Ashamed (창피해, AKA Life is Peachy, Kim Soo-hyun, 2011)

ashamedOne of the very earliest films to address female same sex love in Korea, Ashamed (yes, really, but not quite – we’ll get to this later, 창피해, Changpihae, retitled Life is Peachy for US release) had a lot riding on it. Perhaps too much, but does at least manage to outline a convincing, refreshingly ordinary failed love romance even if hampered by a heavy handed structuring device and a lack of chemistry between its leading ladies.

Beginning in the film’s “present”, embittered art professor Jung Ji-woo (Kim Sang-hyeon) is auditioning models for an art project, whereupon she bonds with two students currently undergoing some kind of unresolved drama of their own. Hee-jin (Seo Hyun-jin), Jung’s pupil, has roped in her friend also coincidentally named (Youn) Ji-woo (Kim Hyo-jin) who, as she recounts in a lengthy flashback, she met in odd circumstances whilst drinking with layabouts in an alley. Eventually, Youn Ji-woo confessed to her that she’s attracted to people of the same sex, which has left Hee-jin feeling kind of awkward.

Trying to console her student, Jung encourages the younger woman to recount the story of her own great yet failed romance with a pickpocket named, yes, again (Kang) Ji-woo (Kim Kkobbi). Youn had been leading a dull and unfulfilling life as a shopgirl in a department store, baby sitting middle aged housewives. Disillusioned with her disappointing boyfriends, Yoon has entered a dark place where the thing she’s most sorry about in life is that she won’t be able to witness her own suicide. Accordingly she dresses up one of the department store mannequins in her clothes and pushes it off a roof, only it hits a car below and causes an accident.

Not exactly a traditional “meet-cute”, Youn and Kang first encounter each other surrounded by broken glass and are then handcuffed together by the investigating policeman (Choi Min-Yong) who was also just stabbed by one of Kang’s gang members after he spotted her pickpocketing on the metro. The policeman then randomly takes them to his friend’s Chinese restaurant which affords them an opportunity to escape even if they’re still chained at the wrists.

Though this very improbable situation points to a cute and quirky romance, Ashamed takes a non committal stance as regards to tone, throwing in odd details like strange priests living in the woods and Kang’s constantly unreliable self narratives but then retreating to something more straightforwardly melancholy. Love falls slowly as Youn recounts her lack of satisfaction with men only to find herself strangely attracted to her new handcuffs buddy while she, somewhat rudely, has sex with an ex-boyfriend she invited over for help with Youn lying mortified beside them. Suddenly realising why none of her boyfriends ever worked out, Youn feels, understandably, awkward alone with Kang and her ex and but is encouraged by Kang’s tentative but ultimately decisive grasping of her hand during the taxi journey onwards.

Kim’s attempt to avoid prurience whilst also pushing boundaries for sexual content unavoidably feels tame, hampered by the lack of chemistry between the leading actresses and lingering sense of embarrassment in his choice of camera angles. Though painted as a grand and heartbreaking love affair of a lifetime in the opening sequences, Youn and Kang’s romance never takes on the weight of tragedy or moves much beyond the very ordinary tale of two people who couldn’t make it work. This indeed may be the point, but given the melancholy atmosphere of the the three women discussing lost love on a lonely beach, Youn and Kang’s missed opportunity can’t help but feel slighting underwhelming.

Rather than the strongly negative “ashamed” the meaning of the original Korean might be more generously translated as “shy” or “embarrassed”, at any rate the film does not imply any of its characters have reason to feel shame. The title word surfaces a handful of times, most notably when the loosened up professor declares she has no need for it anymore, and in the final showdown with Kang as Youn attempts to challenge her on her problems with intimacy and commitment but fails to push her into a more honest space. Kang’s sense of “shame”, if that would be the right word, seems to be unconnected to sexuality but has deeper roots in the past which she remains unwilling to reveal. This sense of personal inadequacy fuels Kang’s drifting life as she feels the need to move on each time someone gets too close, afraid or perhaps on some level “ashamed” to commit herself fully.

Kim’s multi layered flashback structure mixed with imagined sequences and expressionist scenes inspired by Jung’s artwork proves an unwieldy concept which often detracts more than it gives. With a running time of over two hours and a romance which doesn’t start until many indie films have already ended, Ashamed bites off much more than it can chew but at the same time never fully engages with the most interesting elements of its subject matter. Flawed, if interesting, Ashamed is a bold and worthy effort yet one which falls far short of its target despite the committed performances of its central trio.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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.

