Trans (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little but ambitious high school SF mystery drama

There were several times when I wondered whether I really understood everything in South Korean independent film “Trans”, a deliberately baffling high school SF mystery drama about an intriguing possibility of technological transcendence beyond singularity. I must confess that I am still not so sure about many things in the film after watching it at last night, but I appreciate how it deftly distinguishes itself via its own mood, style, and ideas, and the result is certainly one of more compelling South Korean films of last year.

The story mainly revolves around a very strange circumstance of a female high school student named Min-yeong (Hwang Jeong-in). As the story initially jumps to here and there in a seemingly random fashion, we come to gather that Min-yeong has been bullied by several mean classmates of hers due to her current struggle with anorexia, and her only consolation comes from her routine online conversation with some questionable Christian counselor at her residence, which is usually devoid of her frequently absent parents.

In the opening scene, something quite shocking happens outside Min-yeong’s classroom. The body of one of her bullies is found, and the rather disturbing condition of the body clearly suggests that somebody must have had lots of spite and grudge against the victim. Because she called the victim at the previous night for no apparent reason, Min-yeong is soon questioned by a local detective assigned to the case, and everyone else naturally regards her with growing suspicion.

Meanwhile, we also get to know about two certain male students in Min-yeong’s class. In case of No-cheol (Kim Tae-yeong), he has been also frequently bullied because of a series of lightening accidents which he managed to survive, and we cannot help but notice his artificial right arm during his first scene in the film. Although he could show some support and solidarity to Min-yeong, he simply observes her latest incident of bullying from the distance, and that makes a big contrast with I-tae (Yoon Kyung-ho), a smart and ambitious boy who saves her via his special electronic gun at the last minute.

I-tae later takes Min-yeong to his little lair/laboratory, and he throws lots of fancy technical mumbo-jumbos involved with human neuroscience and computer science as your average young mad scientist. According to him, not only human brain but also human science and technology are almost close to the next breakthrough for human evolution, and it looks like he is about to reach to the point of, yes, singularity via his modest but very ambitious science project. Mainly using a special device based on the special electronic coil equipment invented by Nikola Tesla, and he wants to test his wild scientific theory as soon as possible, and his experiment subject turns out to be none other than No-cheol.

While she surely has some reservation on I-tae’s ethically problematic science experiment, Min-yeong lets herself get more involved with him as drawn more to the possibility of the Brave New World for them. If his experiment turns out to be as successful as he wishes, No-cheol will open the door to infinite possibilities out there for them, and that certainly looks like a better alternative to Min-yeong’s current miserable existence.

However, things get a lot weirder for Min-yeong after the big success of I-tae’s experiment. It seems that she is also somehow going through the transformation toward becoming a “transhuman”, and she soon finds herself stuck in a sort of time loop, probably because, as I-tae told her, time and space cease to matter when you finally become a transhuman. As she goes through a certain day again and again, she comes to sense that something important has been hidden from her, and she also comes to have some doubt on whether she can maintain her humanity after her transformation is completed.

Even though you get quite confused at times, the screenplay by director/writer Do Nae-ri, who made her feature film debut after her short film “Confession” (2005), holds your attention and interest as gradually getting us accustomed to its heroine’s warped state of mind, and I like how it is willing to get wilder and weirder along its increasingly complicated narrative. At one point, we get a big dramatic moment when I-tae and Min-yeong enter the final step of their experiment, and you may be amused a bit by several silly but funny artistic touches in this big scene. Although the special effects in the film surely look rather modest and simple due to its small production budget, Do and her crew members did a commendable job of incorporating them into the screen, and her three main cast members, who did not have much acting experience before getting cast for the movie, are convincing as playing their characters as straight as possible. While Go Min-yeong ably holds the center, Yoon Kyung-ho and Kim Tae-yeong are equally effective, and their solid acting is the main reason why the finale works with considerable dramatic impact.

In conclusion, “Trans” is surely not something we see everyday, and I am willing to watch it again someday just for appreciating its distinctive mood, storytelling, and performance. I cannot wholly explain well what is about, but I admire a lot how it is about, and I think you should give it a chance someday if you are looking for something different.

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