Whilst not the remake of Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2005) starring the drummer from the Muppets for which I was secretly hoping, Jo Sung-Hee’s End of Animal is still a remarkable debut, a post-apocalyptic, existential quasi-monster movie on a shoestring budget, it recalls the darker works of Cormac McCarthy with an added supernatural tinge, and proves all the more impressive with the knowledge that this was Jo’s graduate film from the Korean Academy of Film Arts (his previous 43 minute horror ‘short’ Don’t Step Out Of The House was invited to last year’s Cannes Cinéfondation too).
“The angels will descend. With white fangs and claws”.
When the taxi driver carrying a pregnant Sun-Young (Lee Min-Ji) pulls over to pick up a mysterious young man at the side of the road (Park Hae-Il, referred to only as ‘Baseball Cap’ in the credits), it’s immediately clear there’s going to be trouble. Unable to pay his part of the fare, he begins to tell these apparent strangers their innermost secrets, divulging details about Sun-Young’s ex-boyfriend he couldn’t possibly know and about the driver’s scandalous relationship with a sixteen year old girl, he intermittently pauses to announce “142 seconds to go”, “45 seconds left”, until the screen whites out at zero with a deafening blast. Sun-Young wakes up to find both Baseball Cap and the driver gone, the car stalled in the middle of the road with no power to her phone or the car and a note to say they’ve gone for help. Leaving the car, she sets off on foot in search of the nearby rest area where she assumes the driver was heading, but it’s not long before she comes across other similarly stranded survivors, and a walkie-talkie through which Baseball Cap begins to direct her with a preternatural knowledge of her every move. With monstrous disembodied roars piercing the silence and offers of help from those she meets questionable at best, Sun-Young’s journey soon becomes a fight for survival through an inhospitable landscape fraught with danger.
“There was a bang. Then the windows broke and mom disappeared”.
The ambiguous, fractious narrative skilfully evolves, our discoveries twinned with those of Sun-Young. Jo Sung-Hee keeps his camera close to his protagonist, revealing little of the surroundings (presumably a budgetary necessity) but adding to the sense of dislocation, whilst ensuring the air of menace which permeates every shot rarely dissipates. It’s for the most part very well paced, the audience constantly second-guessing the motives of all concerned, from the malevolent kid with a baseball bat she meets to the creepy man on a bicycle who offers her a lift, and as flashbacks begin to reveal the nature of Baseball Cap and his role in Sun-Young’s story, the film takes a metaphysical turn towards its dazzling resolution.
Whether much of what we see is merely a manifestation of Sun-Young’s subconscious is open to debate (one the briefly glimpsed monster would be a large part of), the film suggests struggles both internal and external, with crime and punishment, guilt and retribution providing an underlying subtext, as well as the questionable nature of humanity when social laws are no longer in place and survival becomes the only necessity. The pseudo- religious angle may be a little Stephen King (although on a much larger scale than here, The Stand is comparable) and some scenes could do with some tighter editing, but there’s some brilliant stuff at play here, art-house filmmaking with a definite genre sensibility. It’s a cracking debut from a new talent to watch but the fact it’s not even listed on imdb.com in any form means, for the moment anyway, distribution is unlikely. A real shame.
End of Animal (Jimseung Ui Kkut) – 2010 – South Korea – 114 mins – Dir : Jo Sung-Hee
Screened as part of the World Cinema strand at the London Film Festival