JIFF's co-director is ready to face challenges head on

Co-director of Jeonju International Film Festival Min Sung-wook speaks during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily in Mapo District, western Seoul on April 5, 2023. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Some say that the experience of traditional cinema is dead in this age of digital streaming services and easily accessible home theaters. But Min Sung-wook, the co-director of one of Korea’s largest and oldest film festivals, Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF), is adamant that the cinematic experience of going to a theater and watching films with others will “stand the test of time.”

JIFF is facing a handful of challenges this year. For one, Min’s counterpart, the festival's other co-director Jung Joon-ho who is a well-known actor who built his career in commercial films — is receiving criticism for his appointment which some see as unfit for an independent festival such as JIFF.

The festival also has to grapple with the fact that it cannot use the Jeonju Dome as a venue for its events. The Jeonju Dome seats 3,000 people and has been the go-to spot for JIFF since its creation in 2000, but is currently under renovation.

Main poster for the 24th Jeonju International Film Festival [JEONJU INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL]

Last but not least, JIFF is confronted with the daunting task of reviving itself after three years of stagnation during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Min, who has been with JIFF since the very beginning, is unfazed by these challenges, however. Although he concedes that these obstacles exist, he is confident that JIFF can pull through.

The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Min to discuss JIFF’s plans to tackle such issues, what a film festival can offer audiences, the future of Korean cinema and JIFF’s founding identity as a film festival.

Co-director of Jeonju International Film Festival Min Sung-wook poses for a photo during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily in Mapo District, western Seoul on April 5, 2023. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Q: This year’s JIFF is the first one to be held fully offline since the Covid-19 pandemic. There have been concerns that during the pandemic, the Korean film industry saw a recession, but now that the pandemic has waned it is showing signs of recovery. What is the significance of the 24th JIFF in this context?

A: I think that we can say that with the end of the pandemic, the recovery of the film industry and film festivals is coming in earnest. During the online festivals and reduced events with social distancing that we held in the past three years, we could only invite industry experts, like directors and creators. We could not have ordinary audiences as we should have at independent film festivals like ours. The significance of this year’s 24th JIFF is that we are facing a full recovery and that we are continuing the tradition of the JIFF which is to discover alternative and independent works to show audiences. I know that commercial films and theaters are facing a huge problem due to the rising prices of tickets and the onset of streaming services. But film festivals, where people gather to watch works together, network and mingle to converse about films, are a wholly different matter. I am sure that we can offer more to audiences.

There has been a lot of criticism from within and outside the film industry about the appointment of Jung as co-director of JIFF. Do you think that his appointment was a justified decision on part of the festival organizers and Jeonju City?

Jung has done so much for the festival, such as bringing in a record number of investors for the events and rounding up a lot of goodwill as well as additional fundraising. I think that we need to address the commercial aspect of the festival too. We deal with alternative and independent content, but there is always the need to reach more audiences with such works. In that aspect, Jung is serving an important role, and I hope to bring much synergy in working with him as co-director.

A scene from ″Heavy Snow,″ one of the eleven films competing in the Korean Competition section of the 24th Jeonju International Film Festival. [JEONJU INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL]

One challenge JIFF faces this year is the unavailability of the Jeonju Dome, the largest venue in the city and the traditional location of the festival. How are you tackling this issue and what alternatives have you found?

We acknowledge that being unable to use the Jeonju Dome due to renovation this year has posed a problem for us, since there is no other location where so many people can gather together to watch films — that experience of being in a crowd with thousands of others to take in and digest works is irreplaceable. But we have tried to fill that void by finding multiple spots in Jeonju where smaller but content-packed events can be held. For instance, the opening film will be screened at Sori Arts Center, which seats 2,000 people, and the closing film will be shown at the Samsung Culture Hall on the Chonbuk National University campus. We also will hold golmok (small streets in Korean) screenings across Jeonju, where people can gather to see films together in beautiful corners and streets of the city and around the hanok (traditional Korean house) villages. Our hope is that the city of Jeonju itself will be transformed into a place where audiences can experience cinema.

