October 1, 2011

Animal Town: A Double Dose of Doom and Despair

Some movies radiate destitution as if life's inner light shone that much more brightly when comfort's lampshade was unceremoniously snatched off. Other films relate utter misery by flattening existence. Here, characters are like so many cardboard cut-outs, experiencing the day-to-day without even the hope that there might be a way to re-experience three dimensions again. In the first category, pain is electric; in the second, the battery is dead. I'll be the first to admit that I prefer the former type of movie, films like Stray Bullet or Bad Guy, where the tragedy before us makes us somehow miraculously feel more desperately alive. But surely there's a place for the uglier approach, too; those movies that only depress you, movies like Jeon Kyu-hwan's Animal Town, for instance, which may reflect the world around us, but steamrolls reality to make its point.

In the desaturated palette that comes from a secondhand video camera, Animal Town shows a bleak slice of life in which two protagonists -- a downtrodden pedophile (Lee Joon-hyuk) who's lost his job and an inert businessman (Oh Seong-tae) having a spiritual crisis -- seek a way out of the doldrums, which happen to be plastered with cheap, yellowed wallpaper and covered with low-grade upholstery. Oddly enough, you may find your sympathies lie with the paroled pervert, a man so ostracized his relatives shun him, his friends are non-existent, and his only way to prevent becoming a repeat offender is by heavily medicating himself into a stupor. Every time a child appears on screen -- especially one particular little girl who comes across as somewhat brain damaged -- you cringe with apprehension. But when there's no kids in sight, this big dumb lug is a heartbreaking mess as he tries to create a life for himself with a monitoring bracelet on his ankle and an apartment in the shadow of the wrecking ball.

It takes a lot longer to learn what's got his co-star so upset. Sure, his wife is a nag and his always-offscreen daughter sounds like a brat, but he's at least got religion and if not religion, at least the community of the church, and if not the community at least his own business, and if a failing business, at least a business that's still got a chance of turning around. His counterpart has no chance. He's doomed. And while the final "shocking" moments of this movie are really a cascade of contrivances, and Animal Town can feel like it hates life, Jeon's descent into despair at least has enough heart to pity the rejects and the victims.

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