A priest telling lies or a devil telling the truth - The Fake examines the nature of religion

Adult Animation ‘The Fake’ (사이비) to get World Premiere at Toronto Film Festival

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

Director Yeun Sang-Ho (연상호), the man behind the highly acclaimed animated drama King of Pigs (돼지의 왕), is to have the world premiere of his latest film at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

The Fake (사이비) is a powerful socio-cultural examination regarding the nature of organised religion. When a man enters a rural community, he discovers the church minister is conning the community for his own nefarious purposes. Indeed, the word ‘사이비’ is quite specifically tied to religion, and roughly translates as ‘religious scam.’

The Fake will be screened under the ‘Vanguard’ program at TIFF, intended as an outlet for provocative and daring films. From the trailer below it’s very clearly a director Yeun film, and if it’s even remotely as insightful – or scathing – as King of Pigs then it’ll be a film to watch out for.

The Fake features the vocal talents of Kwon Hae-hyo (권해효), Oh Jeong-se (오정세), Yang Ik-joon (양익준), and Park Hee-bon (박희본).

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Colourful Dr. Swalski provides the tips Bo-na needs to move ahead, to great comedic effect

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서) – ★★★★☆

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

When it was released on February the 14th, How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서) had the unenviable – and quite unfortunate – task of competing with several enormously popular films at the box office, in the form of Miracle in Room Number 7 and The Berlin File, which earned over 12 million and 7 million admissions respectively. A week later, gangster epic New World appeared in cinemas, hauling over 4 million admissions. Despite positive reviews from critics and audiences alike, the romantic-comedy just couldn’t compete.

This is a genuine shame as How to Use Guys with Secret Tips is an incredibly energetic, entertaining, and fresh rom-com. Director Lee Won-seok (이원석) infuses the film with a wacky and colourful sensibility, whilst simultaneously probing the sexism that exists within the workplace and, by extension, Korean culture. While the film turns to formulaic predictability in the final act to tie up all the loose ends, How to Use Guys with Secret Tips is visually enjoyable and great fun, marking director Lee as a talent to watch.

Choi Bo-na is constantly undervalued and overworked - until she finds the video

Choi Bo-na is constantly undervalued and overworked – until she finds the video

Assistant director Choi Bo-na (Lee Si-yeong (이시영) has worked for years in a TV commercial company, endlessly slaving away on other productions while waiting for her big break…which never arrives. Moreover, Bo-na is very aware that her gender is an issue within the workplace as it holds her back from progressing within the sexist industry. When a new commercial for the company is shot on a beach, lead actor Lee Seung-jae (Oh Jeong-se (오정세) complains about everything, and Bo-na’s frustrated attempts to chastise the arrogant star results in more disapproval. So much so in fact that when the commercial has finished shooting, the entire team leave the sleeping AD on the beach. Wandering alone at night, Bo-na spies the colourful Dr. Swalski (Park Yeong-gyoo (박영규) selling instructional videos. Reluctantly agreeing to buy How to Use Guys with Secret TipsBo-na starts putting the tips into practice and suddenly her life begins to turn around with hilarious results.

While the story of a woman struggling in both her professional and personal life is nothing new in the rom-com arena, director Lee infuses the film with such a whimsical visual and musical vitality that it’s impossible not to be won over. From the outset the director’s keen sense of mise-en-scene and flamboyantly playful use of text and image techniques are apparent, yet it is the introduction of charismatic Dr. Swalski that allows him to fully display his zany aesthetics. The doctor – brilliantly performed by Park Yeong-gyoo – is a guardian angel of sorts who bestows advice on how to manipulate men through the video. The cheesy and camp sensibilities of such ’70s style infomercials are lovingly recreated to hilarious effect, from the costumes and props through to the mistakes and bad editing. What makes Dr. Swalski special however is that he is not confined to the TV set. Director Lee constantly plays with and breaks the barriers between the three realities – the video, Bo-na’s life, and the audience – which makes the film incredibly charismatic.

