South Korea’s First Rotoscoped Film:
Choi Ik-Hwan’s Life Is Cool

Yeon-Woo (Park Ye-Jin) in Choi Ik-hwan’s Life Is Cool (2006)

This time last year Korean movie audiences were treated to another national “first” in the form of Geunyeoneun Yebbeotda, or Life is Cool (dir. Choi Ik-Hwan, 2006), a fully rotoscoped feature-length animation. It’s about a friendship between three thirtysomething men who, at different stages in their lives, all become smitten with the same girl — a girl who returns to haunt them in the form of passionate (and often painful) memories which they are doomed ever thus to revisit. It’s a sentimental story which Choi handles well without being mawkish or moralistic. The important element here is the rotoscope animation, and hence the question: is it necessary? Choi’s previous feature was the fourth instalment in the popular Yeogo goedam horror series, Voice (a.k.a., Voice Letter) which was fine but ultimately strayed too far from the themes of psychosexual development and emotional supplementation that formed the bedrock for Whispering Corridors and Memento Mori. Voice did at least have a visual flair which compensated for the generic turn of its predecessor Wishing Stairs, and indeed it’s a characteristic that I am glad resurfaces in Life is Cool. The decision to stylise sequences according to their emphasis on character, tone, or theme is one such example. The elegant, photographic nature of the bedroom scene, in which Tae-Young (Kang Seong-Jin) and Yeon-Woo (Park Ye-Jin) cuddle together in bed, allows for a more intimate sense of engagement than the acidic aesthetic qualities of Sung-hoon’s (Kim Jin-Soo) graduation scene, or, of more relevance, Yeon-woo and Il-gwon’s (Kim Soo-Ro) chat on the aeroplane. The hybridising of different animation styles serves Choi’s thesis admirably, but is there anything substantial here? Does it offer a new interpretation for contemporary audiences?

It’s been almost two years since A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater’s twisting, knotted adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s trippy source which popularised rotoscoping as a cinematic technique for contemporary mainstream audiences. I think I’m right in saying there was almost every advantage to be gained by reconfiguring the original live-action footage of that film into hand-drawn animation cells: the process made A Scanner Darkly an instrument of frustration, as well as eye-pleasing fantasy, and as an experiment it served the hallucinogenic possibilities of the source perfectly well. I think Life is Cool benefits from the rotoscoping process in key instances — there are some nice flights of fancy at a basketball game, for instance, and of course there is the mid-air waltzing finale which I feel Choi should perhaps have closed the film with — but I’m tempted to question this style of experimental animation. What is its value? Some reviews argue that the animation swings in different registers, specifically when it comes to the actors’ performances: many take it as a failing that the process itself figures a distance between the original dramatisation — the signs of which (the echoes of the organic) we read into the illustrations as we’re viewing the film (we can watch the live-footage for critical comparison using the multi-angle feature on the DVD) — and the dramatic quality of the finished article. Characters’ faces are impossible to read. Passion, desire, doubts, longing: the animation does not convey emotion adequately. This said, the imprecise, patchwork style of the film is built for movement and speed and not subtle inflection or gesture. The film makes meaning, therefore, by conveying the pure thrill, the energy and vibrancy, of being alive — right down to the dizzy spells one character feels in a botched attempted suicide.

Yeon-Woo (Park Ye-Jin) in Choi Ik-hwan’s Life Is Cool (2006)

A case can be made, therefore, for the way in which the film explores subjectivity. At an extreme, Life is Cool is a film about vocal performances and aurality. Here, the same act of listening, of tuning into the cadences of a particular character’s speech, of deciphering the often unintelligible use of US-inflected English from Korean, takes on more power. In another example, when Yeon-woo and Il-gwon kiss passionately for the first time the bland non-action of the “animated” scene brings a new dimension to the fore — a dimension which constitutes its own film-world. As the characters kiss, the film acts with them, lightly brushing the fabric of Yeon-Woo’s top, breathing for them both. Consequently, this more “immediate” form of presentation offsets the great distance between the original dramatisation and the artistic re-creation. It does so with a realist force that skillfully makes up for the shortcomings of the animation. Is this the best way to tell the story? Probably not — and I’d imagine the artists who spent 2 years reconfiguring the footage would be beside themselves if ever they felt this was the case. The film, however, invites us to explore something new, to make sense of the world from a new perspective: ultimately it isn’t the artistic re-creation we’re exploring, it is, rather, the film’s wonderful soundtrack.

27 May, 2009


TigerlilyBorneo said...

Going to look for this one! Thank you. Happy day. :-D

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