Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: Unsettling I AM TRASH Revels in Depravity and Dysfunction

By David Bell

Following earlier instalments of Mother is a Whore (2010) and Father is a Dog (2012), Lee Sang-woo completes his thematic trilogy of family dysfunction with I Am Trash (2014), an unflinching depiction of a Seoul street sweeper’s plight to liberate his brothers from sexual deviance after their convicted-paedophile father returns home from prison.

Considering South Korea’s recent introduction of chemical castration – the suppression of a male’s libido by reducing his testosterone levels – to combat the growing number of reported sex crimes and repeat offences, I Am Trash appears nothing if not timely. During her 2012 presidential campaign, Park Geun-hye highlighted sexual violence as one of the four “social evils” to be addressed by her leadership, asserting that “sex offenders, especially those who assault minors, should be harshly punished, even with the death penalty” (WSJ). Subsequently, along with the abolishment of a law which prevented the prosecution of an attacker if a victim agreed to a financial settlement, reviewed legislation now allows sexual assault charges be pursued even if the incident was not immediately reported and, furthermore, grants men long awaited recognition as potential victims of sexual assault.

Undoubtedly a pressing topic within contemporary South Korean politics and society, sexual violence (particularly against children) has proven a staple feature of the country’s recent cinema output. Memories of Murder (2003), Lady Vengeance (2005), Arang (2006), Beautiful (2008), Hope (2008), I Saw the Devil (2010), Poetry (2010), Bedevilled (2010), Silenced (2011), Don’t Cry Mommy (2012), Azooma (2012), Han Gong-ju (2013) and Broken, to name but a few, all exhibit characters – be they victims, family, detectives, witnesses or vengeful vigilantes – dealing with the fallout from a crime of rape. Never one to follow the crowd, Lee’s I Am Trash negates employing rape as a cinematic narrative-driving device and, instead, confronts the viewer not only with the grieving victims but also with the abject lives of three troubled rapists. Grappling to restrain the sexual misdeeds of his brothers Sang-tae and Sang-gyu, along with their monstrous father Kwan-bin, Sang-woo’s desperation to atone for the transgressions of his family renders him a beacon of hope within an otherwise wretched vision of modern Seoul.

Tenderly played by Lee himself, Sang-woo is rarely seen not sporting some part of his “Soul of Asia” uniform; an angel in fluorescent armour, when not sweeping streets he tends to the filth of his brother Sang-tae’s urges. Echoing films like Shame (2011) and Don Jon (2013), I Am Trash explores Sang-tae’s propensity toward rape as symptomatic of troubled male sexuality in the era of open access porn. Only, where the porn-addicted protagonists of Shame and Don Jon found their rampant self-gratification frustrating pleasures of real physical intimacy, Song-tae masturbates – almost responsibly – to temper his desires. As such, Sang-woo’s sole concern after arriving home bloodied from a street gang beating is that Sang-tae not neglect to rub one out. Ultimately though, pulling off to porn fails to satisfy his want for flesh and Sang-tae soon ensnares a comatose-drunk woman on the subway whom he initially gropes and later – in a scene reminiscent of the gruelling assault in Gasper Noé’s Irréversible (2002) – violently rapes in a tunnelled passageway.

Expanding on a subject Lee broached in earlier works, third brother Sang-gyu presents a more complexly rooted sexual aggression to either that of Sang-tae or their father Kwan-bin. The distinction of homosexuality within the military has long been a matter of ambiguity in South Korea, with former laws once deeming any intercourse between male officers – whether consensual or not – a rape offence. Though what brings Sang-gyu to so forcefully pursue sex with his comrade remains unclear, Lee seems eager to expose the habitually unspoken issues of sexual orientation and violent physical abuse suffered by many young men during their mandatory two years of service.

While I Am Trash is slightly let down by a clichéd envisioning of the unrepentant paedophile father, both Yang Myung-hun and Park Hyung-bin offer up terrifically unsettling performances as the two brothers. Boasting a formidable score from Kang Min-kook alongside Kim Min-soo’s grittily precise cinematography, I Am Trash plunges the audience through a meat-grinder of depravity and dysfunction. Be warned, with copious scenes of explicit sexual violence, and a notably gruesome maiming, I Am Trash is no film for the light of heart. That said, if you can stomach the upset then hold out for an ending to rival anything of Miike Takashi.

Hot on the heels of the excellent Dear Dictator which was warmly-received earlier this year at the 15th Jeonju International Film Festival, I Am Trash is Lee’s eighth film and will premier this week at Fantastic Fest 2014. As the second feature (following Dear Dictator) to emerge from 2Mr Films, Lee has evidently forged a fruitful production partnership with Modern Korean Cinema’s own editor-in-chief Pierce Conran.

Unsparingly bleak, I Am Trash is cinema at its most carnal and punishing.


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