for this year’s Jeonu International Film Festival, I watched one or two Russian silent or early sound films in the Retrospective program everyday. It was quite helpful to soften my anger caused by some bad films at Berlinale. Even though there were some strong titles like Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, Ulrich Koehler’s Sleeping Sickness and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, last year’s Berlin Film Festival was a total a mess. As a whole, this year’s Berlin Film Festival was a bit better but the jury’s decisions were so poor. They gave the Golden Bear to quite an old-fashioned movie from the Taviani Brothers… In my opinion, the strongest titles in competition were Miguel Gomes’s near-masterpiece Tabu, Christian Petzold’s delicate and intellectual Barbara and Ursula Meier’s heartfelt Sister. Among the films screened in the Forum section, I really liked Denis Cote’s documentary Bestiaire, which totally deconstructs the conventional way of personification in animal documentaries. He attended JIFF’s Jeonju Digital Project in 2010 and made The Enemy Lines with a support from JIFF.

How long have you been a programmer?

I started my job as a programmer of JIFF in September of 2004. But before then, I had worked as a member of the selection committee for the Korean short film program of JIFF from 2002.

How did you become a programmer?

Our ex-programmer Jung Soo-Wan called me.  At first, I hesitated because, until then, I had never been to any other countries. I was just a cinephile grown in Korean film culture in full bloom around the mid-1990’s. Before becoming a programmer, I was contributing film reviews to Cine 21, a Korean film magazine.

What does your job involve? 

Roughly, I’m in charge of programming for different categories including International Competitions, World Cinema, Stranger than Cinema – the avant-garde section, and some special programs. In addition, some book publications for retrospective programs.

What has been your favorite JIFF festival so far? Why?

It’s difficult to pick one. If I must, I would say that the 2011 edition was my favorite. To me, the most recent edition of JIFF is always the best, because I believe JIFF has always evolved every year. So, the upcoming edition will be the best.

How do you go about choosing the films for the festival?

I prefer filmmakers which perfectly recognize the present situation of cinema – another transition period. At the same time, I respect filmmakers who recognize their own position in the history of cinema. In brief, the filmmakers daring to be in the frontline as well as carefully looking back at the footsteps of other people. To me, the ideal model for this kind of filmmaker is Pedro Costa. He also attended JIFF’s Jeonju Digital Project in 2008 and madeThe Rabbit Hunters with a support from JIFF.

Can you tell me about a film you chose for last year’s festival and why you did so?

In particular, I want to talk about a film to which we bought the distribution rights last year: Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse. JIFF released it on 23rd of February and it’s still showing in theaters. I watched it at Berlinale last year. After having watched it, I was sure that it was the extremely beautiful swan song to the disappearing 35mm filmmaking period as well as to the director himself. And it’s one of those rare movies which shows everything in the film; humans, animals, plants and even inanimate objects, in the absolute “now-ness” without imposing any meaning on them. It is a pure cinematic experience.

Last year’s opening film was A Separation  which went on to win Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars. Are there any films that you think will go onto big things this year? 

A Separation was surely great, and it was extremely well-received last year at JIFF. At present, I will keep silent about this year’s big events. Please kindly wait until JIFF announces the full line-up which is released early April 2012. But I’m sure that the Uchida Tomu special program will be one of the big events this year. This year, we will also screen two rarely shown silent films of Uchida, Sweat and Policeman along with his other representative works. Don’t miss them!

Are there any films you wanted for the festival that you cannot get? What are the reasons?

Yes, there are – and have been – some films like that. The reason is simple: JIFF isn’t usually regarded as a business-friendly festival. JIFF has strong relationships with many filmmakers, producers or sales companies. But, especially in cases when some big sales agents are involved, they usually prefer the festivals which have a big film market like Busan. To persuade them, such a huge effort is needed. But I have a principle. Never make any kind of dirty deal or compromise for getting a film. If we cannot get a film in a proper way, it’s better just to give up. There were cases where other festivals “intercepted” some films already booked for JIFF while proposing the higher screening fee, hospitality or competition inclusion – or even worse, a pre-deal for award winning – to sales agents. I don’t like that kind of “festival politics”. It’s a betrayal to cinema.

You and your fellow programmer Jo Ji-Hoon are responsible for the foreign film selections.  How does the selection criteria differ from the Korean film choices?

In principle, there is no difference in criteria between us. But, in the case of Korean programming, it’s much harder than foreign programming because JIFF is troubled with the fact that most Korean filmmakers or producers want to send their films to Cannes. In spite of this difficult situation, JIFF has successfully managed to discover some important Korean films like Noh Young-Seok’s Daytime Drinking, Kim Dong-Joo’s A Broom Becomes a Goldfish and last year Lee Kang-Hyun’s The Color of Pain and Lee Seung-Joon’s Planet of Snail, the best documentary winner at International Documentary Festival Amsterdam(IDFA).

What makes JIFF different from other film festivals and why should people come?

From the start, JIFF has always tried to strengthen the specialized audience for innovative, adventurous and extraordinary films. I’m also one of the beneficiaries of this effort. I watched Bela Tarr’s Satantango for the first time at the 1st JIFF (2000) when I visited JIFF as a member of the audience. After becoming a programmer, I decided to meet the director and take him to South Korea. So I went to Budapest in 2005 for a meeting with Bela Tarr in person. Finally, I had a full retrospective on him in 2008. Most festivals are trying to get celebrities and promote the festival with their names. But I think the Red Carpet stuff is just luxurious garbage at festivals. At JIFF, the real heroes are the filmmakers who are struggling to make films with uncompromising minds. That is the reason why filmmakers like Pedro Costa, James Benning, Jose Luis Guerin and Lav Diaz are highly welcomed by JIFF’s audience, including teenagers! In 2010, when Pedro Costa visited JIFF, he was astonished at the fact that even Jean-Marie Straub’s films were totally sold out and nobody walked out during the screening. I’m sure that JIFF has the greatest audience in the world. JIFF is the best place not only for uncompromising filmmakers to find the right audience, but also for audience to meet those filmmakers in person, on Cinema Street.

What will you do once JIFF is over?

Reading David Hilbert’s The Foundations of Geometry again. Watching all of Tex Avery’s work and working on the summer edition of F, a Korean art magazine of which I’m one of the editors.

Un-Seong, thank you very much for your time.


(First published in April’s issue of Groove Korea Magazine)


Categories: Articles, Interviews


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