(by Rex Baylon)
Although the United States and Japan have a far more illustrious history when it comes to producing animated features, South Korea has been the industry’s worst kept secret for many decades. At first, merely an outsource center for foreign filmmakers who needed a platoon of talented but cheap inkers and illustrators, this long overshadowed country has in the past few years emerged as a real contender within the animation field. And even though Korea hasn’t produced an animation studio with a ready-made and recognizable style like Pixar in America or Ghibli in Japan this situation has allowed many young animators to forge ahead and create their own unique works, regardless of global economic interests.
In 2011 alone, Yeun Sang-ho’s bleak revenge drama King of Pigs and popular children’s picture Leafie, A Hen into the Wild were released and both attained a level of unexpected success. The former as a searing indictment of school bullying became a critical darling on the festival circuit while the latter became South Korea’s most financially successful animated feature, raking in 2.2 million ticket sales. Unlike the American and Japanese markets that produce content to be exported and exploited by foreign interests these two films were created primarily for Korean audiences with no real expectations that they could travel outside their country of origin. And though a lot of the domestic output by Korean animators is influenced a great deal by the West and Japan their work does have an indelible personal stamp to it. Thus the quality of the animation being released is not only equal to those produced in America or Asia but the films themselves are still inarguably Korean.
A perfect example of this is a recent short animated feature that came out in 2012 by up-and-coming animator Lee Dae-hee. The film entitled Padak tells the simple story of a mackerel trying to escape the fish tank at a seaside restaurant. Now for those whose only experience with the picture is through the movie poster and my succinct synopsis of the plot it is imperative that I inform you that Padak is not a children’s film. In fact, it has far more in common, visually as well as thematically, with Quentin Tarantino’s slave-sploitation epic Django Unchained (2012) than with the cutesy Finding Nemo (2003).
Opening on a busy fish market where we see all manner of fish and aquatic life being cataloged and bought by disgruntled restaurateurs Lee presents the scene as dialogue free with only the diegetic sounds of the ocean and the hustle and bustle of the dockworkers hauling fish from boats and onto trucks to give us a sense of where we are. If the film weren’t so colorfully animated we might stifle a gasp as the aquatic chattel are thrown from bucket to bucket until finally being loaded into trucks for their final grim destination. Not to mention the innumerable cutaway scenes throughout the film of still breathing fish being gutted and filleted for a hungry public. It’s no stretch to say that Lee’s film will leave many audience members feeling a pang of guilt for their love of sushi.
Padak, the eponymous protagonist of the film, isn’t allowed one moment of respite. From the first moment we see her she is hopelessly trying to escape from her glass prison to go back to the sea and met with nothing but derision and dehumanizing violence. Her cellmates, a sorry bunch of farm raised cannibals, tell the uppity Padak to know her place and try to clue her in on the simple rules of survival: play dead when the customers come, don’t waste your energy on trying to escape, and never cross the flatfish that hides under the metal grating in the tank. The cruelest thing that Lee does is to every so often dangle the thought of a happy ending for her with colorful musical sequences and optimistic escape scenarios that lulls you long enough into believing that all will be okay until we are cruelly wrenched back into Padak’s cold harsh reality. The film throws so much at us and inflicts a laundry list of Sadean tortures on poor Padak that you begin to wonder what Lee has against fish. It all pays off though by the end. A curmudgeon flatfish, an unlikely survivor to all the carnage, has a moment of violent clarity, as the blade of a knife is mere centimeters away from his slimy gills. Padak may have lost the fight but her words and quest for freedom will continue on with him.
For those looking for a movie to sedate their children while they run some errands undisturbed, Lee Dae-hee’s Padak is not the film for you. And in truth, Lee’s film after 2 months in theaters during the summer of 2012, took in only 12,273 admissions. Outside of a few animation enthusiasts who will most likely catalog the film as a regional curiosity Padak may just fade into the ether, a footnote in Korean animation and, depending on his later work, the career of Lee Dae-hee. Yet, the brisk runtime, at times surrealistic visuals, and heart-wrenching drama make watching the film not a complete waste of one’s time.
Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).