Animation is growing up

November 25, 2013

Yeon Sang-ho’s new work, ‘The Fake,’ is dark, powerful social commentary for adults

“The Fake,” an animated film by Yeon Sang-ho, portrays how the traditional boundaries between good and evil become blurrier in the complexities of modern life and society. / Korea Times

“The Fake,” an animated film by Yeon Sang-ho, portrays how the traditional boundaries between good and evil become blurrier in the complexities of modern life and society. (Korea Times)

By Baek Byung-yeul

Yeon Sang-ho, director of “The Fake”

Yeon Sang-ho, director of “The Fake”

Korea cinema appears to be in the thick of its renaissance, but the rapid growth has done little for adult animation, a genre that remains stuck in the dark.

This is a country that continues to subscribe to the idea that animated films are predominantly for kids. Pororo, the goggle-wearing baby penguin and the country’s most successful animation creation ever, probably represents the entirety of the industry’s business model.

Still, there are a few filmmakers who continue to put aside cute and cuddly cartoons and attempt to establish a presence for grown-up animation. Yeon Sang-ho’s new thriller, “The Fake,” a dark and disturbing social commentary set in the Korean suburbs, is certainly a meaningful addition to these efforts.

Although Yeon has yet to be a box office darling, critics have identified him as one of the unique cinematic talents in Asia. His 2011 work, “The King of Pigs,” a bleak tale of Korea’s cutthroat school system and the culture of violence that took hold within it, won three different awards at that year’s Busan International Film Festival and was also featured at Cannes.

With The Fake, Yeon extends his habit of discomforting the audience and enthralling the critics. The film has already won the best animated film honors at this year’s SITGES International Film Festival in Spain.

While ticket sales haven’t been terrible, they are clearly short of inspiring. Since opening last week, about 10,000 people have seen The Fake in Korean theaters.

In an interview with The Korea Times, Yeon expressed hope that there will be a larger batch of animated films hunting for an adult audience. He described his new film as a portrayal of how the traditional boundaries between good and evil become blurrier in the complexities of modern life and society.

Set in a fictional village in the central Chungcheong area, the plot is built around three main characters: a pastor (voiced by Oh Jeong-se), one of the church’s elders (voiced by Kwon Hae-hyo), and Mincheol (voiced by Yang Ik-joon), the token neighborhood low-life.

The church leaders are portrayed as the oppressors of the community, exploiting their social status to intimidate residents and cheat them financially. Mincheol, the unwanted thug, somehow finds himself becoming the center of resistance against the institution. The conflict quickly gets out of hand.

Yeon, a Christian, says that the church serves an important function in the movie in maximizing the conflict and dramatizing the message he intended to convey through the characters.

“I wanted to talk about how the severity of an environment brings out the essence in people,” Yeon said.

“Religion and the institution of the church were an important element in the movie. I wanted to portray that exact, intersecting point where the distinction between good and evil evaporates.”

The Fake is a low-budget movie in today’s standards, made with 380 million won (about $360,000). So while Yeon isn’t too worried about the immediate pace in ticket sales, he does want his newest work to leave a striking impression. He is unapologetically ambitious as an artist and hopes that The Fake will eventually win him an Oscar.

“I worked with actors I personally believed in. Yang is a brilliant director (who debuted with ‘Breathless’) and he passionately provided the voice of Mincheol as an actor. He really was a man possessed with his role,” Yeon said.

“The movie has already been submitted to be considered at next year’s Academy Awards. Right now, it is competing with 18 other works to be nominated in the best animation category,” he added. The competition is already fierce with Pixar’s “Monsters University” and Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises.”

“Traditionally, three or four American movies and a couple of works from Europe and Japan make the cut. I think my movie has about a 25 percent chance of making the cut. The best animated film award would be a long shot, but who knows,” Yeon said.

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