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The Fake: A disturbing Korean animated thriller

In The Fake, the rough reality underneath Korean society, particularly in poverty-stricken communities, is completely exposed and pushed to the most depressing outcome.

Nine months ago, Sang-ho Yeon’s zombie thriller Train to Busan was all the rage in Asia, as it received both critical acclaims and audience’s love. Even then in May, amongst the line-up of melodramas and arthouses from auteurs all around the world, it stood out as an entertaining and commercial thriller, though this is just the first take on live-action from the 39-year-old South Korean director who packed on his back only several animated movies, most notably The King of Pigs and The Fake.

Through these two, Yeon demonstrates a routine of establishing controversial civil issues, which are deeply rooted under the flashy surface of this East Asian country, into his works; and sometimes, the harsh naked truth is laid bare in an uncivilized manner, leaving viewers with doubts whether Yeon just exaggerates the problems to achieve his desired thematic impacts. While* The King of Pigs* speaks up on classism and its direct consequence to the matter of school bullying, The Fake sheds light on a much more socially particularized matter: the despair and impoverishment of rural life, taken advantage by criminals to scam their money through religious tricks.

Animation has one certain favor over live-action: the crew gets much more liberation on character construction as well as external color scheme; in The Fake, the animators made the most out of it. The representation of dreary and countryside landscape, together with buildings and costumes, is illustrated through two main colorations: teal and a range of yellow. These two make up an almost complementary color scheme (with two of them being opposite on the color wheel), and the usage could be seen in several previous Hollywood movies like Fight Club or Drive. Teal is used mostly in the evening on heavy fogs and the night sky, and yellow appears by daylight, toned down to a much more depressing vibe. The Fake’s animation on human activities is executed quite well regarding its low budget, with an old school art style that can be noticed through the clear distinction between less detailed background and more well-inked animated objects (humans, vehicles,…).

Next to such aesthetically take on the genre, substance is still the main focus of The Fake, with its plot revolving around a small town consisting of 144,000 people. The area is about to be flooded to make way for government’s dam construction. Taking advantage of the poor folks’ ignorance and burgeoning frustration, Choi – a professional con artist – sets in motion a ruse in the name of Catholic Church. The experienced criminal brings forth a false hope that he himself will arrange for townspeople’s stable accommodation after the area is completely submerged and that everyone will have their place in heaven, all on one condition: they must hand over the settlement money to him as a sign of good will towards God.

Pastor Chung and Choi

By his side, there stands Pastor Sung, a good-hearted young man who got falsely convicted in the past and also Choi’s victim when he is set up by Choi to become a godlike figure with healing powers in the eyes of the deceived. The only one finding out about this illusive scheme is Kim, after one squabble at the town pub with Choi and his associates. However, Kim is definitely not what any of us could call a decent person. He is an old drunk who has just gotten out of jail after 20 years and, to make it worse, is also a domestic abuser. Taking the money that his daughter saved up for college in Seoul – in the belief of keeping the poor young girl always by his side – due to so-called responsibilities of the children, Kim throws all of the cash into gambling but quickly resorts to violence when he loses the bet.

The first (and definitely not the last) confrontation between Choi and Kim

The premise built up after the first act seems to point at the primary conflict between a good-hearted who lies and an evil-natured who speaks the truth within Korea’s complicated social settings, but then the storyline proceeds on a much different narrative. Pastor Sung, after coming to terms with the ugly facts, develops into an extremely negative character even even though this doesn’t appear rushed at all. He, with a burden of self-inflicted guilt, has always suspected Choi’s motives from the scratch. Kim the screwed-up, notwithstanding his desire to expose to the public the true face of this church, still bases the drive of his action on petty bad blood with Choi instead of any good intentions for his fellow villagers. Nonetheless, their character arcs come through pretty neatly with shocking twists and insertion of timely violence combined with a disturbing atmosphere of danger and spontaneity. The last act may plant a seed of disgust inside of us, to the point that we cannot root for any of these little lives, about them. This is possibly a true story in remote areas, not some slice-of-life tales about humanity (which is shown a bit at the ending).

We cannot really decide whom to root for

The rough reality out there underneath Korea society, particularly in poverty-stricken communities, is completely exposed and pushed to the most brutal, depressing, and heart-wrenching outcome as it can be, in contrast to the collective Korean feel of Kpop wave, cosmetics, and that sequence in Age of Ultron.