Country: South Korea
Director: Jang Hyung-yoon (sometimes written Chang Hyung-yun)
Screenplay: Jang Hyung-yoon
Art Direction: N/A
Animation Direction: N/A
Soundscore: Black Magic
Cast: Yeong Yu-mi, Yoo Ah-in, Lee Don-yong, Hwang Seok-jeong
Runtime: 81 min
Distribution: Indiestory Inc.
Film’s official website: http://www.milkcow2014.kr/ (in Korean)
Seen at the 2014 London Film Festival. This review is part of the K-Animation Season on Otherwhere. Other than two festival screenings, the film has not been released in the UK although it will be shown at the Leeds International Film Festival on November 7 and 10, 2014. A Region A Blu-ray disc with English subtitles is however available from Yesasia.com.
It rather seems that every year there is yet one or another Korean director that we have barely or not at all heard from before that has his/her feature-length animation debut, only then to seemingly disappear forever again. This year (well, last year, if you want to be technical) it is Jang Hyung-yoon that brings an animated tale alive on our screens for the first time.
Jang’s debut Wooribyeol Ilhowa Eolrukso is a love story with a twist – or seven, as its title already indicates: our lovers are Satellite Girl (Yeong Yu-mi) and Milk Cow (Yoo Ah-in). Satellite Girl (aka Kitsat-1) indeed starts off as box of metal high up in the heavens, but takes on a (mostly) human form and a more human name, Il-ho, when she descends to earth. Milk Cow’s transformation is in the reverse. Originally a human being named Kgyung-chun, he metamorphoses, after suffering a broken heart, into a talking Holstein. If that were not terrifying enough in itself, he soon discovers that all kinds of creatures – the Black Incinerator and a thief with a organ-sucking plunger – are after his life and liver. That he manages to escape is only thanks to Satellite Girl and Merlin (Lee Don-yong), a swashbuckling, sword-swinging character – rather reminiscent of Shrek’s Puss-in-Boots – that beneath his glorious cape turns out to be… a roll of toilet paper.
Wooribyeol Ilhowa Eolrukso delights on many levels: from the very start, it is wonderfully and fearlessly imaginative with its characters. Kgyung-chun dresses in a snazzy human suit (made from toilet paper – Merlin’s of course – and complete with a zipper) whenever he needs to disguise his newly bovine form. Merlin himself, who claims to be a wizard (the Merlin to be exact) under a bad spell, is a riot, shamelessly walking into occupied loos and half-grumpily unrolling himself to make magic with a square or two of his paper self. Il-ho, meanwhile, has an endless supply of right arms as part of her personal arsenal but, like any machine, occasionally runs out of charge; while the Witch of the North (Hwang Seok-jeong) comes with a flock of sniffing pig snouts.
These details are all charming, but what Wooribyeol Ilhowa Eolrukso doesn’t quite provide is a full story and world that viewers can lose themselves into. The plot is basic: Milk Cow tries to survive, either by hiding or running away, in his new form, while simultaneously grappling with his changing feelings as something about Satellite Girl electrifies him (both literally and metaphorically). Il-ho, once a machine and with no previous experience of love, equally struggles to make sense of her recently developed human emotions. Much more than this there is, somewhat unfortunately, not. Although these and other characters in this simple tale are colourful and engaging, they can also feel somewhat two-dimensional and, in the case of some, lack exposition almost entirely. We learn surprisingly little of either Merlin’s or the Witch of the North’s background (What exactly happened to them in the past? Why are they on Kyung-chun’s side? And can they be fully trusted?). Similarly, real insight into the villains – both the liver thief and the Black Incinerator – is missing, making them feel rather flat and ultimately less threatening. Neither characters’ deeper motivations are ever revealed, and it is also not clear why it is only Milk Cow that can defeat the incinerator. While it is not essential for every detail to be explained, fleshing out the supporting cast and explaining the rules of the world everyone inhabits even just a little bit more could have gone a long way here.
Surprisingly for a story where music play an important role – Milk Cow is originally a musician and Satellite Girl first hears Kyung-chun’s songs when still floating in space – the soundscore (apparently by a group called Black Magic) feels a little underwhelming. Although the compositions are certainly nice, they are also rather forgettable. It may well be that the original lyrics lend greater weight to the songs for Korean viewers, however, with music being a language that can move people without a single word, these pieces are a bit of a let-down.
Wooribyeol Ilhowa Eolrukso also isn’t without reminders of Japanese animation – the stolen livers evoke a certain Studio Ghibli fire demon, Satellite Girl’s rocket feet bring Astroboy to mind –, but with characters that are small(er)-eyed and angular in body shape and movement, its drawing style fits more neatly within the aesthetics of Korean animated films since the millennium. While the animation is not always fluid, the distinctly recognisable style is encouraging, particularly if Korea animation wants to leave its own, distinct mark in the world of animated pictures.
The words of viewers and reviewers that Wooribyeol Ilhowa Eolrukso is “whimsical” (Twitch Film), “kooky” (BFI), “unbelievably bizarre” (Hancinema), “deeply idiosyncratic” and “gleefully off the wall” (both Culture Fly) all befittingly sum up what makes the film such a fun watch, for children and adults alike. Although it certainly isn’t satisfying on every level, Jang’s feature-length debut shows plenty of promise with its confidently whacky flights of imagination, enough to make me want to look forward to any future projects – that is, if, unlike many K-animation directors, Jang sticks around.
Wooribyeol Ilhowa Eolrukso is another promising debut entry in Korean animation. It thoroughly charms viewers with fearlessly imaginative characters in a whacky world that has to be seen to be believed, but with some lack of development both in terms of narrative and characterisation doesn’t yet fully satisfy.
- Jang is not a complete newbie as he made a 30 minute animated short called A Coffee Vending Machine & Its Sword in 2007. (Apologies, I haven’t been able to find the original title.)
- Alternative reviews: Twitch Film, Mild Concerns, Hancinema, Hollywood News, Culture Fly, Hanguk Yeonghwa.