Animated films have made several attempts to capture the world that exists in the ocean. Pixar’s Finding Nemo undoubtedly leads the pack, yet Help! I’m a Fish, Shark Tale and A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures all work hard to convey the vibrancy of life under the waves. Coupled with the great variety of species that dwell there, the animations offer some fascinating visual storytelling.
Given the bright and cheerful poster of PADAK (파닥파닥), parents could easily be forgiven for thinking that this feature by writer/director Lee Dae-hee (이대희) is of a similar ilk. Yet their children would be horrified to discover a dark story featuring cannibalism, torture, and characters being eaten alive. Such violence cannot help but overshadow the themes of freedom and identity that run throughout the narrative, while the crude animation does little to help matters.
Captured at sea, a mackerel (Kim Hyeon-ji (김현지) is taken to a sushi restaurant and placed in a tank ready for customers. There she encounters other species of fish trapped in the same predicament, yet as they are from a fish farm they can’t understand the mackerel’s desperate desire to return to the ocean. Her constant attempts to escape earn her the nickname ‘Padak’ due to the swishing of her fins, while the other fish teach her methods to survive. But before long Padak’s knowledge and persistence comes into conflict with Master Flatfish (Si Yeong-joon (시영준) an old halibut that holds an iron-fisted regime over the tank.
PADAK begins ominously during a depressingly overcast morning, where the fisherman haul their wares into large lorries ready for the local restaurants. The atmosphere generated by such scenes is bleak and foreboding, and director Lee Dae-hee does a great job in emphasizing the melancholy through the colour palette. Combined with utilizing Padak’s point-of-view, the confusion and stress that she endures is conveyed well.
Yet these early scenes immediately highlight one of the great animation problems of the film, as the people are so stiff and rigid it is distracting. The animation style is reminiscent of the old Sony Playstation/Sega Dreamcast era, where ‘cell-shading’ was employed to convey the 3-D features whilst also masking the limitations of the technology. This is perhaps an unfair criticism given that Padak is an independent film, but whenever a human appears it immediately draws the audience out of the story. However, when the story centers on the fish at the heart of the film the animation becomes much more bearable, and it is clear that a lot of time and energy went into their creation. Indeed, the details on the fish ‘skins’ are quite impressive, especially following conflict.
Such violence is an enormous issue within the film, and is often quite horrific. Characters that are the focus of the film are cruelly beaten, while others are shown being decapitated or boiled alive by the sushi chef, and even eaten alive by customers while the face of the fish is still moving and breathing. If the intention of director Lee Dae-hee is too scare people away from sushi restaurants, such sequences must be considered a success. The true horror however is reserved for the scenes depicting cannibalism, as the fish kill injured newbies and devour it in a mess of flesh and dissipating blood.
The terror such scenes convey also detract from the core themes of the film, which are concerned with freedom and identity. Old Master Flatfish has created a dictatorship inside the tank, forged through fear of death as well as the lack of education his subordinates exhibit. Padak, with her knowledge of the ocean and dreams of liberty, challenges the regime forcing a conflict between them. The debate between democracy and fascism is nothing new, yet the manner in which it is explored in the tank offers somewhat of a fresh approach to the concept. Yet as Padak slowly starts to win over the other fish with her desire to return to the sea, it is impossible not to reminisce about similar scenes from Finding Nemo which dealt with the same issues but in a more enjoyable – and less bloodthirsty – fashion.
Musical numbers are a surprising addition to Padak, and as they appear in the form of dream sequences director Lee uses the opportunity to experiment with alternatives forms of animation. The songs are not particularly uplifting or catchy, but the different animated styles are interesting and are used effectively as bridges between the dialogue in the tank and the hopes and dreams of the fish involved.
PADAK is a novel attempt at capturing the lives of fish, one that explores the predicament of living in fear of death due to containment in a sushi restaurant tank. Writer/director Lee Dae-hee competently conveys the issues of freedom and identity at the heart of the narrative, but they are subsumed by the awful violence and cannibalism that arises. While the animation of the fish is enjoyable the film staggers greatly when conceiving humans. As such PADAK an incredibly mixed, and rather dark, animation.