1999, NR, 115 min. Directed by Sun-Woo Jang. Starring Min Soo Shin, Myung Keum Jung, Hyuk Poong Kwon, Kwan Taek Han, Hyun Joo Choi, Hye Jin Jeon, Tae Yeon Kim, Sang Hyun Lee.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 9, 2001
It may be banned in its native South Korea, but I'd be willing to bet that the North's leader Kim Jong II, a man with a well known passion for Western films and risqué subject matter, has already gotten his hands on a bootleg copy of Sun-Woo Jang's Lies. It's a film so filled with sex and violence that many critics have derided it as nothing short of hardcore porn. Its curious structure and neo-neo-realistic approach to storytelling gets it off the porno hook, though -- there's more going on than simple bedroom antics. There's not much here, certainly, for fans of American yank 'n' spank tape loops: Jang's adaptation of Jung Il-Chang's (also banned) novel about the relationship between a 38-year-old sculptor and his teenage paramour is clearly a concentrated spit in the eye to the South Korean censors, but at its heart it's a love story, albeit one with a sadomasochistic bent. That the film has been reviled as outright pornography says more for the politics-laden state of filmmaking in South Korea and surrounding regions than it does about Lies itself. (The film was also banned in Japan, a fact hard to reconcile with that country's steady output of wildly popular and socially accepted X-rated anime and live-action nightmares such as Takao Nagaishi's studiously offensive Rapeman series.) Looking as though it were shot through a drape of moldy cheesecloth, Lies tells the story of sculptor J (Sang Hyun), who, in an opening narration, places an advertisement in the paper for an 18-year-old girl to deflower. His motivations -- apart from the obvious -- are murky, but when young Y (Tae Yeon) answers with a phone call, they agree to meet, and the rest of the film is mostly set in J's bedroom and assorted hotels. With his wife off in Paris, J is free to spend his leisure time with his new partner -- the first 15 minutes of the film combines the somewhat grueling deflowering scene, interrupted only by a series of titles -- “The First Hole,” “The Second Hole,” and so on -- that, if nothing else, underscores Jang's cinema-verite notions of what this film is going to be. The lovemaking is frantic and rushed and altogether realistic, and although there are no real scenes of penetration per se, you get the feeling that if this is indeed acting then this pair has met before. As the film progresses, Y and J enter into the realm of sadomasochism, alternating between flagellating backsides with cedar boughs and that old Asian fetish standby, coprophagia (what, no water sports?). Jang pulls these admittedly bloody-blue scenes with a steady gaze, though his protracted scenes of beatings and caresses have the jittery feel of a Dogma film. What's most interesting about Lies is the director's occasional retreat from his story into reality. In one memorable scene, Y and her schoolgirl pal Woori (Hye Jin) fight in a jealous tussle in an alleyway. The melee ends abruptly with someone offscreen yelling “Cut!” and the director and assorted crew walk into frame, to set up the next take. Meanwhile, Tae Yeon nurses her battered face and takes a smoke break. What Jang is saying here is unclear, but the trajectory of J and Y's escalating relationship is anything but. Lies most resembles a low-rent version of Last Tango in Paris, with touches of Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses thrown in for good measure. In the end it falls short of both of those erotic masterworks, but not by far. It's cloudy, overcast passion from a cloudy, overcast place.