Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The intimate apocalypse

This is the way the world ends, not with an asteroid or waves of contagion, but with an aborted cab ride. At least that’s how it ended in South Korea in 2010, when writer/director/editor Jo Sung-hee made his impressive feature debut with End of Animal, a hugely resourceful, super fucking weird chamber disaster drama. The film got less play on the festival circuit than it should have, though its reputation did grease the wheels for Jo’s solid, if less inventive, 2012 follow-up A Werewolf Boy. It was released on DVD earlier this year. I finally caught up with it last week. 

A very pregnant young woman, Sun-yeong (Lee Min-Ji), is traveling by taxi from Seoul to her mother’s home somewhere in the countryside, where she plans to give birth. Somewhere en route, in the middle of nowhere, the cabbie stops for some regular-looking dude in a parka and ball cap—turns out he’s going the same way. But once said dude climbs in, things get tense. He’s touchy, and keeps ordering Sun-yeong not to stare at him, even though she’s in the back seat.  He starts announcing the number of seconds to go… until what? Then he says he has no cash or cards to pay. Then he starts to make uncanny guesses about numerous aspects of the personal lives of the cabbie and Sun-yeong. Then he starts talking angels with fangs and global blackouts. He then tells cabbie and Sun-yeong that he loves them, just before a flash of light startles everyone and knocks Sun-yeong unconscious.

When she wakes up: no cabbie, no touchy, psychic stranger. Just her and her unborn child in that seemingly endless desolate landscape. No mobile service. No nothing. She starts to search for a rest area that’s meant to be nearby. She’s starving. She finds an insolent kid in an abandoned house. She badly injures her foot. She meets a bickering couple. She’s aided by a goofy guy in track pants riding a bike—never trust a man in track pants. She nearly gets raped. Once in a while she gets instructions from the psychic stranger via radio signals—he’s the only thing on the air. At times, from across the wintry plain, she hears some sort of growling, freaky and hard to identify. Is this unseen animal going to be the end of her?

Despite the sweeping nature of the premise, Jo knows he’s not making a spectacle film of any sort. His camera most often sticks very close to his characters, often to just head and shoulders. Occasionally we get a wider view of the landscape. End of Animal is an intimate apocalypse. This is its novelty and strength as well as the source of its failings—which should not deter the intrigued from seeing it. It’s just that, however sympathetic her position may be, Sun-yeong winds up grating on you a bit. She’s having a rough time of it, and she whimpers, cries and screams an awful lot. End of Animal is at once fascinating and annoying. It’s probably too long, but it’s also a hell of a strange world to visit, one on its last legs, or simply waiting for something new.   

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