A couple days before we were to leave for the Jeonju International Film Festival, DK and I were walking down the street trying to think of feature ideas for the event. He’s been pressuring me to be funnier and less serious, which isn’t really why I got into film criticism. I tend to oscillate between reverent and cantankerous. But I try to play along, just saying whatever I can think of. As Karl Pilkington once said: I find if you just start talking, you’ll say something. Eventually I suggested that I could do a Bill Simmons-style running diary of the event. DK’s eyes lit up, and I knew I had made a mistake. Then again, what the hell? The following is an account of our time at JIFF: the travel, the hotels, the food, the beer and even some movies.
DAY ONE: Friday April 29, 2011
We get on the train. There are about seven people in the car, yet they managed to seat all of us together. The rows in front of us and behind us are full, there is a guy in the seat across from us, and the rest of the car is empty. I watch Mavericks/Blazers updates on ESPN.com, and DK tries to steal my Skype password. He says that he just wants to call his parents, but I know what is really going on.
I wake DK and ask him if this is our stop. My logic is that the white people in front of us were getting off, so I figure we must be going to the same place. Instinct pays off, and we quickly gather our stuff. On the way out of the train I snag a sleep mask. The room where I stay in Seoul is too bright for sleeping at night. It’s like trying to sleep in a hotel bathroom.
The first sign of trouble (or exhibit A if you prefer the legal metaphor) that it’s a good idea to plan things: we don’t know where the bus will stop. We end up walking down the street a couple blocks to the bus station. Judging form the shops we walk past, it seems that this entire town is in the auto-parts or auto-repair industry.
(DK: A recurring theme in this report will be DJ’s paranoia and xenophobia. As well as his aversion to physical exertion.)
I don’t know what happened, because I’m just following along. Either we got off at the wrong stop or the bus stopped somewhere DK didn’t expect, so we take a cab the rest of the way to the festival. There’s a big board next to the main ticketing set-up that shows the screening schedule for the weekend. It seems that almost everything is sold out. For a moment I consider forcing DK into a suicide pact, but then we find out that they reserve 15% of the available tickets for sale the day of the show. All we have to do is get in line at 9:30 the next morning. Fair enough. We get a ticket for Ana at 8:00 and head off to look for a hotel.
After wandering around for a few minutes in the seediest neighborhood I’ve seen in this country, we reach the Hotel California. How to describe it? DK uses the phrase “Love Hotel,” and indeed the room number is printed on a heart-shaped placard attached to the door. It’s fair to assume that this place has hourly rates. Honestly I’m surprised that they have rooms with two beds. Still, it will be a place to sleep. There is even a balcony that is almost the width of my foot, so I can stand on it either sideways or on my tiptoes and enjoy the view of other sketchy hotels and gentlemen’s clubs.
(DK: How to describe DJ’s aversion to our admittedly sketchy accommodations? Like a guy taking his first shower in prison? I find his skeevishness mildly amusing considering his love of Fassbinder, Paul Morrissey and pickup basketball. I suspect that he is afraid I will try something on him while he is asleep. Latent homophobia will be another recurring theme.)
The best bi-bim-bap ever. DK promised and delivered. It’s the first time I have eaten it with raw beef. It continues to cook while you eat, trapped as it is in steaming hot rice and a burning hot pot. Actually it never really fully cooks, but so much the better for flavor and texture. If you eat meat, you should be willing and able to eat it raw. I think it was my grandmother who used to say that.
We have significant time to kill before the film, so we wander through endless shopping centers. Everything here has more floors than I expect. In the States the only thing you will find in buildings taller that two or three stories are offices and apartments, but over here they jam everything in there. Even the movie theaters we are going to all have seven or eight floors. It isn’t like we are buying things, so we abandon the endless shopping centers and have some coffee at the unfortunately named Brown City. Actually, I had a smoothie.
Ana (1984, Portuguese, António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro).
DK sleeps through much of it and then says that he didn’t think it was very good. I have a rather more positive impression. We have some discussion about whether it was mythic of allegorical. I’ll admit that it could have been overly symbolic. There were some inexplicable images – a baby laying unattended in the middle a road or a field, a woman dressed in rather pristine white who seems to be holding a fox as if it’s a pet, a rather explicitly staged Renaissance Virgin tableaux. However, since I don’t know anything about Portuguese history or culture, I just chalked it all up to idiosyncratic visual metaphor, which I often hail as a major strength. DK did point out that the adolescent daughter (I can’t remember if her name was given) wears the colors of the Portuguese flag, so I imagine that must stand for something. But is it an obvious symbol? I can’t say for certain. I thought Ana was interesting, and I tend to automatically esteem films that are slow and quiet. Also it seemed to be in direct dialog with Andrei Tarkovsky, even going so far as to quote quite freely from the end of Mirror as it reached its own conclusion. Perhaps I’m a sucker for works that seems indebted to Tarkovsky.
