Shock and Awe

Lim Taegue, The Seeds of Violence, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 82 minutes.

BUSAN MIGHT BOAST the bigger international reputation, but among South Korean cineastes, the Jeonju International Film Festival is respected for its scrappy integrity and unapologetic penchant for experimental and independent cinema. In a year rife with political uncertainty—not only in the southern half of the peninsula, with its recent election and media-exaggerated tensions with the North, but across the globe—it is unsurprising that this year’s edition favored strong, polemical visions entrenched in the present sociopolitical quagmire.

Among the local entries, the boldest statement was offered by Lim Taegue, a young, hitherto unknown filmmaker, whose debut feature, The Seeds of Violence, took the main prize in the competition’s Korean section. Shot in a flat naturalistic style, the film bluntly depicts the physical and psychological violence of military life during peacetime. This is not new territory for South Koreans, who are thoroughly knowledgeable—many from firsthand experience, others from the scandals and exposés that occasionally erupt in the media—of the abuses and corruption young men endure as part of their mandatory military service. The brilliance of Lim’s film is that it links these traumas to a wider cycle of violence that is also intrinsic to civilian life, a festering psychic wound at the heart of Korea’s postcolonial condition.

Other films dissected the violence of capital on the human body and soul. Alain Gomis’s Félicité sets its protagonist, a nightclub singer, on a mad daytime odyssey through the Congolese capital of Kinshasa as she seeks to pay for her teenage son’s operation after a motorcycle accident. Ultimately what stains your brain is the wild wailing alto of lead actress Véro Tshanda Beya. She translates the joy and despair of the drunks in the club where she sings on those endless nights, before floating somewhere above their heads and dissolving into an otherworldly ether.

Otherworldly musical genius also formed the basis of two intriguing documentaries. Film was just one of many mediums for Tony Conrad, whose limitless capacity for invention is ably captured in Tyler Hubby’s Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present. There are many surprises, as there are, unexpectedly, in Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger, which tells the story of the Stooges. Iggy Pop’s articulate, fierce intelligence gives a sharp edge to the reckless frontman he plays onstage, as he charismatically relays the details of his trailer-park upbringing, the Stooges’ early inspiration from avant-garde drone, and his take on the revolutionary antics of the MC5, with whom the Stooges defined a resonant Detroit sound. Both Conrad and the Stooges forced a rewrite of the history of their genres. Along with a bag of hydroponic weed, these documentaries should be required consumption for every teenage musician on the planet.

The films of Michael Winterbottom might seem a conventional choice for one of this year’s retrospectives, but for those who needed a further sonic-fueled dose of Dionysian disordering, there was always the chance to revisit 24 Hour Party People (2002). I needed to sober up at a certain point, and that moment came while re-viewing Winterbottom’s 2009 adaptation of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, where I came to the disheartening revelation that Klein’s devastating portrayal of neoliberal policies is far from dated. If anything, the process has only escalated. Viva los días muerantes.

The eighteenth Jeonju International Film Festival ran April 27 through May 6, 2017 in Jeonju, South Korea.