There is a common thread between two otherwise disparate premieres in the Forum section of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival—Eric Baudelaire’s A Flower in the Mouth, shot in France and the Netherlands, and Dane Komljen’s Afterwater, shot in Germany. Both films benefited from the direct involvement of the Jeonju Cinema Project: an extraordinary funding and development initiative undertaken in partnership with the South Korean city’s local government and the programming team of its annual film festival. Together, these two works mark out something like a gesture of intention for the project. Baudelaire’s film is a rich, single-setting response to the demands of microbudget filmmaking and pandemic strictures both, particularly in its second half, which transposes a 1922 Luigi Pirandello play to an all-night café in Paris. Meanwhile, Komjlen’s film is a more ephemeral vision overall, composed largely of allusive daylight images of light on water; it is characterized by an abstraction as extreme and as blurrily beautiful as the best of Whistler’s subfusc portraits of the Thames. Baudelaire’s film takes pleasure in words and the brick-by-brick building of performance out of gestures (mostly that of Oxmo Puccino, a well-known French-Malian rapper who joined Baudelaire in Jeonju), Komljen’s in experimenting with the absolute pictorial limits of a filmed image.
2022 has, by all accounts, been a banner year for the Jeonju Cinema Project. The latest edition of the Jeonju International Film Festival—which wrapped up at the beginning of May and was one of the first major Asian festivals to invite international guests amid the hurried lifting of pandemic restrictions—took place against the backdrop of the project’s successes. The most significant of these may have been the premieres of Baudelaire’s and Komljen’s films in the Berlinale Forum, as well as a number of other films that were among the most beloved at major festivals across Europe. Being in the city myself this year only emphasized what an unusual thing it is that more than a handful of the most significant—if also the most modestly budgeted—European and Latin American arthouse productions of the past few years owe their existence to the local government of this small city in southwestern Korea, a four-hour bus ride away from Seoul. Upon arrival, I realized that the Jeonju International Film Festival is basically confined to a single street, dubbed “Movie Street,” where all the cinemas and the festival center are accessible within five minutes of each other. At the far end of Movie Street is the Jeonju Dome, a giant red tent at which the more audience-friendly films play and around which gaggles of people hang out, inspecting merchandise, peering at towering festival schedules plastered with “sold out” stickers, and posing in front of bright red and yellow festival posters. Pacing a few minutes further brings you, seemingly from one moment to the next, into downtown Jeonju—a blaring world apart from the bubble of the festival.
Until 2014, the initiative was known as the Jeonju Digital Project. When the festival began in 2000, the programmers believed digital was the future —which was not, as current programmer Sung Moon stressed to me, a widespread assumption at the time. From the beginning, Jeonju also felt compelled to distinguish itself from the massive spectacle of the Busan International Film Festival. With money from the local government, seeking to bolster Jeonju’s reputation as a culturally significant hub, the Jeonju Digital Project backed, in full or in part, a wealth of short or mid-length—and, it should be stressed, often major—works by filmmakers including but not limited to: Jia Zhangke, Tsai Ming-liang, Bong Joon-ho, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Darezhan Omirbaev, Pedro Costa, Hong Sang-soo, Jean-Marie Straub, Claire Denis, José Luis Guerín, Matías Piñeiro, and Naomi Kawase. The first Lav Diaz film I ever saw was his one-hour “short” Butterflies Have No Memories, one part of the Jeonju-funded omnibus Visitors (2009).
After a number of directors started to hand in significantly longer projects—no doubt making use of the cheapness of digital video as compared to celluloid in the 2000s—and as digital transformed overnight from periphery to industry standard, the festival dropped the “Digital” from the initiative's name, transforming it into the Jeonju Cinema Project. Half a decade later, we have A Flower in the Mouth and Afterwater, both shot in whole or in part on 16 or 35mm. Since then, the initiative has combined popular domestic success with critical success on the international arthouse circuit. And the template is more or less set: two Korean and one or two international projects are chosen per year and receive between $80,000 and $100,000 USD, depending on the exchange rate. Funding comes directly from the local government, but the festival works like a production house, and the profit from one film carries over into the next. In 2017, Lee Chang-jae’s Our President—a documentary about Roh Moo-hyun, the popular president who took his own life in 2009—earned so much at the Korean box office that it alone has ensured the Jeonju Cinema Project’s smooth functioning ever since.
The producers of a selected project have to sign a production contract stipulating certain conditions, one of which is that the film has to have its world premiere in Jeonju. There is some flexibility regarding the nature of a “world premiere”; Afterwater and A Flower in the Mouth both premiered first at major European festivals and then had their Asian premieres at Jeonju, although whether this is due to a compromise or pandemic-induced delays is not clear. Another is that certain basic principles of budget transparency are agreed to by the producers and the festival—the allocation of Jeonju’s contribution must be specifically accounted for, particularly in the early stages. Other than that, the films produced by the Jeonju Cinema Project are not intrusively invigilated. As the programmers told me, the festival is then content to watch the films prosper, taking the Jeonju name around the world. This year, two of the projects were selected by a jury of international programmers, including the next film by Chilean filmmaker José Luis Torres Leiva, a spiritual successor to his vital but undersung The Wind Knows I’m Coming Home (2016): half of its budget comes from the Chilean government, a small amount from the Hubert Bals Fund, and the rest (around 40-45%) from the Jeonju Cinema Project.
