When online feuds lead to conflicts in the real world, things can get pretty ugly. During recent years in Korea, certain online users of computer games and texting services have taken their grudge fights to the streets where they mimic K-1 fighters’ moves and engage in a rough brawl. Such conflicts have even gained the term “hyunpi,” a hybrid neologism of Chinese and English characters that stands for “player kill in reality.” All of this might sound ridiculous to most that are unfamiliar with virtual world culture. Who would go through such a long hassle in venting out their online-anger? In the end, it’s just a game, right?
Tae-sik, the protagonist of Um Tae-hwa’s directorial debut Ingtoogi: The Battle of Internet Trolls, would beg to disagree. An unemployed twenty-something introvert living with his mother, Tae-sik, otherwise known in the virtual world by his unfitting nickname Kool Kidneys, becomes the victim of a “hyunpi” as he is unwittingly lured into a trap set up by an online-user ignominiously named Man Boobs. Without mercy, Man Boobs pounds Tae-sik, and soon videos and images of Tae-sik getting beaten up by Man Boobs become viral. Humiliated and seething with anger, Tae-sik attempts to seek out the culprit behind the ambush, with the aid of his close friend Hee-jun and Young-ja, a foul-mouthed high school student who won a second-prize in a mixed martial arts tournament. Fortunately, Tae-sik does find his opportunity for sweet revenge, as he succeeds in provoking Man Boobs into signing up for a martial arts match by publicly declaring war against Man Boobs via a live-streaming chat service. Rigorous physical and mental training in the style of Rocky ensues as Tae-sik prepares for the showdown.
Advertised as this year’s surprise indie hit and backed by the enthusiastic support of director Park Chan-wook, Ingtoogi is Director Um’s graduation project for the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA). Its title is a coined term that carries a double-meaning: a martial arts match for online gamers whom society looks down upon as “surpluses” (an alternative term in Korea for losers and slackers), and a hopeful mantra for society’s underdogs, “We’re still fighting.” While the synopsis of the film gives the impression of a quirky comedy characteristic of an independent film, Ingtoogi is surprisingly dark in its tone.
As much as it is a portrayal of the characters’ deep-seated sense of anger and defeat, Ingtoogi is also an exploration of Korea’s frenzied media culture, the main driving force behind Tae-sik’s awkward and pitiful circumstances. Young-ja, as if having internalized the media’s rapid pace and unrestrained nature, talks without thinking and swears without much thought. But media culture has the most devastating influence on Tae-sik, who engages in a heated verbal fight with Man Boobs on the Internet. Even worse, Tae-sik resorts to Kakaotalk, Korea’s popular social chat service, when he tries to make an awkward apology to Young-ja for his equally awkward sexual move against her. But the film, instead of preaching about the pernicious influences of Korea’s media culture, criticizes the absence of role models and arbiters in both reality and the virtual world, making these characters’ lives aimless and miserable.
The media interface, whose asocial and uncontrolled aspects the film criticizes, itself becomes a central part of Intoogi’s dizzying aesthetic. When the film begins, Um provides the audience with not a traditional shot of reality, but instead with the image of a clear sky – which turns out to be the background screen of Tae-sik’s Kakaotalk. By turning the film screen itself into a media interface – the iPhone, Kakaotalk, or a video recorder – Um immerses the audience into a frenetic virtual world. A soundtrack collaged from various computer-related actions, such as the tapping of a keyboard and the clicking of websites, reminds us of the frightening degree to which they can automate our bodies.
But at times, the film’s interface aesthetic becomes excessive and redundant. It becomes especially problematic when it impedes our emotional investment in the film’s characters. In a key scene towards the film’s climax, Tae-sik, feeling utterly defeated, aimlessly meanders along a street in the evening. Showing Tae-sik from across the street, Um plasters the screen with ill-willed comments about him in the virtual world in order to stress its ruthlessly predatory culture. But superimposing these comments over the film screen is an unsubtle decision; it ends up treating Tae-sik as a hopeless victim of a predatory culture, as if he were a case-study from which we can learn from. Such depiction is contrary to earlier moments in the film which adopt a more rounded approach, portraying Tae-sik as a tortured individual suffering from life outside the virtual world as well. Unless the film depicts Tae-sik as a complicated individual, it is very difficult for us to sympathize with him as he is a truly unlikeable character – the definitive “jjijil-nam,” another Korean neologism referring to pathetic and petty-minded males. Um’s film begs comparison with David Fincher’s 2010 work The Social Network, as both films deal with socially awkward and unlkeable characters obsessed with the virtual world. Unlike Fincher's film, Ingtoogi hypes up its interface aesthetic so much so that it sacrifices the potential for a satisfying character study.
*Translation of the characters’ virtual names are taken from the Korean Film Council’s website.
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).