(DK: In reality I slept for about ten minutes and was awoken to the sight and sounds of a gaggle of wildly cackling geese. This may have been partly responsible for my unfavorable impression. More to the point, it was not the slowness or the symbolism per se that turned me off. The film seemed more like an exercise in shot-making to me. Purposely stilted acting, a largely inscrutable narrative and langour for the sake of langour. Like Pasolini or Jodorowsky without the gusto. I’d give the filmmakers another chance, however, especially given my ignorance of Portuguese film.)
We caught the last throes of some sort of event in the main ticketing and information area. There was free booze so we had some warm rice wine. It was tepid and syrupy and it hurt my feelings. There was a girl sitting by herself drinking a bottle of red wine like it was a forty. I felt a little better because of that.
(DK: I tried to encourage DJ to interact with another female human but he steadfastly declined. It was at this time I began to suspect he was purposely withholding his bowel movements in order to ruin the festival for me.)
The neighborhood around the Hotel California is now almost completely neon. Every door is a gentlemen’s club or a hotel. You mix and match. The clerk at the Family Mart where we buy our beers for the night seems far to young a woman to be working in this neighborhood, but I’m not from this country.
Loudness. I thought beer would help me sleep, but no such luck. Maybe I didn’t drink enough? It happens sometimes. Every time there is a breeze, which is pretty constant, the door rattles. All night long it sounds like someone has a hold of the handle, and he’s just jostling it back and forth, trying to make as much noise as possible. Does the breeze at least cool off the room? Not even a little. We have to leave in less than six hours to make sure we get tickets for tomorrow’s shows.
(DK: DJ complains incessantly about the room temperature while sleeping in front of the open veranda with a fan at the foot of his (larger) bed. I had no trouble sleeping whatsoever and did not notice any undue noise. In my heart, I believe DJ was anticipating intruders barging into our room and violating him. His disappointment spills over into his bitter words.)
DAY TWO: April 30, 2011
I slept a couple hours.
Pouring rain. We have to figure out what to do with all our bags. It would be annoying enough if it was clear and sunny, but when it’s raining like frogs and cats, the unwieldy turns burdensome. Did I mention that you are only allowed to buy four tickets at once? So I watch our stuff under a tent while Dave stands in line to get tickets for the Cine-Talk program with Kidlat Tahimik and Nostalgia for the Light.
(DK: I cannot trust DJ to acquire the correct tickets or to speak to the young volunteers at the box office without discrediting us with his misanthropy. So I let him stand under cover, as far away from other people as possible. Also, I borrow his jacket to quickly scour the surrounding area for some sort of convenience store selling umbrellas. DJ seems to take this as a given that I will scramble about in the rain getting drenched while he lounges in the lobby, checking his email. I regret our friendship.)
The rain stopped. From where I’m standing I can see that in front of DK in line are a girl who looks like Harpo Marx and a guy who seems to be wearing an ascot made of white mohair. DK and I alternately complain about the wait and bust each other’s balls a little bit when without warning a nearby English speaker inexplicably joins in. “Is this line even moving?” I ask. The guy, who’s wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt pipes up, “People are buying tickets to several different shows so it goes pretty slow.” Okay. Did you think I was just addressing all English speakers? After I accuse DK of being lazy, he says, “I’ve been standing in the fucking rain for an hour,” and our new friend retorts, “It isn’t raining.” Did I mention this fellow never introduced himself? Just started participating. He wasn’t even looking at us. He was addressing an invisible person floating above the crowd, but always in response to the things we were saying to each other. That’s borderline pathological.
(DK: The guy who looked like he was wearing the ascot actually had a plume of white chest hairs blooming from the neck of his shirt that reached his chin like a bird’s crest. It was simultaneously the most disgusting and fascinating thing I have ever seen involving bodily hair. Just repulsive. And didn’t those clueless hipster kids take their sweet fucking time buying their tickets due to the fact that they paid no heed whatsoever to the guy calling out the names of the sold out shows? In contrast, I completed my transaction in about 30 seconds as a long line of guests waited in the rain to purchase tickets behind me. Festival etiquette people!)
The clerk at the hotel we reserved lets us leave our stuff behind the desk since we can’t check in yet. We get breakfast at Paris Baguette. It is uncharacteristically cheap. The must have a different price structure here in Jeonju than the have in Seoul.
Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Spanish, Patricio Guzmán)
On the way in two different volunteers stopped me to say that there are no English subtitles for the film. The person who introduced the film once we got inside confirmed this. I pretend this will be okay, because one of the people on the way in told me that either the language or the subtitles were in German. I’m certainly not fluent, not even proficient, but it will be fun, I suppose, to see how far I get with my limited skills. The movie begins. It is in Spanish with French subtitles.
DK assures me that the movie was great. He goes back inside to use the washroom and leaves me standing next to a guy wearing a Jacques Derrida wig.
(DK: The film is a Chris Marker-esque rumination on the nature of time and our place in the universe. Director Guzman skillfully weaves together quantum theory, astral projection and devastating oral testimony from survivors of the Pinochet regime into a poignant and expansive documentary-essay. Filmed primarily in Chile’s Atacama Desert, Nostalgia for the Light enacts its own Copernican revolution in displacing the viewer from its local setting among the array of astrological observatories under the clearest sky on earth to a cosmic awareness of our shared humanity across time and space. Unforgettable. )
In the Japanese noodle place where we eat lunch, there is a TV playing some truly horrific pop music performances. I can’t tell if the past three songs have been performed by the same group of five girls who keep changing outfits, or if it’s a different set of girls every time. Is that racist?
(DK: No, but your hatred of things and customs which are different from what you are accustomed to is.)
Hotel interlude (i.e. naps).
Perfumed Nightmare (1977, English, Kidlat Tahimik).
Tahimik shows up for the screening, though he is not scheduled to do so. Actually, I had an inside scoop on this information, because he was standing in line behind me in the bathroom. It’s a strange place to meet a filmmaker. I saw this movie in 1995 in the first film course I ever took, and I have not revisited it or Tahimik since.
It was far greater than what I remembered. I duck out the side door before the talk begins so I can meet DK for dinner. He’s waiting for me in front of the theater. Some old ladies at the dry cleaners told him about a good place to eat meat. He doesn’t know where it is, but that won’t stop us, so we set off to look for a door in alley. We can’t find it, so we eat the first barbecue we find. There is mild disagreement about the quality of the pork. I eat a couple bugs with the bonchon. I can only describe the taste and texture as diverse.
(DK: It was the worst meal of pork I’ve ever eaten. I briefly considered converting to Islam after this meal. DJ seemed to enjoy it fine. My distrust of his taste grows.)
Turumba (1981, Filipino and Tagalog, Kidlat Tahimik).
The advertisements they run before every commercial are tedious and loud beyond what should be allowed in polite society: some guy who is utterly enamored with his own cuteness advertising tea which he believes makes his face thin, some sensitive type (you can tell by the length of his hair) taking a photo of a kitten on a rail and a bunch of high-pitched clams singing about texting. Is it obnoxious that these commercials are so tonally inappropriate for the movies we are watching here, or do they provide counterpoint?
(DK: I agree with DJ that the trailers are annoying and effeminate.)
I love this guy now. Not only were both movies great, Tahimik himself is about as peaceful a person as you will ever find. He gives long rambling answers to mostly tedious questions, but in doing so he manages to turn banal subjects into avenues for pursuing wisdom. Even though this room is unfriendly with heat and stuffiness, Tahimik remains utterly serene.
The first person to ask a question in English calls Tahimik a prophet. Settle down, buddy. The whole point of this guy’s personality is to neutralize those kinds of ideas. Perhaps it would be better to describe his film as prophetic. The difference is important. The heat in this theater is now punishing me. For what sins, I have no idea.
We are the last people to meet Kidlat before they shove us out the door. We tell him his film was wonderful, but I don’t get time to tell him my little story about being able to revisit Perfumed Nightmare with new eyes after all these years.
Miller Time. No, not the slogan from the television commercial from the seventies; it’s the actual name of a bar. We drink a pitcher. On the way out we get hung up by some middle-aged slob who, in his drunkenness, has found a way to simultaneously brag and complain about his English teaching job. Have I mentioned that almost every white person in this country is Canadian? We take his card and buy a couple Hoegaardens for the hotel room.
(DK: It’s not an exaggeration to say that most of the North Americans over 30 at the Festival disgusted me.)
Flipping around, basically just looking for something in English, I find The Simpsons. The first episode is god-awful. Homer loses an eating contest; his opponent dies, and turns out to be a trucker, so Homer pays him tribute by making his last delivery for him. Not a single joke in the episode. Just coasting on characterisms. But the next one is a dandy – Homer has to wreck Moe’s car so Moe can collect the insurance and keep showing his girlfriend the sweet life. “Excellent, sir; lobster stuffed with tacos.”
(DK: Despite the rain and travel, and DJ’s annoying pretense that he is “working,” ending our second evening with Hoegaardens and The Simpsons is immensely satisfying. The atmosphere is film-festive!)