3 digi-cams + $44,000 = 3 films about loss

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

Each year, South Korea’s Jeonju Film Festival supports three filmmakers to shoot a half-hour film using digital cameras. Each filmmaker receives a budget of 50 million Korean won (about $44,000). The results from last year’s show featured three up-and-coming Asian directors using their electronic tools in distinctive manners.

Sang-soo Hong’s “Lost in the Mountains” begins with a nervous young woman, Mi-sook (played by Yu-Mi Jeong), wondering if she has the nerve to drive a long distance. She takes a deep breath and makes the drive into Jeonju. She meets with an old friend (Jink-Young Kim) and one of her old professors (Seong-Kun Mun), but she can never shake the nervousness that she feels. Her hypersensitivity gets in the way of her capacity to master her own life.

South Korean director Hong favors long takes, which showcase his characters moving through complicated emotions. He also likes to split the movie experience between audio and visual. At one point, Mi-sook screams into a cell phone. She then collapses onto the ground, weeping at the unbearable news. The scene is interjected by a voiceover that summarizes what had happened quite soberly.

Hong also zooms in on three or more people as the confined space pushes one or more characters out of the frame.  Despite her desperation to make a connection, Mi-sook often ends up isolated, both personally and cinematically.

Japanese director Naomi Kawase directed “Koma.” The film is about a young Korean fellow (Kitamura) and his journey to a remote part of Japan to fulfill a promise he made to a dying family member. The fellow knows almost nothing about the area, and even less about the purpose of his mission.

Upon arriving, he meets an elderly Japanese couple and their much younger ward, Hatsuko (Yuko Nakamura). At first, he didn’t understand the purpose of his visit. The more he learns, the less he wants to leave, but he cannot abandon his life back in Korea.

Where Hong used zooms to separate his characters, Kawase uses the same technique to enclose and protect hers. The young man seems like an outsider at first, but long inclusionary shots demonstrates that he blends in better than he realizes. The director also plunges into the lushness of her countryside setting, delighting in colors, textures, and its overall sense of balance, which her protagonist struggles to feel within himself.

Lav Diaz’s film, “Butterflies Have No Memories,” is shot in the director’s native Philippines. His characters stand and sit around what’s left of a gold mine. The once-prosperous mine gave out years ago, leaving only poverty and pollution behind. This leaves the men of the mine with nothing to do but drink, fight, and be in despair. Martha (Lois Goff), a character that struck it rich and got out, returns to the impoverished area to see old friends. Over time, the disparity between her comfort level and the workers’ plight results in tensions that come to a head in the film.

Diaz’s masterstroke comes when the men disguise themselves using ceremonial masks from the Filipino Moriones Festival. Decked out in these elaborate head coverings, they look like mighty Roman soldiers, complete with helmets. Beneath the disguises, though, they remain fallible and even desperate. They strut as they might through the dense, butterfly-laden jungle.

From frustrated love to tearful reconciliation to sinister criminal plotting, the Digital Project vividly captures life and many of its complexities. Make room on your schedule to see it. ♦

“Jeonju Digital Project 2009” plays March 29–30 at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave. in Seattle. For show times, prices, and directions, call 206-829-7863 or visit www.nwfilmforum.org.

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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