BiFan 2022 Review: JINJU'S PEARL, Charming but Half-Baked Ode to Local Culture
After bagging a passel of awards at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival two years ago with his rich and lively debut Festival (full disclosure, I was on that jury), director Kim Lokkyoung returns to BiFan with his sophomore work, Jinju's Pearl.
Jinju is a promising young filmmaker about to embark on a new production. Disaster strikes when the cute café she locked in for her shoot is demolished days before filming. Despondent, she reaches out to an industry colleague, who urges her to keep going and suggests she head to the town of Jinju, where his friend might be able to help her.
In Jinju, she visits several interesting locations, but when she tries to find a café, her local guide has trouble finding one for her and soon abandons her in the middle of town. She eventually comes across an old school café called Samgakji and immediately falls in love with it. But disaster looms once more, as this location is also set to be demolished in a few days.
Desperate not to lose yet another perfect filming location, Jinju bands together with the café's distressed regulars, a local group of artists. Together they attempt to have the establishment designated as a cultural landmark to prevent it from being destroyed.
At the heart of the film is a circular pun that the English title can't quite capture. Jinju is the name of the protagonist and the sleepy town she journeys to, but it's also the Korean word for pearl. Hence the Korean title, literally 'Jinju's Jinju', could be interpreted in six different ways.
After a very original debut, director Kim has fallen back on a more typical premise for his second work, that of a young filmmaker struggling to mount a production. What separates Jinju's Pearl from other indie films about filmmaking is Kim's interest in local culture.
Festival was an invigorating surprise because it successfully mined traditional customs, such as those related to funerals, for comedy and pathos. Jinju's Pearl is just as earnest and warm-hearted, but whereas his debut showed us why culture is important, his new film merely tells us, without ever quite making us feel it.
The group of artists the film focuses on are more likely to be lightly ridiculed than showcased as genuine performers, which makes it somewhat difficult to go along with the story's main goal: preserving local culture. This is more than likely intentional, particularly in the case of Jinju, who is determined but a little misguided.
Jinju's Pearl has moments of comedy and boasts a compelling ensemble cast, but it's not altogether clear what these are in service of. Jinju has a story to tell about her father, which we glimpse in a few animated sequences, but the narrative soon becomes consumed with the quixotic undertaking of saving the café.
The film exudes warmth and revels in its small-town neighbourhood spirit, but Jinju's arc in the story, as a director who loses focus of her own film in favour of a fool's errand, feels dangerously close to being a mea culpa for where this film came from.
Charming, pleasantly naive and a bit half-baked, Jinju's Pearl once again demonstrates Kim's facility with actors and his generous and welcoming viewpoint as a filmmaker, but it's hard not to see it as a sophomore slump. Then again, the word slump assumes a temporary status. What goes down often comes up again.