Sunday, May 06, 2007

Jeonju Day 7: Festival Grounds, Picture, More Turkish Cinema

This is the only photo of myself I've managed to snag so far, off of a festival photographer:

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They closed off two streets for about three or four blocks, and a city plaza, and filled them with these tall yellow tubes sprouting behind me; at night, the tubes glow, giving off a bright yellow light. Unseen are blossomlike lamps made out of (as I discovered, looking closely) plastic cups (nice recycling idea there), some giant Lego-like blocks that contain dvds--would not know if they were for sale, or just free for the taking--a temporary performance hall that held concerts every night, and a jury-rigged two-story JIFF center with galleries and, on the second floor, a much appreciated cafe that served water, green tea, and coffees--I'd usually have green tea and water, unless I'm in for a long film, or was into my third or fourth film, in which case an expresso was in order. To the right of the JIFF center was a video screening room, and right out front are some hilariously homoerotic statues with hypermusclebound male figures.

The theaters were all located in this area--two facing the plaza, two on nearby streets. Very convenient, especially if you had to run from one theater to another to catch screenings. Plenty of places to eat, though my favorite were hole-in-the-wall joints where I had 1) a large omelet the size of a serving plate, topping a mound of fried rice, with a side dish of dark brown gravy 2) a small place that served nothing but kongnamul gukbap.

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Jeonju is famous for its bean sprouts (no wonder they kept stuffing me with em); apparently long ago some deputy governor cured an endemic disease found in the region by feeding people with sprouts, and they've been popular ever since.

Simply put, kongnamul gukbap is steamed rice topped with seasoned bean sprouts, green onions, garlic, sesame powder, sesame oil, red pepper powder, and served with salt-fermented shrimp, a soup made from anchovy and sprouts, and a raw egg cooking in a hot metal bowl. Hadn't the slightest idea how to eat this--the woman gestured me to pour the rice and toppings into the hot metal bowl to mix with the egg, but the bowl was too small; eventually I did it the other way, poured the egg into the bigger bowl and mixed it all together. Really good, and I can't stop marvelling at just how fresh the local vegetables are, whether in tourist traps or little places like this. Three thousand five hundred won, or a little less than three and a half dollars.

Side dishes--if they gave you only two, chances are you're in a tourist trap, if they put down as many as five, then you're in good hands--was a rotating reportoire that included kimchi, kimchied radishes, seaweed soup, little fried fishes in a sweet sauce, sprouts (of course), the oft seen bright yellow sweet pickled radish slices (always appreciated after eating hot kimchi), and this odd little plant with tiny leaves that had a distinct nutty flavor--showed a sample of this to some people (intrepid explorer displays his findings to anthropological experts!), and they told me it's a plant that's harvested in Spring, a real delicacy.

A popular snack is grilled squid:

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The picture doesn't quite convey what I had--usually I'd just point to the desired item, they would slice it into thin pieces, grill it on a tiny mesh sitting on glowing coals, then serve it in a large paper cone. Extremely tasty, and with a little cup of sweetish soy dipping sauce, but chewy stuff--expect to take time gnawing on this. Four thousand won, around four dollars.

Just as good was this eight-inch length of squid tentacle, sliced into slivers and grilled. That was a bit expensive; five thousand won easy, and it took me fifteen minutes to wear the tough meat down and swallow, but the smoky-sweet flavor was something to remember.

Critics consider Nuri Bilge Ceylan's first feature Kasaba (The Small Town, 1997) to be the least of his efforts; I remember seeing it in Hong Kong and being unimpressed myself. On second viewing, however, the film turns out to be a wonderful piece of immersive art, giving you the sights (gorgeous contryside surrounding rustic buildings, in unforgettable black and white), sounds (steam hissing off of a hot stove as wet shoes drip on hot surface), textures (the fluff of a bird feather, floating miraculously over a classroom full of bored students) even smells (a girl's lunch gone bad) of a small town. Ceylan uses lengthy close-ups to capture details, and only ambient sound for accompaniment; I would call him the Turkish equivalent of Terence Malick only Malick, comparatively speaking, still depends on the crutch of a conventional narrative to prop up his pictures.

