Franky and Friends: A Tree of Life (극장판 프랭키와 친구들: 생명의 나무, Park Jung-oh, 2016)

Franky and Friends tree of life posterChildren’s films are full of messages and advice about how to grow up into a fine, upstanding person. Franky and Friends began life as a TV series in which the titular polar bear, Franky, and his friends live in a world of self sufficiency in which everything they consume they must grow for themselves in their kitchen garden. The problem is Franky is essentially still a child which means he wants everything all at once and doesn’t know the reasoning behind his way of life. In other words, he’s just like the target audience and is about to learn what every parent wants to teach their child – to eat what they’re given and be grateful.

Franky, Kwon, and Pong live in a small cottage with the more mature Doo who cooks all their meals and tends to the house and garden. The boys, however (is it interesting that they’re so obviously male and Doo so obviously female even though they’re all fantasy creatures?), don’t want her sensible, wholesome food. They want everything else but *especially* fried sweet potatoes. Doo gives in and agrees to make some if the boys promise to eat everything all up. Of course, they do, but they’re full long before the pot of potatoes is even half empty. While Doo gets up to answer the door, Franky and Kwon scrape the food into a basket and take it outside to bury in the woods. They keep this up for a few days but weird mushrooms start growing everywhere and when the local insects eat them they grow to giant size and become ravenous, destroying the market garden!

As it turns out there is black magic at play in the strange land in which Franky lives. The only way to save everyone is to safeguard the Tree of Life from the clutches of an evil witch. The Fairytale Kingdom is home to a strange selection of creatures from abstract creations like Kwon, Pong, and Doo to guest appearances from Pinocchio, Santa, and The Monkey King. Later, Franky teams up with another friend, Misa, who seems to be something between the classic Snow Queen (only nice) and Elsa from Frozen but she doesn’t really do very much other than freeze things. Kids film this maybe but the references are retro beginning with a visit from a Godzilla-like creature to a large scale battle with skeletons resembling Harryhausen’s from Jason and the Argonauts.

The jokes, however, are considerably less highbrow with genuinely childish toilet humour providing the bulk of the comedy. Franky and his friends set off on their quest recklessly – not a good message for children, despite the positive reinforcement of Franky acknowledging his responsibility and pledging to correct his mistake, and appear not to have learned very much at the end of their quest. Still, the target audience probably won’t be thinking too hard about all of this and are most likely to pick up on the intended messages of the evils of wastefulness and lying to your mum about eating your vegetables. Hopefully they won’t remember the bit about magic mushrooms and life sucking aphids, but will remember that the Earth is everyone’s responsibility and if we don’t all agree to look after it together the tree will die and the witch will win.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Trailer (no subtitles)

Lost in the Moonlight (달빛궁궐, Kim Hyun-Joo, 2016)

Lost in the Moonlight posterGirl gets lost in a fantasy land and has to find herself to find the way out – it’s a familiar enough tale but then perhaps Lost in the Moonlight (달빛궁궐, Dalbitkungkwol) is mostly about that kind of familiarity. The debut feature from Korean director Kim Hyun-joo, Lost in the Moonlight was plagued with widespread internet controversy on release of the movie’s trailer and publicity material which heavily echoed Studio Ghibli classic, Spirited Away. Though this is, in some ways, unfair – you can’t escape the fact that fantasy mythical Korea shares some aesthetic similarities with that of Japan or China, or the fact that girls slipping into fantasy realms is the nature of the genre, it’s hard to get past the presence of the tiny helpers and their resemblance to Dust Bunnies, or the poster which puts the flying dragon front and centre. Nevertheless, Lost in the Moonlight’s intentions are less intense than Spirited Away’s and focus more keenly on a particular notion of learning to shine in the role you’ve been given rather than desperately chasing an external spotlight.

Hyunjunli (Kim Seo-young) is an ordinary thirteen year old girl who is set to participate in the performance of a musical at Changdeok Palace. Her parents, remaining off screen, sound supportive and are excited about seeing their little girl in such a big show even if Hyunjunli is a typical teenager who’s mortified at the idea of her parents showing up and embarrassing her, or she them with her minimal involvement in the action. Though shy and dreamy, Hyunjunli longs for the spotlight and feels silly stuck at the back of the chorus playing the very uninspiring part of a tree while her friends get to play animal gods and all manner of other exciting things.

