On the Scene at the Jeonju Film Fest: MAD, SAD, BAD

Having been rightly regarded as one of Asia’s most important film festivals, the Jeonju International Film Festival returned on May 1 for its 15th run. Festival Scope highlights its importance on the Asian festival circuit as it introduces “independent and experimental films from around the world to audiences,” whereas One One Four praises its “focus on film aesthetics over commerce.”
The festival had a somewhat difficult outing last year, showing an above-average number of larger, commercial films, and has gone back to its independent roots this year by focusing on art house, independent and experimental films. That is what I hope to be mostly viewing during this festival.  I got the chance to get involved in the experimental scene on the opening day at the press screening of 3-D horror omnibus “MAD SAD BAD.”
With three unrelated segments that vary in genre and tone, directors Ryoo Seung-wan (“The Berlin File,” “City of Violence”) Han Ji-seung (“Papa,” “Venus and Mars”) and Kim Tae-yong (“You Are More Than Beautiful,” “Late Autumn”) suggested in the press conference after the screening that they wanted to use 3-D in a different way than most big-budget American films. They wanted to focus on drama over spectacle.
“When it comes to 3-D, comparison with Hollywood is inevitable,” said festival director Koh Suk-man at the opening press conference. “But ‘Mad Sad Bad’ distances itself from mega-budget spectacles and poses a very important question about the aesthetics of 3-D technology in film. This project is meaningful in that it presents an authentic fusion between technology and storytelling.”
The first segment was Ryoo Seung-wan’s “Ghost,” which is based on a real-life incident that took place in Sinchon in 2012.  Seung-ho (Lee David) lives his life in a Kakao chat room and finds interactions in his real life difficult.  When chat room member Yeo Woo-bi (Son Soo-hyeon), who is an object of Seung-ho’s affections, is in need of help to escape her jealous, controlling boyfriend, Seung-ho looks to chat room member Bizen (Park Jeong-min-I), a troubled, angry teenager who is being bullied at school.  Together they hatch a plan to help Woo-bi, but this plan has deadly consequences.
“I Saw You,” directed by Han Ji-seung, is set in a near future after a zombie apocalypse. But rather than hiding and fighting for their lives, humans have created a drug which subdues the zombies by repressing their memories and have put them to work as manual labor. Park Ki-woon is Yeo-wool, a security leader with a hatred for zombies, and Nam Gyu-ri is Shi-wa, a zombie with affections for Yeo-wool.
And the final, and arguably the best, segment is “Picnic,” directed by Kim Tae-Yong. It focuses on energetic elementary student Soo-min, played with aplomb by Kim Soo-ahn, who lives with her mother and autistic younger brother, Dong-min. Dong-min makes Soo-min’s life a misery, and after ruining her newest comic book, Soo-min takes her brother to the forest where he subsequently goes missing.
The decision to use 3-D as device to emphasize the drama was an interesting choice and ultimately a successful decision. Most of the dialogue in “Ghost” takes place over Kakao talk, so having pop-ups on screen showing the conversations with a heavy depth of field made it feel like a vital part of the film. We as an audience were interacting with the characters rather than simply sitting idle. And having spent a good deal of time in Korea watching the rise of the smartphone, I found the story a fascinating one.
Sitting in coffee shops watching how people today would rather spend their life on a phone than physically talk to each other baffles me, but watching Seung-ho and Bizen confide in each other online in a way they could never do face to face gave me a better understanding into the smartphone generation. What I don’t understand, however, is how someone could go from anonymous Internet friends to agreeing to commit a murder for that person. This is what made this story so fascinating.
I couldn’t decide whether “Ghost” or Kim Tae-yong’s fabulous “Picnic” was my favorite sequence.  I felt the 3-D worked well, especially when the film enters the woods and turns from family drama to something akin to a dark fairytale, but apart from this sequence, I didn’t really see the need for the device. The real star of the show is Kim Soo-ahn, who lights up the screen every second she is on camera.  She makes you laugh and she makes you cry.  It’s an excellent short film and was a great way to finish up a film that definitely tried to do something different and ultimately succeeded.
The only disappointment was “I Saw You,” which starts off well enough, with rapid editing, digital music and was reminiscent of the opening of “Shaun of the Dead.”  But whereas “Shaun of the Dead” was clearly a comedy that bathed itself in horror movie iconography, “I Saw You” never really knew what it wanted to be.
The zombie premise is a backdrop for the drama, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is when it’s akin to a generic TV drama. And certain moments appear out of nowhere, like the musical sequence with full on flash dance-esque dance moves. This may have worked in something like Takashi Miike’s “The Happiness of the Katakuris” because it did so with a knowing wink. But “I Saw You” feels like it’s just trying out several different styles for the fun out it.
I can’t talk about this year’s JIFF without mentioning the subdued nature of the opening ceremony.  In previous years, the festival opened with a glamorous red carpet full of celebrities and key industry figures, but because of the Sewol ferry disaster, all outdoor activities were canceled, including all musical performances. That’s a shame as this was one of the best things about the festival, but according to festival director Koh, this will allow the festival to “achieve the role of cinema, which is about communication and healing.”
With more 181 films from 44 countries, including 40 world premieres, there will definitely be a lot of opportunities to communicate and heal. This year’s JIFF runs until May 10 and I hope to catch as many independent and art house films as I can.

Categories: Festivals, Reviews


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