Colourful Dr. Swalski provides the tips Bo-na needs to move ahead, to great comedic effect

Colourful Dr. Swalski provides the tips Bo-na needs to move ahead, to great comedic effect

The comedy hijinks that ensue as Bo-na uses the tips are fantastically entertaining as they feature elements of truth, in that director Lee is probing real gender issues that exist within contemporary Korean culture. Bo-na is a great and talented director, yet her gender halts her progress. Her attempts to conceal her femininity with hoodies and to be treated equally merely results in hiding her attractiveness, which stops men making allowances for her. However when Bo-na begins employing Dr, Swalski’s advice, the story spins into poking fun at modern masculinity to great effect. From simple eye contact through to massaging the male ego, Bo-na learns the simplicity of the opposite sex and rapidly rises through the ranks. This is articulated the most through her relationship with arrogant actor Lee Seung-jae who, despite his initial snobbery, finds himself in very comical situations in attempting to prove his worth.

Yet How to Use Guys with Secret Tips unfortunately flounders in the final act. With so many funny plot threads to tie up, the story falls back on the predictable cliches found in the genre to do so. The absence of director Lee’s playfulness is keenly apparent during the resolution which is a real shame, as the build up to that point is wonderfully entertaining. Still, while the finale is somewhat lacking, the film is certainly one of the most visually energetic and inventive romantic comedies to appear from Korea in recent memory, and a great debut from director Lee.

Can Bo-na find true love and success without using the tips?

Can Bo-na find true love and success without using the tips?

Verdict:

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips is a wonderfully wacky and colourful romantic comedy, full of visual and musical vitality. Director Lee Won-seok is brilliantly inventive as he plays with genre and cinematic conventions, infusing the film with a seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm. The laughs come thick and fast as they are based in truth, including sexism in the workplace and the fragility of the male ego, which are explored to highly comical effect. While the final act falls back on cliche and predictability, How to Use Guys with Secret Tips is a very entertaining and fun rom-com.

★★★★☆

Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (제17회 부천국제판타스틱영화제) Reviews
The cruelty and injustice of life becomes too much to endure for the friends

King of Pigs (돼지의 왕) – ★★★★☆

King of Pigs (돼지의 왕)

King of Pigs (돼지의 왕)

‘Mature animations’ have, rather unfortunately, rarely been a staple in ‘Western’ cinematic culture. ‘Mature’ has often been mistaken for ‘sexualised’ due to marketing ploys attempting to introduce the concept. Yet in ‘Eastern’ cinema mature animations have proved popular for exploring a variety of adult and socio-political themes, ideological explorations which would often require a vast budget in the live-action arena.

Through his independent feature King of Pigs (돼지의 왕), writer/director Yeon Sang-ho (연상호) has produced an exceptionally powerful social critique of Korean culture. While the limited budget is at times visible and the acting occasionally over-zealous, King of Pigs is a stark and violent examination of patriarchal and hierarchical society, as well as the role of capitalism and corruption in defining one’s existence.

As a struggling writer, Jeong Jong-seok (Yang Ik-joon (양익준) is continually frustrated in his attempts at becoming a published author. Bullied by his boss for daring to give an opinion over a piece of writing, Jong-seok has a violent encounter with his wife as a result. Storming outside to clear his head, Jong-seok receives a call from a childhood friend he hasn’t spoken to in several years, Hwang Kyeong-min (Oh Jeong-se (오정세). Meeting for dinner, the two old friends reminisce about their youth and the difficulties of living and studying in an all boys’ middle school. Yet the conversation takes a darker tone when the topic of their old mutual friend Kim Cheol (Kim Hye-na (김혜나) arises, and secrets long buried are finally revealed.

