South Korean animation “The Fake” is so bleak and hopeless from the beginning that I even found myself wondering during its first 30 minutes how further it would possibly go – and it did go further as I was horrified by its merciless depiction of rampaging human evil and its devastating consequences. With its gritty and uncompromising style, this unnerving animation film presents us a seedy, depressing world where nobody is entirely clean while almost everyone is evil or foolish in each own way, and, to me and other South Korean audiences, this is a frightening nightmare reflecting our reality inside South Korean society.
Its two main characters are utterly contemptible to say the least, but we cannot help but watch them and their virulent interactions with disgust and morbid fascination. In case of Min-cheol(voiced by Yang Ik-joon, who previously made a remarkable debut with his brutal family drama “Breathless”(2009)), he is a middle-aged alcoholic loser with very violent temper, and we can instantly sense that he is not a good man; his rugged face virtually exudes hate and malice, and his words are seldom free of those profanities including ‘bitch’ or ‘f*cker’, and his behaviors propelled by alcohol are cruel and barbaric.
If he is miserable, his family becomes more miserable when he returns to their home after a short period of absence. His nervous wife is always frightened of him as before, and his daughter Yeong-seon(voiced by Park Hee-bon) is devastated to learn that he has snatched all the money she has been saving for her college education. Because she has just received the news of her passing the college enrollment examination, she protests in anger and tears, but all she can get from her lousy father is another domestic abuse to suffer.
In desperation and frustration, Yeong-seon tries to find solace in the religion just like her mother has done, but, unfortunately, she turns to a wrong place along with her mother and other people in their country town. Because the town will be soon submerged in water due to the upcoming construction of dam in its area, and each of the town people received compensation money for moving to other places, and that was how a wily opportunistic scoundrel came into the picture. With a young gullible pastor as his front, Kyeong-seok(Kwon Hae-hyo) has been swindling lots of money out of the town people, and he is now near the final stage of his despicable scheme while keeping promising to the town people of their promised land to be purchased and prepared for them – and, of course, their places in the heaven above.
We see how he has been manipulating these poor people, and it is rather frightening to see how easily they are fooled by his ‘religious’ words and then how blindly they stick to their belief. They buy bottles of ‘miracle water’ from him without any doubt, and many of them have already given everything they have to him while absolutely believing in their places in the afterlife, and the meetings at the church are always full of hysterical chanting and prayers I once witnessed from a South Korean protestant church.
But the movie does not paint them as totally innocent victims at all. While giving some understanding to their confused state due to the imminent loss of their hometown, the movie also points out how petty and selfish they are. During a twistedly humorous scene, a woman forces her neighbour to confess something about her husband’s infidelity in front of others just because everyone has to be honest in front of God as a true believer, and then we see a dying wife demanding her reluctant husband to give everything to their church as soon as possible because she fears that there will not be any place left for her in the heaven if he doesn’t. The pastor(voiced by Oh Jeong-se), a good but flawed man with something to hide in his past, treats the town people with all the sincerity he has, but he chooses to remain silent even when he finally comes to learn what kind of evil he is being involved with.
The dark irony of the story is that Min-cheol, the most evil man in the town, clearly sees what kind of evil Kyeong-seok is committing to the town people. Min-cheol happens to learn by coincidence that Kyeong-seok is actually a criminal wanted by the police, but, not so surprisingly, nobody believes his words at all. The local policemen mostly ignore him because they are sick of his repulsive attitude which will repel any decent person, and so do the town people, who have known well what a scum he is.
After beaten up by the goons hired by Kyeong-seok, Min-cheol is more determined to expose him as a fake, and Kyeong-seok also sees that he must do something about this SOB who can possibly ruin his scheme. The movie stays with its grim, pessimistic world view even at this point, and what we get eventually here is a very uncomfortable clash between two evils who are no worse than each other – and we come to slowly fear for what will happen to a few nice characters in the story including a hulking town idiot and poor Yong-seon, whose exhausted spirit is plunged further to another bottom thanks to two monstrous men in her ruined life.
The director/writer Yeon Sang-ho previously made a striking debut with “The King of Pigs”(2011), an equally disturbing animation film which shook me a lot despite its low-budget style while evoking a number of bad memories from my high/middle school years. Like “The King of Pigs”, “The Fake” was not a very pleasant work as a story about several serious social issues inside South Korea, but Yeon Sang-ho drives his uncomfortable story with style and conviction, and it is something I cannot forget easily. You may not like it, but it is definitely refreshing to see a talented artist using animation to show us something far more serious than what we usually expect from animation films.