Yeon Sang-ho’s previous film, The King of Pigs, was the first Korean animation to be screened at Cannes and was nothing if not a bleak look at the prevalence and long-term effects of bullying in the Korean high school system. His next film, The Fake, is another dark exposé but this time of another great pillar of Korean society - evangelical religion. False prophets abound as Yeon takes us on a difficult journey through the nature of faith, desperation and the exploitation of human weakness.
A small Korean town is slowly being dismantled before being sacrificed for a new damming project. The people of the town are being appropriately compensated by the government, but still they’ll have to pick up and start again somewhere else even though many of them are already past retirement age. Two new forces are descending on this once ordinary town - one offers hope in the form of an evangelical preacher who claims to cure the sick and offers a place in a new paradise (to those with the money to buy a ticket - places strictly limited, terms and conditions may apply) and the other a violent drunkard, Min-chul, who wastes no time in wreaking havoc on the lives of his wife and daughter. Unfortunately, Min-chul picks a fight with the wrong person and is the only one to realise that the preacher’s “backer” is a notorious fraudster currently wanted by police for a string of similar crimes. Sometimes the truth comes in unpleasant packages, and being the sort man he is, who would believe Min-chul when he’s the only one who’s seen through this “fake” miracle?
It goes without saying that like The King of Pigs, the world depicted in the The Fake is utterly bleak and without even the faintest glimmer of hope. Every character is flawed, very few have any redeeming features at all and almost nothing good happens in the entire course of film. However, it is marginally more subtle than The King of Pigs, which is a much welcome upgrade over the previous film’s excesses. Faced with such a bleak situation, it isn’t surprising that the entire town has fallen hook, line and sinker for the false hope offered by the eerily cult-like preacher and his camp of evangelicals. The preacher himself may once have been a genuine man of god, but his business minded backer acts totally without compunction and is only interested in cold, hard cash. Peddling “holy water” as a supposed curative, neither the preacher nor the business man seem to care that one of their biggest supporters is currently suffering from tuberculosis and foregoing modern medicine in favour of this spiritual treatment - after all, the con is nearly played out and they’ll be on their way before their spurious claims are exposed.
Their only adversary is Min-chul, a man so rude and violent that people stopped paying attention to him years ago. It doesn’t help that Min-chul is much less interested in the injustice of the fraudulent operation than he is in taking personal revenge against the group, firstly because of what happened the first time he met the businessman and secondly because they threaten to take away his wife and daughter which seems to be the thing that most frightens him. Nevertheless, he is a dogged pursuer and his constant attention is enough to put the fraudsters on edge. The real horrifying truth is that some of these people half know the reality already, they just don’t want to hear it. It’s much easier to just believe in the false hope offered to you than to face a hopeless reality in which you have no control and no possibilities. If someone tells you they can carry your burdens for you and make it all okay, you likely won’t want to listen to someone who says differently, and the fact of the matter is you’re very unlikely to trust someone you didn’t like very much in the first place no matter how sensible their arguments may be.
In terms of animation style, The Fake offers a slight upgrade over The King of Pigs whilst retaining a similar aesthetic. Yeon overuses the shaky-cam effects which have an oddly rhythmical, computerised feeling which becomes distracting and works against their intended purpose, but overall the The Fake feels much more accomplished in terms of production values. It’s a cynical message and hardly an original one, but The Fake offers its own take on the nature of faith and organised religion and bar a few missteps does so with a much more nuanced eye than The King of Pigs. Intensely bleak, violent and unremitting, The Fake is definitely not for the faint of heart but is a definite step up from The King of Pigs and ironically offers a ray of hope for serious animation in Korea.
The Fake received its UK premiere as part of the ninth annual London Korean Film Festival on 11th November 2014.