After 15 years of no contact, Kyeong-min (right) calls Jong-seok for a reunion

After 15 years of no contact, Kyeong-min (right) calls Jong-seok for a reunion

King of Pigs is an incredibly gritty, violent examination of the childhood years experienced by contemporary middle aged men, and pulls no punches in emphasizing the Confucian and capitalist value systems as the route of all evil in Korean society. The narrative is one of the most powerful expressions of ‘Han’ cinema in recent years as the social injustice and inequality depicted provide the protagonists with palpable angst and rage, which director Yeon Sang-ho exploits by increasing tension to such an uncomfortable degree that violence is not only a prerequisite but a virtual demand. When it does transpire, the action is beautifully cathartic as the fluid animation and camera movement weaves amongst the kicks and punches as they impact the transgressors, as much a commentary on audience desire as it is on bullying. King of Pigs is a success largely due to such well-structured sequences and the shockingly compelling narrative as it jumps between Jong-seok and Kyeong-min’s childhood years and their adult lives. While the former certainly takes precedence the consequences are conveyed in the present, adding layers of depth as the protagonists’ formative years unfold. Indeed, it is remarkable just how many social discourses are contained within the film. While bullying is rife within all cultures, the tactics employed within this particular school are not only predicated on physicality but also in wealth, age, gender, social relationships and parental influence making King of Pigs a distinctly Korean affair as the hierarchy self-perpetuates due to its Confucian heritage. As Jong-seok, Kyeong-min and Chul have precious little of the necessary attributes they are cast to the lowest ranks of the school pecking order, and the resentment that evolves and festers is startling to behold. Yet the narrative is also concerned with the private lives of the three friends, which allows the conveyance of such concepts on a societal scale as they witness misogyny, crime and corruption as the people around them seek power only to abuse it. As frustration and resentment engulf the trio, they wish desperately to alter their role as merely a ‘pig’ in the hierarchy yet are tragically aware that such a role defines them for life.

The continuous bullying forces Chul (left) to take a stand against the aggressors

The continuous bullying forces Chul (left) to take a stand against the aggressors

However, while the narrative of King of Pigs is strong and highly symbolic, it is not without problems. While it feels an unfair point to criticize, the limited budget does occasionally appear through the animation as characters move robotically  in certain scenes, particularly in sequences where a large number of people enter the frame. This is in stark contrast to the fluidity of action scenes and the difference is quite jarring and somewhat distracting.

The vocal talents of the cast are generally very competent and sincere, particularly by the actors voicing the protagonists as children. Kim Hye-na stands out in this regard as poverty-stricken delinquent Kim Cheol, who performs the array of poignant moments and aggressive events well. As adults the vocal talents have less significant screen time, yet Breathless director Yang Ik-joon conveys the tragic frustrations of Jong-seok especially well. There are moments however when the acting becomes over-zealous, notably with Oh Jeong-se as Kyeong-min who is at times is rather hysterical. Luckily the supporting cast and the strength of the narrative make sure that such moments are short-lived, as the film deftly focuses on the characterization of all the protagonists in both time periods.

The cruelty and injustice of life becomes too much to endure for the friends

The cruelty and injustice of life becomes too much to endure for the friends

Verdict:

King of Pigs is a bold, unflinching animation that portrays an incredible examination of a variety of social discourses in Korean culture. Writer/director Yeon Sang-ho has crafted a well-structured and gripping narrative with incredible depth, where the stylized violence is not only naturalized but, through the build of tension, desired. While budget limitations and over-zealous acting occasionally appear, King of Pigs is a riveting film not only in terms of the animation genre but, due to the uncompromising concept of ‘Han’ throughout, a compelling entry into Korean cinema.

★★★★☆

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Yoo-suk and Ae-yeon form a bond during a botched bank heist

Couples (커플즈) – ★★☆☆☆

Couples (커플즈)

Couples (커플즈)

Intertwined tales of romance between couples seemingly unconnected from each other has become a regular feature of the romantic-comedy, although few contain the charm of Love, Actually (2003) which arguably kick-started the current trend. While by no means a perfect film, Love, Actually succeeded in depicting a variety of couples from disparate socio-economic backgrounds, representing the various problems they face within a highly romanticized London during Christmas time.

The holy trinity of compelling couples, romantic city and endearing holiday period are notably absent from Jeong Yong-ki’s (정용기) Couples (커플즈). Aside from a handful of humorous moments, Couples is lacking in both comedy and more importantly romance due to the shallow and contrived protagonists and events within.

