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

DVD Review (Part Three): 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 Six (2005) (cont'd)

Haze, Shinya Tsukamoto, Japan. Horror, 25 min.

Peerless Japanese horror filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto's Haze navigates the tortured psyche of a man (Tsukamoto) struggling with his conscience after awakening to find himself trapped in a tunnel and covered in blood. The more lucid his conscience becomes, the more agonizing his ordeals become. Closer in spirit to Tetsuo than to Nightmare Detective, Haze is a virtual assault on the senses: wedged between narrow walls, forced to walk along barbed wire or struck repeatedly in the head by a hammer, with tight close-up's of the victim's grimacing perspiration soaked face, this Boschian descent into madness feels more like a sketch than a finished film. However, one iconic image that leaves an impression as indelible as the films of Bergman or Dreyer, a close-up of Tsukamoto's weary face as he hears a woman's (Kaori Fujii) remorseful voice shortly before the film's ambiguous conclusion, of itself is worth the price of admission. Odd that the digital medium, which Tsukamoto found to be so liberating, should produce the most claustrophobic work of his career. Lighting, editing and sound design are all top-notch, but the otherwise beautiful image is all too often noisy and grainy. There is also an extended 49-minute version of this film. (7/10)

Magician(s), Song Il-gon, Korea. Drama, 41 min.

The three remaining members of the rock group Magician(s) get together at a woodside tavern on New Year's eve, the third anniversary of the death of Ja-eun (Lee Seung-bi), the band's guitarist. The gathering leads to a whole lot of soul-searching, the general gaiety barely concealing pent up feelings of loss, guilt and worries about the future. Shot in one take, the contrasty image and saturated color palette heighten the dreamlike quality. The transfer benefits from vibrant color and good shadow detail. Read Jason Gray's review of the 95-minute version. (7/10)

Disc Seven (2006): "Talk to Her"

About Love, Darezhan Omirbayev, Kazakhstan. Drama, 38 min.

Based on a novel by Chekhov. Kairat, an impoverished university professor, runs into Askar, a former physics classmate, now a successful businessman, who invites him over for a New Year's dinner. Kairat straightaway takes an unsound interest in his friend's beautiful wife. The characters lack three-dimensionality, and apart from perfunctorily establishing Kairat's liberal leanings, the script never adequately articulates the characters' individual particularities. Consequently, Kairat comes across as a presumptuous cad, Askar is little more than the caricature of a smug beaurocrat, while his wife Togjan is reduced to a mere ornament. The wooden acting and voice over narration, coupled with grammatically awkard subtitles, make this Chekhov adaptation singularly unrewarding. Picture quality is very good, if a little too contrasty. (4/10)

No Day Off, Eric Khoo, Singapore. Documentary, 40 min.

Singaporean director Eric Khoo's deceptively simple yet hard hitting documentary is a scathing indictment of the exploitation of domestic workers. With the promise of easy work and good pay, Siti (Syamsiah, outstanding), like thousands of other Indonesian women, leaves behind her husband and child to work as a maid in Singapore. Before beginning her employment, she must undergo a couple months of training at a facility that resembles an army barracks designed by Martha Stewart, where she is taught rudimentary English and is shown how to operate common household appliances. A sample question on a test given to trainees shows pictures of a toaster, a tea kettle, a refrigerator, and a clothes dryer and asks, "which of these items is used to boil water?". The 24 year-old woman, working for pennies a day, endures countless taunts, threats and insults over the course of four years, during which time she changes households three times. The director's decision not to show the faces of her employers, whose threatening voices are heard off camera, is chillingly effective. Very good picture quality. (10/10)

Twelve Twenty, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand. Drama, 30 min.

Based on Beauty and an Airplane, a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marque, Ratanaruang's film tells the story of a man (Ananda Everingham) who falls in love with a woman (Khemapsom Sirisukha) he sees at the check-in counter of an airport. Most of the film takes place in the sleek blackened interior of the plane's cabin -- the camera panning between the two seats, lighting now one, now the other of the occupants. The two passengers never exchange a word, title cards occasionally allowing us to know what the man is thinking. Those familiar only with his work on Dumplings or Wong Kar-wai's films might be surprised at cinematographer Christopher Doyle's uncustomary restraint. Both touching and funny, it is gems like this that make the task of a critic worthwhile. Christopher Doyle doubles as both taxi driver and captain in the film. Very good picture quality. (10/10)

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