Meanwhile, a Rat God of time is feeling exactly the same, tired of just standing around in the back not really doing anything. He makes a break for it and ends up in the human world where he drops his magic tag. Hyunjunli, a helpful sort of person, picks it up and is whisked off to a fantasy land where she meets a new friend, Mr. Squirrel, and is taken to the Moonlight Palace by the mysterious Lady Blossom.

Hyunjunli in the land of Moonlight is story of a little girl lost that runs back through Alice in Wonderland among many others, though the stakes originally appear a little lower as Moonlight seems safe enough save for the talking animals and general unfamiliarity of the place. The setting is inspired by traditional Korean mythology with its bickering mountain gods and focus on the natural world but is also, of course, heavily influenced by Hyunjunli’s perception of it. Slightly confusingly, the film has a mild environmentalist message as the conspiracy Hyunjunli walks straight into revolves around the awakening of the juniper tree which allows all the trees which have apparently been arrested by the tyrannical rule of time to get up and exact revenge against humanity for its widespread destruction of the planet, meaning that Hyunjunli has to find a way to restore time and stop the murderous tree rampage to save the Earth (which is also what the trees want to do).

Predictably enough, the fantasy land situation echoes Hyunjunli’s own as the drama is revealed to have been caused by the Rat God who also felt bored and unloved working as part of a team rather than doing something flashier out in front. What Hyunjunli learns is that everyone has their place and that the system fails when the little guys don’t pull their weight. The message, that there are no small parts just small actors, is fair enough as Hyunjunli realises it’s wrong to try and steal a spotlight which does not belong to you but then it also reinforces a less palatable message about social conformity and the necessity of living only inside the box in which you were born. Nevertheless, even if it does not always make complete sense Lost in the Moonlight does manage to provide a family friendly fantasy that its target audience may well be far more forgiving of than the confused adults watching along with them.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kai (카이 : 거울 호수의 전설, Lee Sung-gang, 2016)

photo743471Review of Korean animation Kai (카이 : 거울 호수의 전설, Kai: Geowool Hosueui Jeonseol) first published by UK Anime Network.


Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, The Snow Queen, has inspired a great number of animated classics with Disney’s Frozen not least among them. This Korean take shifts the action to the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and a young boy who failed to save his sister from a tragic accident only to see her fall into the clutches of an evil magician. Kai comes with a solid pedigree as it’s produced by one of the country’s leading animation lights in Yeon Sang-ho (King of Pigs, The Fake) and helmed by another successful director Lee Sung-gang (Yobi, The Five Tailed Fox), yet despite all of its advantages Kai still suffers from many of the same problems which continually plague Korean animation including noticeably low production values and an inability to move beyond children’s animation.

Beginning with a brief narrative voiceover detailing the origin story of the Snow Queen Hattan, the action then shifts to a convoy of nomads in Mongolia attempting to traverse a mountain in heavy snow. Youngster Kai is travelling with his family but quickly gets into trouble. Despite his mother’s desperate attempt to save both her children, only Kai is rescued with his sister Shamui falling into the snow below.

Years pass and Kai and his mother try to make a life for themselves, little knowing that Shamui is still alive but a prisoner of the Snow Queen Hatton. When Kai’s village begins to grow strangely cold, the villagers come to the realisation that the Snow Queen is back and trying to freeze the whole land. Kai, being the headstrong young man he is, decides to fight the supernatural threat all by himself entirely unaware that he is partly to blame for everything that’s going on.

Towards the end of his quest, Kai comes across a girl his sister’s age but fails to recognise his missing sibling owing to the intervening few years. Meeting again, she tells him her name is “Atta” which means “grudge” – a strange name to give a baby girl, still Kai is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and doesn’t even figure anything out when she tells him about her resentment towards the family she believes abandoned her. As in the original story, the Snow Queen seduces rather than bewitches Shamui through her emotional insecurity. Hurt and fearful, Shamui is easily taken in by the cold hearted witch who promises her protection and vengeance, even if rejecting familial warmth. The Snow Queen is not all ice as her loneliness dictates, though her inability to connect forces her to steal rather than earn loyalty as distinct from affection.

With younger audiences in mind Lee opts for a lighter tone than might be expected, moving away from the darker elements with cutesy forest folk complete with adorable spirit creatures and jovial childish rivalry between Kai and the woodland children. Though these episodes are enjoyable enough, they do detract from the overall narrative as Kai’s battle for the Snow Queen’s soul takes a back seat to the antics of a cheerful squirrel. Nevertheless, it all helps to lighten the mood even if it means that the story lacks depth as a consequence.