Yoo-suk (Kim Joo-hyeok (김주혁), a tea shop owner, is incredibly sad following the sudden disappearance of his fiancee Na-ri (Lee Si-yeong (이시영) two months prior. Worse still he used all means available in order to buy a house for their future, which is increasingly bleak as creditors close in and minor accidents result in threats of legal action. Desperate, Yoo-suk hires private investigator and best friend Bok-nam (Oh Jeong-se (오정세) to find Na-ri. Meanwhile Yoo-suk forms a relationship with traffic officer Ae-yeon (Lee Yoon-ji (이윤지) during a botched bank heist, herself a recent singleton from a lying ex. Bok-nam manages to track down Na-ri and becomes infatuated with her, but her gold-digging ways have resulted in a new partner, gangster Byung-chan (Kong Hyeong-jin (공형진).

Yoo-suk and Ae-yeon form a bond during a botched bank heist

Yoo-suk and Ae-yeon form a bond during a botched bank heist

If the above synopsis sounds unnecessarily contrived, then you’d be right as Couples quite literally includes all manner of bizarre set-pieces for the sake of comedy which rarely pays off. Worse still, there is no attempt to portray events such as bank heists, near-miss car crashes, involvement with private investigators and gangsters and so forth with any originality which further emphasises their manufactured inclusion within the narrative. Such scenes also detract from any notion of romance as the inorganic nature of the multiple plot strands conveys a lack of genuine connection between the couples, and as such renders them all as unconvincing or compelling.

Director Jeong Yong-ki is competent throughout, however his decision to craft the narrative as non-linear is highly problematic as the editing between different couples and timelines destroys any sense of romance that has been conveyed prior. Worse still are the inserts of interviewed couples which add nothing to the film and quickly become an annoyance, as often the couples interviewed have only a minor connection to the main story and are included for the sake of cheap comedy, such as tripping and pulling a women’s skirt down.

Where Couples does succeed is in the initial portrayal of Yoo-suk and Ae-yeon. Ridiculous scenarios aside, the slow and occasionally humorous moments that occur are endearing, with sharing their tales of heartache further solidifying their romantic development. Private investigator Bok-nam is also comical, fancying himself as a Humphrey Bogart/Batman-esque sleuth who is routinely foiled and humiliated.

Bok-nam tracks down the gold-digging Na-ri

Bok-nam tracks down the gold-digging Na-ri

In terms of performance, the central couple played by Kim Joo-hyeok and Lee Yoon-ji are by far the best in the film and provide the most naturalized portrayal of romance – a portrayal which is later wholly undermined by the narrative in a clearly desperate endeavor for a conventional finale. Oh Jeong-se overacts his role as Bok-nam, however his style is suitable given that his entire character is a parody of masculinity and as such offers moments of comedy. Ironically for a film titled ‘Couples’, Bok-nam is the only protagonist not included in one – his unrequited infatuation notwithstanding – which is a real oversight. Lee Si-yeong is woeful as gold-digging Na-ri. Her overacting is frustratingly annoying, while her consumerist character is represented as so entirely selfish and ignorant that her quest to find real love is unengaging due to the lack of empathy. Instead Na-ri functions as a prize, a villainous woman who must be tamed by a man. This role is bestowed upon Kong Hyeong-jin as gangster Byung-chan, who performs his stoic character competently despite the lack of screen-time.

Gangster Byung-chan falls for Na-ri despite her love of money

Gangster Byung-chan falls for Na-ri despite her love of money

Verdict:

Couples is a lackluster addition to the romantic-comedy fold, due to the highly contrived narrative and absence of genuine emotion throughout. While certain scenes – notably portraying central couple Yoo-suk and Ae-young – are endearing they are halted from development through the decision to craft the film as non-linear and randomly including interview scenes from couples who have merely a passing reference to the main narrative. As such, Couples is for die-hard rom-com fans only.

★★☆☆☆

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