Yoo Jinee; Kwon Oh-sung; Kim Jun, Park Yun-kyung, Lee Jin-suk, Chang Hyung-yun, Jung Yeon-joo; Amy Lee; Lee Sung-gang; Park Jae-dong
South Korea, 2005
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 07 September 2006
Source VHS screener
Features: The New York Korean Film Festival
Portmanteau, or omnibus films serve a set of very specific functions in international cinema. On the one hand, they yoke a group of filmmakers together – aesthetically, thematically, geographically – in an attempt to establish a discernible cinematic school, trend, or zeitgeist. On the other, instead or in tandem with the first function, they use the prominence of certain contributors to frame the work of the others, lending credibility and an already established critical weight to an array of filmmakers from a single country or region, or of a particular movement, however tenuously defined.
For this reason, almost by definition, portmanteau films are always a little dissatisfying. Like the variety show or circus, they endeavor to offer something for everyone, but typically jettison cohesiveness in favor of displaying the greatest possible variety within their purview. But this quality also makes them ideal entries in international film festivals, as they stand for the many possible permutations within a national cinema or film aesthetic.
In 2003, Korea’s National Human Rights Commission produced If You Were Me, an omnibus film featuring short works by a number of Korea’s hot young filmmakers (the Vengeance trilogy’s Park Chan-wook, The Aggressives’ Jeong Jae-eun, et al) in the dual effort of promoting the nation’s burgeoning film industry and its commitment to addressing issues of race, class, age, and gender discrimination. The film was not a financial success, but it nonetheless merited two sequels: If You Were Me 2, a collection of short films by a (slightly) younger generation of filmmakers, and If You Were Me: Anima Vision, an anthology of animated shorts.
In an international context, surveys of animated films in East Asia usually carry with them the specter of Japanese Anime, one of the region’s more prominent cinematic exports, so it is perhaps unsurprising that this collection strives to define itself in opposition to this style. Comprising a range of visual styles, from magical realist to claymation to watercolor, the films deal with social issues that fall into roughly two categories (and are sometimes mixed): social injustices arising from biases against people of social positions or body types, and the anxieties suffered by people who do not conform to certain standards of physical beauty.
This second theme is the focus of the most striking film in the collection, Amy Lee’s “The Flesh and Bone” (whose actual title apparently more nearly means “The Chubby Big-Boned Girl”). Lee’s film is structured as a folk tracing a young girl’s physical attributes back through generations of her family, each denoted by the style of contemporary visual art particular to the time. The film begins hundreds of years in the past, with characters depicted in the form of a mural or scroll and follows the family tree to a style of minimalist, near-abstract computer animation. In this present tense, the youngest incarnation of a long line of “chubby, big-boned girls” seeks to change her look to conform to modern, more Westernized standards. In this way, Lee’s film not only addresses contemporary issues of self-image, but also does so through an array of modes of representation, each moving fluidly into the next as the story traces changes in conceptions of beauty over time. The result is a stunning work of both aesthetic and political intelligence.
While each of the films works with similar morales and social messages, few are as subtle in their exposition as Lee’s. “Animal Farm,” directed by Kwon Oh-sung, is the only claymation entry in the film, and despite a rather charmingly amateurish look, the film tells a somewhat banal allegory of a goat’s desire to be a sheep and to be accepted by the flock. At first, one might interpret the goat’s attempts to sneak past the fence that separates him from the sheep as a metaphor for North-South relations, but once the animal in question starts to make itself look like a sheep, the message becomes all-too clear: Be Yourself. This is made plainer still by a gruesome sequence in which the goat dons lamb’s wool and then, using a variety of implements, attempts to hack off its tell-tale goat-horns. The operation lasts an unsettling duration and is accompanied by the goat’s unpleasant, androgynous groans and whimpers, making one wonder if this simplistic, sadistic film was intended for children in the first place. A gleeful credit sequence, replete with dancing farm animals, muddies the water further.
Others of the films deal more subtly with controversial subject matter. Lee Sung-gang’s “Bicycle Trip” deals tenderly with the tribulations of an illegal immigrant, telling his story through the movements of the bicycle he rides to work and to meet his wife. Before making his intentions plain, Lee uses light watercolor and a realistic mise-en-scene in conjunction with what at first seems the fanciful story of an anthropomorphic, riderless bicycle. Similarly, “Daydream” catalogues the various forms of discrimination faced by a father and his disabled child, dreamily shifting from scene to scene as the two characters take a nap on a summer’s afternoon. A similar film, “At Her House” (directed by a group of five animators), is spare, but playful in style, narrating the frustrations of a young working mother who must care for both her newborn child and her lazy, apathetic husband. He is eventually sucked up into her vacuum cleaner.
While none of the films asserts a particularly aggressive or provocative message, the films do reveal social problems of special interest in South Korea. Aside from Amy Lee’s film, which explicitly deals with changing notions of Asian beauty in the face of Western cultural hegemony, Park Jae-dong’s “Be a Human Being” addresses the treatment of Korea’s young and undereducated as sub-human. A young student, here in the guise of an ape, suffers the criticisms of the human adults around him who chastise him for having not yet grown up and become human. This is quite a localized message, but Park’s film is neatly softened by an enjoyable romp through the jungle, as the young student, a budding entomologist, escapes to hang out with his insect friends.
While the film is unlikely to single-handedly launch the careers of its contributors into stardom, If You Were Me: Anima Vision nonetheless gives international audiences a sense of the variety of animation in contemporary South Korea. If the restrictions of the Human Rights Commission’s film don’t quite work for all of the filmmakers, the film still provides an interesting pretext for a survey of contemporary animated cinema whose social and political intentions are difficult to question or criticize.