Co-director of Jeonju International Film Festival Min Sung-wook poses for a photo during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily in Mapo District, western Seoul on April 5, 2023. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Speaking of the location of Jeonju, what are the pros and cons of hosting a film festival in such a culturally rich city? Jeonju is also a very popular tourist location for foreigners, what have organizers planned to attract foreign audiences to JIFF?

The pros are of course that Jeonju is a historically and traditionally cultural place, being the focal point for the start of the Joseon Dynasty and still having preserved so many hanoks and traditional infrastructure. But the cons of that is that Jeonju used to have this image as an old place, somewhere apart from mainstream culture or trends. So we wanted to give the city and the location for our festival a more up-to-date and lively atmosphere. When we first started JIFF 23 years ago, we were very worried about whether people would come all the way to Jeonju, whether this festival would even appeal to the people of Jeonju themselves. But the turnout was great and that has continued until now, though we have been hit by the pandemic in recent years. Over 80 percent of the entire audience of JIFF come from outside of the region, according to the internal data that we collect. Regarding foreign audiences and visitors, we have tried to advertise JIFF actively through more digital methods such as creating shorts on social media to promote the festival. We know that it is a high reach to expect foreign audiences to come to Jeonju from outside Korea just for the festival, but we are hoping that foreigners already in Korea will make the time to come to this year’s JIFF.

A scene from ″Flowers of Mold,″ one of the eleven films competing in the Korean Competition section of the 24th Jeonju International Film Festival. [JEONJU INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL]

People watch films through streaming services such as Netflix, or rent out films online – we do not go to theaters as often anymore. You also mentioned that the ticket prices for movie theaters are rising rapidly and that may also play into what some call the death of cinema. What makes people visit the theater and film festivals despite this, and what is the appeal of events like JIFF?

Let us talk about a piece of history to answer this question. The very first film ever made in the world was the Lumière brothers’ — Auguste Marie Louis Nicolas Lumière and Louis Jean Lumière — short film back in 1895. They made a one-minute documentary about a train and screened that to people in a cafe in Paris, France. But as we all know, Thomas Edison was the first person to record what we can call film footage, which he made years before the Lumière brothers. So then, why do we recognize the Lumière brothers as the first filmmakers? Because they shared their work with an audience. The cinema is a shared experience, where you watch a work with others, and bask in that feeling of playing a part of an audience. I do not think that the authenticity and novelty of that identity of cinema will go away anytime soon. We may turn to digital ways of viewing content and that is fine, but the appeal of events like JIFF will stay.

With that in mind, what is the future of the JIFF going forward?

Our identity of discovering and sharing alternative and independent films with audiences is the foremost element to carry on in the coming years, and with that, I hope to see a step-up, so to speak, in how we organize JIFF. We really wanted to invite all the directors, creators and casts of each film we are screening this year, for example. But we did not have the finances for that. I hope that we can take a step-up and ideally garner more investments and support to expand the festival into a richer, more approachable and even more improved version of what we have. And ultimately, I envision a JIFF that is the gathering event for filmmakers and film lovers.

A scene from ″Samsara,″ one of the films to be screened in the Jeonju Cinema Project section at the 24th Jeonju International Film Festival. [JEONJU INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL]

Is there a film that you feel particularly fond of and would recommend to audiences at this year’s JIFF?

It is hard to pick one, but I would say I wholeheartedly recommend Spanish director Lois Patiño’s “Samsara.” JIFF also funded that project, but it is not just because we funded it that I recommend it. It is a radical masterpiece that also won in the Encounters section at the Berlinale [film festival] this year. But besides just picking one film to ask audiences to watch, I would like to say that the 24th JIFF offers different selections for different types of audiences. We have the Korean and international competition sections, the shorts section, a section titled “Frontline” for the most provocative and new perspectives, another titled “Cinema Fest” that introduces films for popular appeal, and a number of others. I can promise that anyone will be entertained at this year’s JIFF.

The 24th JIFF will be held between April 27 to May 6 in the southern city of Jeonju.