Jo Sung-hee received much praise for his 2010 directorial debut "End of Animal" which made its international debut at the 29th Vancouver International Film Festival. Critics and viewers alike lauded this gritty post-apocalyptic fantasy horror both locally and abroad - marking the young filmmaker's successful entry into the competitive Korean film market. His second feature, the fantasy romance film "Werewolf Boy" (2012), was a box office hit, clawing in almost seven million admissions at the end of last year.
"End of Animal" has been on my list of films to watch since its eerie poster cross my path. Perhaps it was my own personal taste in the darker side of the screen, as I enjoy the more cynical and shadowy dimension of cinema. It is for this reason that I can say that Jo Sung-hee's "End of Animal" pleased me greatly. "End of Animal" will no doubt plant more questions of its own narrative intent that some will enjoy (open-ended interpretations are another of my apparently weakness), as film questions, probes and exposes a dreamy 'end of days' and the destruction of ideological agency and intent.
Lee Min-ji (plays Soon-yeong), a young pregnant woman who is on her way to visit her mother in the countryside. She is rather plain, naïve, and her course in life seems largely to be at the mercy of the world around her, a world that is quickly short-circuited. On the way, her taxi drivers picks up a mysterious man (Park Hae-il), whose bizarre demeanour and enigmatic comments immediately raise questions of sanity and sense in this drab country setting. His brash self-assurance is heavily contrasted by Soon-yeong's own timid and unasserted sense-of-self. While riding together through Korea's hinterlands, the cab is struck by an unexplained phenomenon that floods the world with doubt and despair. When Soon-yeong awakens, she finds herself alone as both men have disappeared. She discovers that both men have left her something, the taxi driver a note saying that he is making his way to a 'rest point' to help and that she must no move, and a radio by the strange man which he uses to contact her. Deciding that she can't wait around for very long, she ventures off down the long and dusty road, coming across other strange and slightly of-centred individuals who are also trying to re-establish themselves and survive in this uncanny new existence.
The film's actual events are rather simple and easy to follow, however it is the richness and provocative thought that emerges that intrigues and will continue to haunt viewers long after its end. As Soon-yeong stumbles around the country wasteland, pregnant and unsure, she is slowly stripped and abused (largely symbolically) as her naïve and pre-apocalyptic sensibilities set-up her own vulnerability in this new dreamy and moral void she finds herself in. The film contains strong commentary on patriarchy order, and its ideological power to control and guide individuals and their needs. The film begins by a 'destroying of the world', an erasing of the 'real' that creates a tabula rasa of sorts. The act itself would seem to be perhaps an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse), but cause itself is not as important as its levelling influence. It can be argued that this represents the demise of societal ordering and patriarchal structures; a fact mirrored in the film's protagonist herself Soon-yeong and the other character's she encounters.
Soon-yeong is a young, pretty, and very pregnant woman who has no support in this 'new world'. The men with whom she now shares the world with seem, dangerous, illusive and all too troubling. Even the young boy (Park Se-jong-I) she travels with for a spell is shrouded in questions. He too is unsure of himself and his new role in this world, as he seeks stability and comfort in the aftermath of the world-changing event. In addition to the absence of the symbolic father, mother figures are also unnervingly absent. Throughout the film we watch as Soon-yeong's follows her single desire to find her mother, to be looked after by her while she is at her most vulnerable. Similarly, the young boy she meets has also 'lost' his mother and is in search of that same reassurance of authority in his own life. The only other female presence in the film is the cold and self-fish wife/girlfriend Soon-yeong and the boy encounter on the way to the mythical 'rest place'. The woman offers no sympathies to Soon-yeong, and even forcefully strips her of coat, handbag, and shoes before wandering off on her own mission to find her husband. In the process she is rendered 'unwomanly' and her actions position her warrior princess, rather than a nurturing fellow-female who could/should assist her in her time of need.
Much of "End of Animal" can be understood within this notion of an emasculated new world, one that paradoxical plays with power and social responsibility as Jo Sung-hee leads us around his mise-en-abyme of personal torment and suffering. In such a post-apocalyptic rendition, one would perhaps believe the need to care, protect, and defend such a 'valuable' entity such as Soon-yeong represents (being pregnant with 'new', untainted life). She is the only "Mother" figure left in the film, but is subjected to oneiric disorientations and personal despair as she rooms around waiting for someone or something to take her to the fabled 'rest place'.
"End of Animal" is a frighteningly disturbing and uncanny experience whose depths can only be contemplated in the very stillness the film projects. The ghostly figures that realm this world seem to be somehow incomplete and lacking in some fundamental way-like ghosts lost in a terrifying purgatorial dreamscape that goes nowhere (symbolised by the broken taxi the characters seem to inadvertently pivot around). Abusive and illusive men are contrasted with the absence of female authority and comfort, creating an abyss between these two forces. A void that Jo Sung-hee frames through the film, but leaves it up to us to fill-in and fuel.
Admittedly, the young director concedes that "A Werewolf Boy" was a much more of commercial effort than his debut, but claimed that he never compromised his own approach to the film. It is unusual that a debutant's first two films would seem to contain such a spilt with regards to their perceived level of 'commercialisation' and it will interesting to see what project this young talent decides to tackle next. "End of Animal" will not appeal to all, and some may find the whole experience frustrating and disturbingly nihilistic. However the film is riddled with fascinating social commentary and an uncanny truth that makes this debut film one to remember.
- C.J Wheeler (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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