Kai is undoubtedly technically proficient and occasionally ambitious but also suffers from an obvious lack of production values. The TV quality animation will be turn off to those expecting a Studio Ghibli level of visual opulence but is of a fairly high standard given its limitations. Kai’s biggest problem lies in making its central battle engaging given its unwillingness to embrace the darker elements of its story in which unresolved negative emotions fester until they become infectious, forcing injured people to injure others in a mistaken attempt to heal themselves. Playing best to its target audience of younger viewers, Kai is likely to frustrate those watching with them but does offer a new take on a classic tale and enough cute characters to keep the little ones occupied.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

King of Pigs (UK Anime Network Review)

image-8-king-of-pigsFirst Published on UK Anime Network in May 2013


Korea has a long tradition of animation but is perhaps more famous overseas for providing technical services to higher profile productions from other countries. The King of Pigs is the first feature length Korean animation to be shown at Cannes and has been screened at several other film festivals worldwide, picking up a few awards along the way too. Korean live action cinema of recent times has earned itself a reputation for being unafraid of violence and difficult subject matters – an ethos which appears to have directly penetrated into King of Pigs which nothing if not extremely bleak.

As the film begins, failed businessman Kyung-min weeps naked in a shower while the contorted face of a strangled woman lingers hauntingly in the next room. He makes a phone call hoping to track down an old childhood friend – perhaps because he feels he’s the only one who can help him understand what he’s done or because he feels somehow as if this person represents a fracture point in his life where everything started to go wrong. This long lost friend, Jong-suk, seems to be in a similarly dismal situation – an under appreciated ghost writer who’s constantly berated for writing unemotional prose, he returns home to beat his wife after accusing her of having an affair (which turns out to be doubly wrong as she’d been meeting with a publisher about Jong-suk’s own novel). The two men meet and talk over a traumatic period in their childhood when their only protector was another boy, Chul – self titled King of Pigs.

The school system was divided rigidly along lines of economic/social status and academic prowess and neither Kyung-min nor Jong-suk found themselves in the elite camp. Beaten, humiliated and molested the boys appear to have no recourse except to grin and bear it – even the teachers and authorities appear complicit in this unofficial caste system. That is until Chul dares to fight back, violently, on behalf of not only himself but all the other ‘pigs’ too. The three end up becoming a team bound by mutual suffering much more than friendship or human emotion. It takes more than one boy to destroy a system though and circumstances conspire to ruin whatever headway they might have made. These times will affect each boy more than he could ever have guessed and these changes will not be for the better.

The King of Pigs is certainly not an optimistic film. Though it seeks to depict a corrupt system based on arbitrary and unfair principles, perpetuated by the adults in charge and those trapped inside it, it has to be said that by the time we meet the young counterparts none of them is especially sympathetic. It’s an unfortunate part of the film’s message but the fact that both the young boys are so passive and complicit in their own degradation makes it very difficult to build up a sense of sympathy for them. You might think then that Chul would be the natural hero of this piece as the self appointed ‘savior’ of the hopeless cases but his manifesto rapidly turns so repellant that you can’t get behind him either. What you’re left with is a group of misogynistic ‘little men’ who in turn transfer the frustration they feel with their own sense of inferiority on to those they believe to be even weaker than themselves. The film tries to imply that the grown up failures of these men are a direct consequence of a broken school system, yet as we meet them already in the system rather than as totally innocent children, it’s not possible to follow this line of reasoning as the boys appear deeply unpleasant from the offset.

Unfortunately, another thing the film isn’t is subtle. The director really wants to hammer home his message about the socio-economic unfairness that seems to penetrate every area of society and prevent any sort of social mobility, but often it’s akin to being hit over the head with the same idea repeatedly several times over the course of the film. It is extremely violent in a deeply uncomfortable way to the extent that you could call this a ‘nasty’ film – the scene of animal cruelty alone feels both like an underdeveloped cliché and a thinly veiled attempt at shock value. In short, the film constantly undermines itself by shooting straight for the extreme where a more nuanced approach may have made its subject matter all the more powerful.

