Country: South Korea
Director: Ahn Jae-hun, Han Hye-jin
Producer: Lee Sang-Wook
Studio: Studio Meditation with a Pencil
Adaptation from: Yi Hyo-seok’s 메밀꽃 필 무렵 (Buckwheat Season); Kim Yu-jeong’s 그리고 봄봄 (Spring, Spring) and Hyeon Jin-geon’s 운수 좋은 날 (A Lucky Day)
Screenplay: Ahn Jae-hun
Art Direction: N/a
Animation Direction: N/a
Cast: Eom Sang-hyun, Jang Kwang, Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong, Park Young-jae, Lee Jong-hyeok, Jeon Hye-yeong, Kang Eun-tak
Runtime: 90 min
Film’s official website: N/a
This film is part of the K-Animation Season at Otherwhere. Seen at the 9th London Korean Film Festival. Special thanks to the KCCUK for providing me with a press ticket.
In 2011 Ahn Jae-hun and Han Hye-jin released their first feature-length animation, 소중한 날의 꿈 (Soljonghang Naluiggoom/Green Days), after eleven years of hard work. While it failed spectacularly at the box office, the reviews were largely positive, adding yet another work to the recently more active list of Korean animations. With The Road Called Life the team returned to making shorts, offering up an omnibus of three parts (each around 30 minutes long), all adapted from well-known traditional Korean tales set in different eras (1920s, 1940s and 1960s respectively).
In 메밀꽃 필 무렵 (Memilggot Pil Mulyeob/Buckwheat Season), originally written by Yi Hyo-seok, an old market seller, Heo Saeng-won, and his companion get into a disagreement with Dong-i, a young man whom they see behaving rather too flirtatiously. However, the three end up sharing part of their way to another town, Heo Saeng-won realising during the journey that that Dong-i isn’t quite as immature and disagreeable as he first thought. In Kim Yu-jeong’s 그리고 봄봄 (Geurigo Bombom/Spring, Spring) a young and somewhat naïve man is hoping to marry – sooner rather than later – the girl he has been promised for a few years already. Unfortunately, his bride, the daughter of his master, is still young and so he keeps waiting. As he slaves away day in and day out for his father-in-law to-be, his impatience begins to grow. Hyeon Jin-geon’s 운수 좋은 날 (Woonsoo Joheunnal/A Lucky Day) is the bleakest of three tales: rickshaw driver Kim has a hard life. His wife has been taken ill, but he lacks the money to buy her the necessary medicine and treatment. Customers for his rickshaw are few and far between during these dark times, the job earning him barely any money until, one day, he gets lucky – or perhaps too lucky?
There is much to be praised about this trilogy. To begin with all stories, but perhaps especially the first, are beautifully animated. Ahn and Han provide us with many memorable images (the fields of delicately blooming buckwheat flowers in Buckwheat Season, the grim streets of a 1960s Korea that darken the mood of A Lucky Day), making it hard to believe that the animators had very tight deadlines and no more than six months to complete each omnibus segment. While the animation may not always be technically perfect, the visuals demonstrate an inspired vision. Then there is the soundscore: here, the directors opt for pansori – a traditional sort of musical storytelling involving a vocalist and a drummer. The choice for pansori does not only suit because Ahn and Han are animating traditional Korean stories, but because it is a form of narration intended to express emotions and thoughts. As is explained on a KBS radio programme:
The story “Spring, Spring” is about a young man’s distress and resentment at having to wait for such a long time to marry his girl. The most appropriate way to express his rueful thoughts is through pansori. Also, since the story is a classic, the director could have adapted it to fit his own vision. But director Ahn Jae-hoon decided to leave the dialogue intact, and only added his own imagination to the setting and situations. He thought pansori delivered the dialogue in the most fitting way. (KBS World Radio)
While the musical narration style is effective for conveying the mood of each story and feelings of their characters, the narrative structure is somewhat more uneven. Not only are events told in a manner that is a little too predictable (foreshadowing is everything but subtle as relationships between certain characters and the death of another can be anticipated long before) but endings – all lacking a definite conclusion, as expected – feel overly abrupt as if film had been physically cut.
What we also must wonder after watching The Road Called Life omnibus, is what are we to do with these shorts? What is their purpose? And what do they mean for Korean animation more generally? They are, as a trio, strange to watch as the stories try your patience and, in particular, A Lucky Day weighs heavily. Although a laudable effort, the shorts may well be better suited for individual screenings, perhaps within an educational context (in a high school literature class or in a language tutorial for foreigners acquainting themselves with classical Korean tales). However, within the larger world of Korean animation that wishes to make its mark, their impact would seem to be slight, both domestically and internationally. The project also provides little indication of whether Ahn Jae-hun and Han Hye-jin can be expected to create feature-length films in the future, something that comes as a bit of a let-down after the rather promising 소중한 날의 꿈 (Soljonghang Naluiggoom/Green Days) three years ago.
Han Chang-wan, a professor for Cartoon and Animation at Sejong University comments that “Korea’s animation industry is in a deep slump”, something he puts down to the fact that “[t]hey can’t find good material, whether it be a short story or a novel” (quote source) – an explanation I however do not find compelling. While filmmakers may indeed struggle to come up with original stories, there is in fact solid, Korean source material that could be used yet, for whatever reason, seems to bypass the Korean animation industry rather than following what is often – and often successfully – done in Japan: the source material I’m talking about here are comics – manga, manhwa and/or webtoons.