 

Greatful Dead (グレイトフルデッド, Eiji Uchida, 2013)

OEO9ONpIf there’s one thing Third Window Films have proved themselves adept at, it’s finding those smaller, off kilter and cultish films that often fall through the cracks. Greatful Dead, the deliberate misspelling the title of which is only the first sign of its oddness, is the latest find in what might be thought of as “weird cinema”. Evoking comparisons with Sion Sono’s Love Exposure thanks to its christianising themes, wry tone and sheer craziness, Greatful Dead is not all together as successful but is likely to find its own fans through its undeniably cultish appeal.

Nami, like many movie heroines, starts by recounting her childhood as a lonely, neglected child. The younger of two sisters, she desperately tries to get the attention of her mother who is only interested in saving disadvantaged children in other countries whilst ignoring the needs of her own two daughters, or her father who is so entirely wrapped up in their mother that he’s barely noticed the two girls either. Eventually after her mother leaves and her father slowly disintegrates, Nami becomes increasingly isolated. After inheriting a sizeable fortune, grown-up Nami wastes her time in idle pursuits before hitting on her favourite hobby – an amateur anthropological study of the “Solitarian” or those who have driven themselves completely mad through loneliness. Her favourite kind of Solitarian is randy old men whom she likes to watch as they spiral deeper into depravity before eventually reaching their end game. Old Mr. Shiomi, who was once something of a big shot but is now an embittered old man, is her perfect specimen but after he receives a visit from a pretty Korean Christian missionary and becomes “reborn” her observational project is ruined! Mr Shiomi’s been stolen by God, what lengths will Nami go to to get him back?

Of course, the irony is Nami is the biggest Solitarian of them all and the one she’ll never be able to identify. In the accompanying DVD interviews, the director states his intention to highlight the increasing numbers of lonely, older people in Japan thanks to the declining birth rate and fracturing of traditional community bonds but in actual fact many of the Solitarians Nami identifies are younger people and some of them even appear to have quite serious mental issues which require more serious intervention. Taking frequent field trips and noting down rare specimens in a little notebook like some deranged “twitcher”, Nami joyfully enjoys the darker side of her hobby as her favourite part seems to be watching lonely people die at the zenith of their craziness. Though in fact both she and Mr. Shiomi have both in some senses chosen their lonely lives as both have rejected the interest of family members – Nami the insistences of her sister that the normal is best and to be strived for and Mr Shiomi those of his son (who may or may not be mainly interested in his money).

There is then, obviously, a veneer of social commentary, though it feels fairly thin at best. The main appeal is in the degree of tonal shifts that occur throughout the film. Starting out in a similar way to many a quirky comedy as young Nami goes to extreme lengths just to get some kind of attention from her indifferent parents, to her carefree adult life the film plunges off a cliff face about two thirds of the way through thanks to Mr. Shiomi’s “betrayal”. Where another film would end with Nami meeting another lonely person and becoming slightly less unhinged, Greatful Dead veers into some seriously dark alleyways filled with blood, murder and pensioner rape among other perversions. The wildest thing is the resurgence of Mr. Shiomi as he decides he’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take this anymore! Fighting back in an equally strange way (why does no one ever just call the police? No, sharpening a mop into a spear seems like a more rational solution), the furious battle between subject and observer is quite literally in the lap of the gods.

Greatful Dead is an undeniably enjoyable, wild ride that escalates in a gently expert manner from its black comedy beginnings to exploitation ending but never quite coalesces into something more. Its views on the place of religion in this lonely world seem a little ambiguous – would Mr. Shiomi have opened his door to the male missionary quite as readily as he opened it to a pretty Korean girl and how long would his quite radical conversion really have lasted? Is the church actually helping some of these elderly people who might just want company or exploiting them? The film doesn’t seem sure, not that it’s that much of a problem. In the end, Grateful Dead is a wild ride through crazy town and destined to become another cult classic entry in to the world of wacky Japanese horror.


Review of Greatful Dead up at UK Anime Network – released courtesy of Third Window Films this coming Monday 26th January 2015.