As it stands, it’s quite difficult to recommend The King of Pigs either as an entertainment piece or as a serious art film seeking to examine Korea’s attitudes to social class. The film was made on an independent basis and some may find its aesthetic a little basic in terms of animation quality yet it does have some interesting directorial ideas and composition. Though it ultimately fails, the film does deserve some praise for tackling such a difficult subject matter – genuinely adult contemporary animation can often be difficult to find. However it’s partly its desire to be ‘adult’ that destroys its ability to be taken seriously – by skewing towards the ‘extreme’ audience who may only be interested in the violence rather the problems that underly it, The King of Pigs risks been seen as a schlocky horror story rather than a parable about some very real social issues.


Available now in the UK from Terracotta Distribution.

Review of Yeon Sang-ho’s second and much improved animated feature The Fake.

 

The Fake (UK Anime Network Review)

2013 - The Fake (still 7

Another Korean Film Festival review just gone live on UK Anime Network, this time a new animated effort from the director of King of Pigs – The Fake.


 

Yeon Sang-ho’s previous film, The King of Pigs, was the first Korean animation to be screened at Cannes and was nothing if not a bleak look at the prevalence and long term effects of bullying in the Korean high school system. His next film, The Fake, is another dark exposé but this time of another great pillar of Korean society – evangelical religion. False prophets abound as Yeon takes us on a difficult journey through the nature of faith, desperation and the exploitation of human weakness.

A small Korean town is slowly being dismantled before being sacrificed for new damming project. The people of the town are being appropriately compensated by the government, but still they’ll have to pick up and start again somewhere else even though many of them are already past retirement age. Two new forces are descending on this once ordinary town – one offers hope in the form of an evangelical preacher who claims to cure the sick and offers a place in a new paradise (to those with the money to buy a ticket – places strictly limited, terms and conditions may apply) and the other a violent drunkard, Min-chul, who wastes no time in wreaking havoc on the lives of his wife and daughter. Unfortunately, Min-chul picks a fight with the wrong person and is the only one to realise that the preacher’s “backer” is notorious fraudster currently wanted by police for a string of similar crimes. Sometimes the truth comes in unpleasant packages, and being the sort man he is, who would believe Min-chul when he’s the only one who’s seen through this “fake” miracle?

It goes without saying that like The King of Pigs, the world depicted in the The Fake is utterly bleak and without even the faintest glimmerings of hope. Every character is flawed, very few have any redeeming features at all and almost nothing good happens in the entire course of film. However, it is marginally more subtle than King of Pigs which is a much welcome upgrade over the previous film’s excesses. Faced with such a bleak situation, it isn’t surprising that the entire town has fallen hook, line and sinker for the false hope offered by the eerily cult-like preacher and his camp of evangelicals. The preacher himself may once have been a genuine man of god, but his business minded backer acts totally without compunction and is only interested in cold, hard cash. Peddling “holy water” as a supposed curative, neither the preacher nor the business man seem to care that one of their biggest supporters is currently suffering from tuberculosis and foregoing modern medicine in favour of this spiritual treatment – after all, the con is nearly played out and they’ll be on their way before their spurious claims are exposed.

Their only adversary is Min-chul, a man so rude and violent that people stopped paying attention to him years ago. It doesn’t help that Min-chul is much less interested in the injustice of the fraudulent operation than he is in taking personal revenge against the group, firstly because of what happened the first time he met the businessman and secondly because they threaten to take away his wife and daughter which seems to be the thing that most frightens him. Nevertheless, he is a dogged pursuer and his constant attention is enough to put the fraudsters on edge. The real horrifying truth is that some of these people half know the reality already, they just don’t want to hear it. It’s much easier to just believe in the false hope offered to you than to face a hopeless reality in which you have no control and no possibilities. If someone tells you they can carry your burdens for you and make it all OK, you likely won’t want to listen to someone who says differently and the fact of the matter is you’re very unlikely to trust someone you didn’t like very much in the first place no matter how sensible their arguments maybe.

In terms of animation style, The Fake offers a slight upgrade over The King of Pigs whilst retaining a similar aesthetic. Yeo overuses the shaky-cam effects which have an oddly rhythmical, computerised feeling which becomes distracting and works against their intended purpose but overall the The Fake feels much more accomplished in terms of production values. It’s a cynical message and hardly an original one, but The Fake offers its own take on the nature of faith and organised religion and bar a few missteps does so with a much more nuanced eye than The King of Pigs. Intensely bleak, violent and unremitting, The Fake is definitely not for the faint of heart but is a definite step up from The King of Pigs and ironically offers a ray of hope for serious animation in Korea.