Haeundae-gu, Busan, Republic of Korea,
The Dark and Varied World of Adult-Themed Korean Animation
Animated Tales Feature Hard-Hitting Themes and Unique Styles
Korea has produced more than its fair share of talented animators. Local companies have long provided the animated cells of several beloved animation series, such as The Simpson, whereas many people have left the country to occupy roles as key animators on a range of big-budget Hollywood animated titles for the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks.
Yet with so much talent, busy with outsourcing or building their careers overseas, where does that leave the local animation industry? Korean short animations are regular fixtures at major international festivals, and this year Erik Oh even landed an Oscar nomination for Opera (2020), but for feature films, the landscape is a little different.
20 years ago, notable Korean animated features were hard to come by, but over time they’ve started cropping up more and more often. Whereas viewers have come to know roughly what to expect from the Japanese and Hollywood animation industries, one of the attractive points of modern Korean animation is just how diverse it is.
A few bigger-budget productions have attempted to emulate Japanese anime and American CGI styles, but many of the most innovative and unique films coming out of Korea these days have been animated features targeting adults.
The budgets are generally lower, and the audiences are often restricted, but much like the live-action genre and social indie films that ignited the passion of global cinephiles for Korean cinema, these trailblazing and daring works have made their presence felt in the local industry and overseas.
Aachi & Ssipak
One of the most singular and unforgettable viewing experiences in all of Korean cinema, let alone just animation, Aachi & Ssipak is a dizzyingly inventive and aggressively paced adventure fueled with extreme and deliberate bad taste that has to be seen to believed.
The world has begun running out of natural resources, and one city has resorted to a rather extreme measure to solve its energy problem - harvesting human waste. Those that defecate well and regularly are rewarded with an addictive laxative known as a juicybar. This unusual solution has given rise to a criminal underworld, as well as a mutant race of addicts that became constipated and have turned into psychotic little blue monsters known as the ‘diaper gang’.
Low-level juicybar dealers Aachi and Ssipak get mixed up in the battle between the Diaper gang and government forces, led by the supercop cyborg Gecko. The pair go on the run with a pornstar named Beautiful, whose impressive digestive system makes her a target.
The King of Pigs and The Fake
If the Korean adult-oriented animation scene has produced any icon, it is surely director Yeon Sangho, whose blend of grit and raw social themes produced iconic animated films that paved the way for him to become one of the country’s biggest filmmakers.
Those films are, of course, The King of Pigs (2011) and The Fake (2013), a pair of hard-hitting works that each shook the global film festival scene with their uncompromising messages about the seamier sides of modern Korean life. Both went on to be adapted as Korean dramas series, with The Fake informing the second season of the horror anthology series Save Me, and The King of Pigs being the inspiration for a new show that is currently casting.
The King of Pigs, which originally debuted at the Busan International Film Festival in 2011, later screened in Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, making it the first Korean animation to screen at the festival.
The film focuses on Kyungmin and Jongsuk, two former schoolmates who reminisce over their brutal school days over a reunion dinner. Their school featured a vicious group known as the ‘dogs’ terrorizing the weaker ‘pigs’. One day the deranged Kim Chul stands up to the dogs and becomes a friend to Kyungmin and Jongsuk. Yet his retaliation only sets off an ever-spiraling cycle of violence.
First screened in the Vanguard section of the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, The Fake focuses on a small town that will soon be vacated to make way for a dam. The residents, who have all received some relocation money, are being suckered by a fake pastor and the only person who can see the man for who he is Minchul, a violent drunkard and cheat that people have long stopped trusting.
Based on a webcomic by a celebrated author and illustrator Kang Full, the man behind the comics that became BA: BO (2008) and 26 Years (2012), among many others, Timing is a dark and brooding high school mystery suffused with the supernatural.
By director Min Kyungjo, Timing debuted at the Busan International Film Festival in 2014. It focuses on four characters with special abilities who try to prevent an imminent disaster. Among them is teacher Park Jagi, a shaman’s daughter who can see future events in her dreams. Jang Seyoon is a 20-something woman who can see fragments of events ten minutes before they happen. Kim Youngtak is a student who can stop time, and finally, Kang Minhyuk is a man in his 30s capable of rewinding time by ten seconds.
Featuring once more on the list is Yeon Sangho with his zombie animation Seoul Station. Billed as a prequel to the live-action hit Train to Busan (2016), though actually produced earlier, the film focuses on a father trying to find his daughter who has been forced into prostitution by her abusive boyfriend. He does this while a strange disease starts to spread, first among the homeless population and then across the city.
Adding a genre element to his usual cocktail of grim social themes, Yeon paved the way for his commercial sensibilities with Seoul Station, which led to the global phenomenon Train to Busan and last year’s Peninsula.
A savage satire about lookism and the beauty industry in Korea, Beauty Water exploded onto the scene last year, becoming a festival hit at places like Fantasia and Sitges, and scoring rare overseas distribution deals for an adult-themed Korean animation. The film also welcomed an unheard of 100,000 spectators in domestic cinemas.
Yeji is a lowly makeup assistant to a star. She is insecure about her looks until she discovers ‘beauty water’, a mysterious product that claims to wash away excess fat and leave behind perfect skin. Jumping at the opportunity, Yeji uses the product and turns herself into a gorgeous idol, but her new identity comes at a terrible cost, especially when her addiction to beauty water causes her to make a mistake that ruins her body and demands an even more dangerous solution.
The latest work hoping to join this unique cadre of Korean films is Climbing, the story of professional climber Choi Sehyeon. Sehyeon is recovering from a car accident and discovers that she is pregnant just before she is supposed to take part in the Climbing World Championships. Unwilling to give up on the dreams she has fought for, she struggles with the idea of becoming a mother. At the same time, she begins to receive text messages from a version of herself whose life took a different direction after the car crash and who wants to keep the baby.
Climbing, a feature graduation project from the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA), was screened last year at the Bucheon International Animation Festival (BIAF), where it earned both the Cartoon & Animation Studies President's Prize and Unity Prize.