“Think of my dick as shit,” a middle-aged dude in the South Korean sex farce Lies tells his teenage lover, as he prepares to plumb what the film’s intertitles refer to as her “Third Hole.” “That will make it easier.”
Jang Sun Woo’s Lies is a raunchy/funny, fascinating/tedious, and ultradry comedy about a sculptor, a schoolgirl, and the dozens of sticks, switches, and staves the couple use to impress their passion upon one another. “Y” (played by 22-year-old fashion model and real-life nonvirgin Kim Tae Yeon) initiates an affair with “J” (played by 39-year-old first-time actor and real-life sculptor Lee Sang Hyun) to spare herself the fateful deflowering that her sisters endured at the hands of rapists. Y finds that she enjoys J’s rough and rabbity approach to sex, and when J suggests that their lovemaking include a little bastinado, Y agreeably takes control of “the stick that makes everyone happy,” and beats her own path into the future.
For the sake of lens-wiping, Lies is not an art film, an s&m retread of Lolita, a reaffirmation of patriarchal tyranny, or particularly “symbolic.” Lies is a film about fucking qua fucking, as even the redoubtable Variety recognized when, with accidental accuracy, they dismissed it for having “nothing much to say.” Now, the characters in Lies may not be having the kind of sex you like, but why should they? Jang’s refusal to pander to anyone’s libido other than his characters’ should be a cause for congratulation. Just ask President Kim Dae Jung, whose “sunshine” government abolished the former Hermit Kingdom’s Ethics Review Board in 1996, just weeks before Jang found himself at the Rotterdam Film Festival, feted by a retrospective of his idiosyncratic oeuvre and surfing the porno channels in his hotel room. “I always use sex in my films as a way of referring to political material I can’t discuss directly,” the director said after a screening of his historiographical horror flick, A Petal. “But now that the government has officially abolished censorship, I don’t think it’s going to make filmmaking any easier. In fact, a lot of Korean filmmakers are going to have a hard time figuring what to do. I think I’ll be ready to go back to something basic: a tender love story about a man and a woman, maybe.” Would the Dutch porn have any impact on his next project? “Of course,” he laughed, stabbing his finger at an imaginary remote control. “I just can’t change that channel.”
Is Lies the “tender love story” Jang was talking about? If so, then perhaps “tenderized” would be the more exact term, since Lies is an excruciating valentine to his long-term creative partners and inadvertent collaborators, the Korean censors. “The original idea for Seoul Jesus,” said Jang of his first film, begun in 1985 but not released until 1988, “was to climax with the protagonist’s crucifixion, but the censors told us we needed to change it to a happier ending.” He’s been—as dominatrices like to say—topping from the bottom ever since. In 1998, when the censors demanded Jang cut Timeless, Bottomless Bad Movie (about glue-huffing street kids in Seoul) by more than 30 minutes, he calmly complied, and even went so far as to shorten the film’s title. “Dear Censorship Board Members,” heckles the remonikered Bad Movie‘s press kit, “Thanks for chipping in on the editing.”
Based on the controversial (and ultimately banned and burned) novel Tell Me a Lie, by Jang Jung Il—the first writer in Korean history to be jailed as a pornographer—Lies became Korea’s fifth highest-grossing film of the year as of July, its proceeds roughly equal to those of a pseudo-scandalous import called American Beauty. Negative reactions have come mainly from outraged citizens’ groups and members of the international press—and without their righteous indignation, it’s unlikely U.S. audiences would have had the chance to see Lies at all.
Lies may not be the best introduction to Jang’s cinema of provocation, or to recent Korean film (Im Kwon Taek’s wrenching romance Chunhyang and Lee Myung Se’s cartoon policier Nowhere to Hide both open here in the next few weeks). For Jang, it’s but a single tile in a sprawling mosaic where painstaking re-creations of Korea’s recent political past are as likely to run up against a crayon-animated blow job (in To You, From Me) as a cheapskate re-creation of an image from The Exorcist (in A Petal). Like all of Jang’s films, Lies is about more than fucking with the censors; it’s about exorcising the demons of Korea’s, and Korean cinema’s, past.
And who better to perform such an exorcism than Y, or any of the “little girls” who populate this director’s “bad” movies? Call it a theme; Jang won’t disagree. He’s got, as usual, his next two films already in preproduction. One’s a $40 million animation based on an epic shamanic poem, several centuries of Korean folk painting, and the life of an abandoned princess named (like the film) Bari, who redeems her loathsome father and becomes, as Jang puts it, “the Goddess of Korean shamans.” The other, a “cyber-action thriller” set partially inside a video game, is under way with a crack martial arts and special-effects team from Hong Kong. It’s called The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl. Burn, baby, burn.
Read J. Hoberman’s review of Lies here.