In Japan comics (manga) are frequently the starting point for animations (film or TV), including for older works like「はだしのゲン」(Hadashi no Gen/Barefoot Gen, 1983), classics like「アキラ」（Akira/Akira, 1988) and「攻殻機動隊」(Kōkaku Kidōtai/Ghost in the Shell, 1995), more recent productions such as 「鉄コン筋クリート」(Tekkonkinkurīto/Tekkonkinkreet, 2006) and「コクリコ坂から」(Kokuriko-zaka Kara/From up on Poppy Hill, 2011), with forthcoming projects like「この世界の片隅に」 (Kono sekai no katasumi ni/In This Corner of the World, release date TBC) continuing the trend. Indeed, the manga-to-animation approach is so common that when Miyazaki Hayao originally proposed「風の谷のナウシカ」(Kaze no Tani no Naushika/Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1984) in pre-Ghibli times, the go-ahead was only given after the director created and successfully sold the story in manga-form first. While the comics industry in South Korea is of course smaller, it is not without interesting stories to adapt. However, rather than becoming feature-length animations, manhwa and webtoons are made directly into into live-action films and/or TV dramas instead. To name a few: 순정만화 (Sunjeong Manhwa/Hello Schoolgirl, 2008), 이끼 (Iggi/Moss, 2010) and 은밀하게 위대하게 (Eunmilhage Widaehage/Secretly Greatly aka Covertly Grandly, 2013) are films with webtoon origins, while 미생 (Misaeng, 2014) has been making waves on television for the past few months. 닥터 프로스트 (Dakteo Peuroseuteu/Dr. Frost, 2014) is another TV production that recently started airing, while 치즈인더트랩 (Chijeuindeoteulaeb/Cheese in the Trap) is in the planning.1
Nor is it only comics that can provide animators stories to tell – source material can also be found in novels, Korean or otherwise. Again, such sources are not lacking: Studio Ghibli, Japan’s most successful animation studio, sometimes features original stories such as the previously mentioned Nausicaä;「となりのトトロ」(Tonari no Totoro/My Neighbour Totoro, 1988) and「千と千尋の神隠し」(Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi/Spirited Away, 2001), but just as often opts for tales that already exist, either in Japan –「風立ちぬ」(Kaze Tachinu/The Wind Rises, 2013) is based on the life of a real person; 「火垂るの墓」(Hotaru no haka/Grave of the Fireflies, 1988) on a semi-autobiographical novel – or elsewhere. For the latter, examples include「ハウルの動く城」（Hauru no Ugoku Shiro/Howl’s Moving Castle, 2004), 「ゲド戦記」（Gedo Senki/Tales from Earthsea, 2006), 「借りぐらしのアリエッティ」(Kari-gurashi no Arietti/Arrietty, 2010) and 「思い出のマーニー」(Omoide no Marnie/When Marnie Was There, 2014), which are all based on English children’s books, while the currently airing TV anime「山賊の娘ローニャ」(Sanzoku no Musume Rōnya/Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, 2014) animates a much beloved Swedish book by Astrid Lindgren – and that is an incomplete list. Other Japanese animators have produced only original work (Kon Satoshi; Shinkai Makoto), yet others rely equally much on their own ideas (several of Hosoda Mamoru’s stories are his own creation) as they do on that of others, e.g. Hosoda’s 「時をかける少女」(Toki o Kakeru Shōjo/The Girl Who Leapt through Time, 2006) and Katabuchi Sunao’s「マイマイ新子と千年の魔法」(Maimai Shinko to Sen-nen no Mahō/Mai Mai Miracle, 2009) are based on Japanese literary works.
The reasons for the slump in Korean animation must thus lie elsewhere. I can offer no definite answer either, although difficulties in financing and the lack of a Korean animation industry that is systematically geared towards producing its own animated films likely play a part. While according to a market research report from last year (“Animation Industry in South Korea: Strategies, Trends & Opportunities 2013”), the country is the “world’s fourth largest animation producer, with more than 500 animation studios employing approximately 86,000 animation professionals” (quote source), much of what comes out of this production is outsourced work ranging from The Simpson to Family Guy.2 Korean animators creating Korean productions still seem to be the exception to the rule, with a handful of directors (e.g. Yeon Sang-Ho) battling on their own and producing a film or two before, in most cases, disappearing forever. Recent years have seen an increased output of homegrown animations, but these varied greatly in terms of both financial and critical success as well as technical and narrative quality: some had immense potential but were nonetheless flawed, highlighting the fact that long-term vision is much needed to support up-and-coming directors so that they may improve their craft over time. With directors like Ahn Jae-hun and Han Hye-jin, who already had a promising debut in 2011, returning with a set of shorts that, although a praiseworthy effort, do little to move the country’s animated films towards a brighter future, it seems as uncertain as ever whether South Korea will one day be able to carve out its own, distinct place in the world of animation.
Note: I am well aware that the animation industry is struggling in other places as well – not for nothing is Studio Ghibli currently taking a “break” that may or may not mean its closure.
1 All these examples use Korean source materials, but the list extends if you include live-action films and TV dramas based on Japanese mangas, e.g. success stories such as 올드보이 (Oldeuboi/Oldboy, 2003) and 시티헌터 (Siti Hyunteo/City Hunter, 2011).
2 I have not read the full report, only a few select quotes from it. With a price tag of £993 (!) this report seems to be intended for a rather exclusive readership…
Rating: not rated
Ahn Jae-hun and Ha Hye-jin’s return project after three years is a laudable effort to adapt classic Korean tales rather beautifully but, being an omnibus composed of several rather dark shorts, will likely struggle to find a wider audience. It also raises bigger questions about the Korean film industry, where promising animators seemingly disappear after one feature-length production or two, leaving the future of South Korean animation rather uncertain.
- London Korean Links preview post on The Road Called Life and his review.
- Alternative review: Hancinema.
- KBS World Radio Article (seems to be a transcript of a radio programme on the film).