Pluto (명왕성, Shin Su-won, 2013)

GSEOiWzAs we’ve seen lately, there are certainly no shortage of films looking at the complicated and often harsh world of high school in Korea. Pluto (명왕성, Myungwangsung) takes a sideways look at the darker side of academic excellence when the praise and prestige of being one of the top students becomes almost like a drug and makes otherwise bright young people do things even a heroin addict in serious need of a fix might at least feel bad about afterwards with an all encompassing sense of entitlement that gives them a lifetime free pass for even the worst transgression.

June (David Lee) is a bright young boy from a regular high school who’s just transferred into an elite boarding school educating the country’s next great hopes. He may have been a top student at his old school, but here he’s merely average as the school hotshots are pretty quick to point out. Here, the top ten students are treated like princelings – a special computerised teaching room, no curfew, better rooms, better resources and they can more or less do what they like so long as they keep their grades up. Occasionally someone manages to bump one of the top ten from the list but they quickly get kicked out again. The top ten operate like some kind of swatters mafia – they all stick rigidly together, swapping hot tips for the upcoming exams that they refuse to share with the others and engaging in a series of increasingly cruel “pranks” they term rabbit hunts.

The film opens with the police finding the body of the previously number one student Yu-jin (Sung Joon) in a wood with June’s phone lying next him having been used to film the entire grisly affair. June is arrested for the murder but is released after his alibi checks out. Sick of all the struggle and unfairness, June puts his particular talents to use to try and teach the world a lesson about the sort of people this system is producing.

The picture Pluto paints of the Korean schools system is a frankly frightening one in which academic success is virtually bought and paid for or guaranteed by class credentials. Yes, the top students obviously must have ability – some of their activities may come close to cheating but interestingly nobody seems to want to try actual deception to get ahead. However, that natural ability has clearly been bolstered by their parents’ wealth. Attending an elite school and spending more than some people earn on private tutors geared towards knowing how to get into the best universities undoubtedly gives them advantages which are out of reach for others no matter how smart they may be. Perhaps that’s fair enough in a capitalist society, they didn’t ask to be born to rich parents and who would turn that sort of help down if offered it? However, though they may possess the virtues of discipline, hard work and a desire to succeed what they lack is any sort of empathy or even common human decency. Engaging in a series of manipulative hazing exercises, the elite group will stop at nothing to protect their status specialising in thuggery, blackmail, rape and even murder. The sort of people this system is advancing are not the sort of people you want running your schools and hospitals, they are morally bankrupt and only care about their own standing in the eyes of others.

Perhaps it’s fitting that this elite boarding school is housed inside a former compound of the Korean secret police, including a subterranean layer of prison-like tunnels once used as a torture chamber. Aside from the obvious school as torture analogies, much of them film seems to be about what people choose to ‘unsee’. The headmaster of the high school is aware of the ‘untoward’ behaviour of some of his pupils but refuses to do anything in case it upsets their well connected parents, damages the reputation of his school or has an adverse effect on those all important test results. The ‘Pluto’ of the title is referenced in June’s university application essay on the demotion of Pluto from the accepted list of planets. He argues that this is unfair and a fallacy as it’s illogical to measure anything by its proximity to the sun which is, after all, just another star which will eventually die like all the others. Just because it’s a little different looking, you shouldn’t necessarily categorise it as being in some way ‘inferior’ based on a set of fairly flimsy criteria. June, like Pluto, hovers in uncertain orbit on the periphery – always wanting in but perpetually locked out. Naturally gifted but from an ‘ordinary’ background where his single mother sells insurance for OK money, June can’t hope to compete with these elite kids even if his capabilities may be greater. A lot of decisions have already been made as to what people choose to see, have chosen to regard as an ideal, even if the reality is painfully obvious.

Though oddly funny in places for such a hard hitting film, Pluto is a difficult watch at times and paints a depressing picture of the high pressured nature of the Korean educational system and of human nature in general. The elite group are universally awful people who run the gamut from arrogant, entitled prigs to snivelling cowards which makes it difficult to feel any sort of sympathy and you start to long for bad things to happen to them which somewhat undermines the film’s premise. Perhaps the problem is just that they were awful people who were enabled by a system rather than people who started out good and were corrupted by it. Stylishly shot and supported by well grounded performances from its young cast, Pluto is a welcome addition to this perhaps overcrowded genre which brings more than a few new thought provoking ideas to the table.


 

Review of first Pluto published by UK Anime Network.