Along the way there's a boy and girl playing in the forest and being casually cruel--the girl flips a tortoise upside-down, saying this way it will die since it can't bring itself back on its legs, then returns it to standing position; as they leave, the boy flips it on its back once more, then peers into its implacable eyes before running off. I remember this detail staying with me for the longest time when I first saw the film--wasn't the boy at all affected by what he's done, what he knows he has done? Now I see that it does affect him (not for Ceylan the obviousness of loud regret and immediate redress)--the turtle haunts the boy's dreams, and at one startling point becomes his mother, crouched precariously at a windowsill, ready to fall over...

The core of the film--its McGuffin?--is a long picnic where the family of the boy and girl roasts husked corn over a fire. Grandfather recalls the war, recalls being taken prisoner in Iraq, being homesick and far from home; bespectacled Father lectures at length on Alexander the Great and his military campaigns; younger brother Saffet (Mehmet Emin Toprack) jeers at Father, Grandfather, and all aspects of middle-class life. Suddenly, Ceylan's film, all contemplative and serene (even when a turtle is being tormented) crackles with tension; a confrontation occurs--it's interesting that Saffet, the no-good unhappy rebel of a young man, manages to provoke a confession from his better-educated, more respectable, more highly regarded older brother--then fades away into the surrounding darkness, as boy and girl fall into an exhausted sleep.

I'm not quite sure I can regard this as a minor effort any longer (that said, I need--or have become interested in seeing--Ceylan's other works); at the very least it's an extremely beautiful film, uniquely structured (the closest equivalent might be Renoir's Partie de campagne (A Day in the countryside, 1936)--only Ceylan's film stretches out for the course of a year, and covers more ambitious ground in its narrative mode). A lovely film.

Zeki Demirkubuz's Masumiyet (Innocence, 1997) almost feels like Dostoevsky, as men obsess after and degrade themselves for women, women humiliate themselves and the men who love them for other men, and the endless, unhappy cycle appears destinied to continue in the figure of an innocent child. The title seems ironic--who's the innocent here, Yusuf (Guven Kirac), a basically decent man just out of jail who falls in love with the whorish Ugur (Derya Alabora)? Bekir (Haluk Belginer), who's also in love with Ugur and has been so for a much longer time, having undergone endless suffering and sacrifice for her sake? Ugur, who is insanely in love with her pimp Zagor, a violent criminal and chronic jailbird who beats and uses her shamelessly? Ugur's daughter Cilem, a quiet girl often left to herself, watching television? Or humanity in general, for thinking happiness within reach, if one can only have what one desires?

There's no nudity in this film, or explicit blood, or overt violence, but the intensity and cruelty and masochism on view is almost unbearable. Demirkubuz seems to merely turn his camera on his subjects and allow them to cut loose, but it must be more than that--Bekirk pulls out a gun and points it on two occasions that I remember, and thanks to Demirkubuz's staging and framing of the action one is palpably aware of the danger (a danger one rarely feels in Hollywood films). He shoots the scene in one take, like a stage play; on the first occasion the incident occurs in a hotel lobby, and Demirkubuz angles the camera in such a way that you can see the bullet will go through the door and hit a man standing outside. A later, even more frightening moment involves all three lovers on the floor and Bekirk trying to get a clear shot at Ugur, with only Yusuf in the way; the weeping, the raw emotions, the hand with trembling gun serve to keep you watching, wondering with bated breath just what will happen next, a tension Demirkubuz seems able to sustain for almost the length of the film. Amazing stuff.

2 comments:

Adam Hartzell said...

Noel,

I'm sitting here eating a decent bagel w/ cream cheese while reading this and you STILL have me hungry and hankering for Korean food. My favorite film festival food when at Busan or the Women's Film Festival in Seoul is the Kim Bab. It's burrito-esque in its mobility, enabling me to get a quick, tasty meal in between screenings.

Adam

Noel Vera said...

Oy, yes, I've had Kim Bab, and didn't realize it. Thought it was just Japanese sushi. It's good.

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