By and large, the almost unimaginable crises of the past two years have not led to an expansion of robust economic support for films and filmmakers, but a contraction in almost all areas of the sector. Examples of direct financial backing on the lines of the Jeonju model are few and far between. In 2020, the Locarno Film Festival offered support to filmmakers through a “future” competition—in the absence of an active Concorso internazionale—which funded projects left unfinished due to the pandemic; the then-uncompleted A Flower in the Mouth was in that list. In Prague, the Institute of Documentary Film uses limited resources to give life to smaller documentaries, to sustain them through various stages of development. Each year, dedicated members of their team select roughly 30 Eastern and Central European documentaries for the East Silver Caravan, a showcase that increases the likelihood of their distribution. But the Jeonju model—major and direct financial support right at the outset of a film’s life—is not typically the domain of large festivals, which often have robust industry sections at which producers and directors can sniff out potential co-production partners, a process that is long, difficult, and fraught with uncertainty.
Another hurdle for these humbler films is the dubious “restructuring” at so many festivals and film institutions. Many of them have gutted and neutered programming departments whose knowledge and connections would power initiatives like these. In the wake of the pandemic, the cost-saving axe seems to have been swung first at the long-term programmers, clearing the way for a larger team of cheaper freelancers. These are ugly decisions but also infinitely short-sighted ones. If festivals can offer nothing else, it ought to be dedicated specialization and depth of experience, a reservoir filled over time that can be drawn upon when building an original program. No amount of extraneous industry activity will matter if there aren’t smart and well-connected programmers loyal to the festival with an eye that can cut through the glut of new works. In contrast, the relatively modest Jeonju has been expanding not only the borders of its Cinema Project, but also a network of national distribution; the festival continuously releases specific films throughout the year in cinemas across Korea. Refreshingly, the institution centers expertise in its selection and understands the kind of cinema that has come to define it.
In spite of the internationalization of the arthouse or festival film industry, I can think of few instances where such a geographical and cultural gulf was bridged in these terms. We have long grown accustomed to scanning through a range of international names in film credits at festivals. The scope of the market for co-production, even for modest projects like Baudelaire’s and Komljen’s, has expanded exponentially as the possibilities for arthouse producers have dwindled, as the landscape has stratified, and as the pools of local state funding have been siphoned off or have dried up altogether. Several recent highlights of the international festival circuit have received support from the Jeonju Cinema Project, including Ted Fendt’s pugnacious but piercingly beautiful Outside Noise (which premiered at Jeonju and then FIDMarseille in 2021, and was a co-production of Germany, Korea, and Austria), Damien Manivel’s Isadora’s Children (Locarno, 2019; France, Korea), Camila José Donoso’s polyphonic portrait Nona. If They Soak Me, I’ll Burn Them (IFFR 2019; Chile, Brazil, France, Korea), and the overlooked, refreshingly coolheaded The First Lap by Kim Dae-Hwan (Locarno 2017). Jeonju’s support of these films and filmmakers, which comes in a straightforward form absent of excessive bureaucracy and hoop-jumping, is free of even the slightest sense that the films are being molded for purpose. When I spoke to Sung Moon, she showed me what a Jeonju resident had posted on Twitter: “I went to see a foreign film at the festival, fell asleep, and when I woke up the image had barely changed. But I’m so happy to be seeing these movies!” An apparently common response.
Indeed, the main competition at Jeonju this year was marked by little dogma and a lot of adventurous mix-and-matching. The West Coast slouchers of Kit Zauhar’s Actual People (2021) rubbed shoulders with the slouching porteños of Malena Solarz’s magnificent Album for the Youth (2021); both films found complements and contrasts in the peripatetic Aleph (2021) by Iva Radivojević, the tactile, tender Geographies of Solitude (2021) by Jacquelyn Mills, or the droll, stately Unrest (2022) by Cyril Schäublin. In the section titled “Masters”, the recent films of well-lauded heroes of contemporary cinema (Sergei Loznitsa, Bertrand Bonello) were wordlessly intermingled with overlooked new work by masters of a more obscure stripe (Artezvad Pelechian, Rita Azevedo Gomes), essential for many reasons but not least of all their sheer idiosyncrasy on the festival scene. The “World Cinema” section showcases more populist genre films from an array of countries around the world, while “Frontline” and “Expanded Cinema” try, whether through narrative or self-consciously experimental means, to nibble away at the boundaries of what ought to have a prominent place at such a major regional festival.
I am sure that the board of virtually every major film festival, in the wake of crises brought about or exacerbated by COVID, is agonizing over what they see as a vanishing relevance and diminishing returns; their sugar-high “solutions” appear increasingly irrational and ineffective. Parallel to all of this, Jeonju's film festival and city council have been supporting filmmakers in a direct and uncomplicated fashion: they have the right people, who choose the right projects; they support them, they fund them, and then, after a year or so, they watch as these films make their considerable contributions to the world of cinephilia. Choosing them could only have been a matter of well-developed taste and expertise. Thereby Jeonju makes its mark.