DVD Review (Part 4): Jeonju Digital Project 2000-2008

DVD Review (Part 4): 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 Eight (2007): "Memories"

Respite, Harun Farocki, Czech Republic. Documentary, 39 min.

The Dutch built Westerbork camp in 1939 for Jews who had fled Germany. In 1942, the Germans took control of Westerbork, converting it into a transit camp for deportees to Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and other death camps. A model of efficiency, it was the inmates themselves who registered new arrivals, served in the camp police corps and helped make the lists of people to be deported. In 1944, the camp commander, SS officer Albert Gemmeker, ordered a film to be made, presumably as a demonstration of just how resourcefully the camp was being managed. Rudolf Breslauer, who had fled Germany with his family to the Netherlands, was chosen to make the film. Using two 16mm cameras, Breslauer shot 90 minutes of film, but the project was never completed, the filmmaker meeting the same fate as thousands of other inmates at the camp. Instead of images of prisoners being tortured, starved, subjected to medical experiments, escorted into gas chambers, or buried in mass graves, the film records a very different reality. Inmates are seen almost gleefully going about their chores: farming, doing laundry, taking care of the sick at the camp's hospital; and even partaking in athletic activities, classical music concerts and vaudville shows. Farocki has edited the B&W silent footage down and added intertitles, but any commentary seems almost superfluous in the face of these deeply unsettling images. (7/10)

The Rabbit Hunters, Pedro Costa, Portugal. Documentary, 22 min.

Whereas Jia Zhang Ke's In Public alienates with its unrelentingly grim message of loneliness and despair, Costa's implicates the viewer, asking us to care about the lives of Alberto, Ventura and Alfredo, three homeless men with nowhere to go and no one to turn to. With striking wide-angle compositions and vibrant use of color, Costa manages to discover beauty even in the bleak urban landscape. Excellent image quality and subtitling. (8/10)

Correspondances, Eugène Green, France. Drama, 39 min.

Lofty sentiments and youthful idealism might appeal to a certain aging art house crowd. (3/10)

Disc Nine (2008): "Return"

Expectations, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Chad. Drama, 29 min.

A frustratingly ambiguous parable about a man trying to escape the misery and poverty of his village, Expections did not fulfill mine. The washed out image has a disagreeable cyan cast. My Oppo player experienced momentary difficulty reading the disc at the 22 minute mark. (3/10)

The Birthday, Idrissa Ouédraogo, Burkina Faso. Comedy/Thriller, 12 min.

A wealthy man takes revenge on his wife and her lover on her birthday. Clocking in at a mere twelve minutes, with only the slightest pretense of a plot and a poster prominently on display endorsing another of the director's own films, this one-liner can't have amused festival organizers. (6/10)

The Alphabet of My Mother, Nacer Khemir, Tunisia. Drama, 34 min.

Yet another navel-gazing work about a director who has promised to finish a film for a festival. (4/10)

The Presentation

The Jeonju Digital Project (2000-2008) is housed in a sturdy black outer box with an inner orange box containing three folding digipacks holding three discs apiece. A bilingual booklet provides largely incomprehensible synopses for the individual films.

The Video

Menu options are very clear. Image quality varies from acceptable to quite good, with overall quality improving substantially in the last few discs, undoubtedly owing to the enormous strides in digital technology over the past decade. Combing, aliasing, ghosting and a general softness crop up in the worst offenders. Subtitling is good, with exceptions noted in the individual capsule reviews. There are no supplements.

Final Thoughts

This comprehensive anthology of digital short films furnishes a unique opportunity to discover how some of the world's finest directors respond to the challenge of making a film on a shoestring budget, and those seeking out more challenging fare will certainly find it here. Although the lack of editorial restraint has resulted in widely varying production values and an unfortunate lack of cohesiveness, the project has also inspired some of the most engaged cinema we've seen in some time. Most successful in this respect are the documentaries: in particular, the films of Eric Khoo, Pedro Costa, Bahman Ghobadi and of course, Bong Joon-ho's mockumentary. Less happy in this regard are many of the experimental films, which seem blithely unconcerned with reaching beyond a small coterie of art house afficiandos, and by way of compensation don't even offer the peripheral delights of stimulating visuals. A few appear to even flaunt their utter disregard for technical matters. Whether from narcissism or lack of inspiration, no fewer than five of the films deal directly or indirectly with filmmaking, with predictably uneven results.

Proof that low budget doesn't necessarily mean shoddy production values, several of the entries distinguish themselves with remarkable cinematography. For those taking advantage of DV's unique capabilities, we would single out the films of Zhang Yuan, Park Ki-young, John Akomfrah, Shinya Tsukamoto, Song Il-gon, and Pen-ek Ratanaruang. While there are several instances of fine lensmanship, in terms of acting, (aside from the wonderful ensemble piece Magician(s)) there are lamentably few standout performances across the twenty-seven short films in the compilation. First place would have to go to Jin Xing for her "role" as herself in Zhang Yuan's documentary. Because of the lackluster transfer, the eclectic nature of the collection, the lack of bonus material and the pricetag, this set can only be recommended to the more intrepid collector. The Jeonju Digital Project (2000-2008) is available at JIFF's website.

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