Making it Work at Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF)

The first post-COVID in-person South Korean film festival goes off without a hitch

In the final days of the Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) a warning sign popped up at the press badge booth stating that a person who tested positive for COVID-19 had attended the festival on May 1st and May 2nd, the first weekend, and the busiest. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, local health officials didn’t believe that the infection had spread, and that there was no need for  them to test festival-goers unless they showed symptoms. I may well have been the only person to see this warning, as even in the busier days of the festival the badge lines were almost always empty. The anecdote’s a fitting metaphor for the overall experience–much ado about nothing, although it’s probably because of the much ado that there was nothing to worry about.

Contact tracing and social distancing were omnipresent, as was mandatory hand sanitizer, and the films themselves surprisingly well reflected the stuffy experience of gaining theater access. They pulsed with the subtext of COVID-19. A full section titled Corona, the New Normal explicitly detailed the subject all on our minds. But beyond documentaries offering a firsthand look at just how COVID-19 unfolded on the local level, short South Korean movies in this section showed the reality of how this world controls everyone’s movement, like it or not.

Masks and teleconferencing at the Jeonju International Film Festival. (Photo credit: JIFF).

Beyond the movies, the teleconferencing aspects were unescapable, as JIFF conducted nearly all the usual festival events online, including guest visits from international filmmakers via teleconference. The South Korean filmmakers could discuss their films in person, but the audience asked all questions via QR Code. There didn’t seem to be any technical snafus, at least not at any of the events I attended. It might have actually been faster than just having a volunteer run around with a microphone, not to mention more agreeable to people too shy to stand up and ask questions in front a of a big crowd.

Social distancing guidelines meant that the festival left more than half the seats empty. I got the impression that COVID left  JIFF’s management guessing as to what exactly to do in terms of anticipating demand. For what it’s worth, they clearly underestimated it. A full 93.3% of all tickets available for JIFF sold out, most within the first couple days of the festival’s opening. This was remarkable even considering that they only made a third of the seats in theaters available for sale.

And, of course, no one could actually buy tickets in person. Here again, I can’t exactly complain. Film festival lines have always been terrible. Frankly, it was a bit of a relief I didn’t have to stand in one to get my badge tickets, the only place where the festival still considered them necessary since you can’t expect foreign guests to figure out how to make online ticketing work on their own.

In these days of instant streaming, the lines were also almost largely irrelevant, even without COVID-19. I’ve written in Book and Film Globe and elsewhere about how the South Korean film industry was already gearing more toward streaming even before COVID-19 broke out, and the Jeonju International Film Festival is another success on that front. JIFF has made all of the festival’s offerings available via the wavve streaming platform, at the highly reasonable price of about five dollars a feature. According to data released by JIFF, people streamed films 12,757 times on wavve. This compares to 7,048 the previous year, and 13,466 confirmed tickets for in-person theater admissions.

As for the top films at JIFF, the South Korean movie Kim Min-young of the Report Card had the most watches on wavve. The three international features that were in the wavve top five for JIFF are notable for being wildly different from one another. Number two is the 1996 independent New Queer Cinema film The Watermelon Woman from Cheryl Dunye, about a video store employee investigating an uncredited mammy actress from the thirties. Third was the upcoming surveillance and camera-focused documentary All Light, Everywhere. Fourth was Cryptozoo, an animated feature that’s pretty much what it sounds like- a story of a zoo populated by mythological creatures. The local independent film NOT OUT, which deals with an aspiring high school baseball player desperate to continue his career, was fifth place. I reviewed it here.

I feel fairly optimistic about JIFF’s future. For all the COVID-19 adjacent issues, JIFF, alongside other South Korean film festivals, have always been pretty upfront about how the purpose of a film festival is to actually get people to see films. JIFF has demonstrated a working framework to maintain the festival’s importance that I expect the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival and the Busan International Film Festival to emulate, even if they might not necessarily have to utilize the more intense restrictions should the ongoing situation with COVID-19 improve.

Trapped in South Korea, with or without COVID

Meanwhile, COVID still dominated the offerings. The very weird postapocalyptic scifi concept At the Surisol Underwater Lab just sort of shoehorned COVID-19 references into an already experimentally strange piece of work. Sweet Home more directly showcased a dystopian vision by featuring a family that lives on the same building floor but is only ever allowed to talk to each other via monitor. The more down-to-earth Miju features a woman breaking quarantine to mourn her husband, while Congratulations! imagines a birthday party in virtual reality, after a man feels empty just being congratulated online.

Despite the gloomier movies feeling more true to life, ultimately, I found my favorite piece to be the rather cute little stop-motion piece, Corner of the Room. In it, we see a young woman, in mouse form, trying to go about her daily life, such as getting a new job in Seoul, without ever actually leaving her room. Her misadventures are inescapably lonely, yet cute enough that it’s easy to maintain a sort of cheerful optimism. As dour as much of JIFF’s actual selection was this year it’s honestly hard to tell how much of it was just independent film being independent film. In South Korea especially, social issues with work/life balance just lead to very similar kind of frustrations as we’re also experiencing with COVID-19, of just feeling trapped all the time. 

The final film of the festival I saw, CUBE, just depicts a person frozen into cube shape,  incapable of any movement save for blinking, by an unknown virus. The story’s told mostly from their perspective, with masked and suited health workers  analyzing and prodding them. We only get to see the monstrosity right at the end. While this was almost certainly intended as a statement for how people, and these days young people especially, are molded into an appropriate form for the society in which they live, the implicit threat of COVID-19 is just as appropriate a metaphor.


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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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