Ah, sadomasochism, the gift that keeps on giving–welts, bruises, tattoos in all sorts of interesting places and that’s the theme of LIES, the latest flick from Jang Sun Woo, up until now one of my favorite directors on the world scene. But, hey, everyone slips up occasionally.
For Jang its a particularly joyless coupling of a hot-to-trot 18-year-old co-ed and a jaded 38-year-old artist with a fetish for spankings. The sex, and there is a lot of it, is clinical, graphic and mechanical. And not smoothly mechanical at that. This is sex with all the passion of a geometry proof and all the awkwardness of a junior high school dance, and yet with none of the endearing sweetness that is sometimes to found at such functions. There are grunts, there are slurps, there is rooting around, is it feeding time at the pig trough? No! Theyre having sex again!
Are the actors, who are making their screen debuts (and swan songs if there is any justice) actually doing it? With their decidedly grim expressions, they certainly couldnt look as if they were having a worse time, and I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from that. This is a porn film without the money shots or the fun, on anybody’s part. As the sounds of slapping birch branches and yelps of, well, I’m not sure what they’re yelps of, fill the theater, one’s mind wanders wistfully to Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshimas stylish classic THE REALM OF THE SENSES, that fabulously disturbing and haunting erotic thriller that followed a doomed couple on a sexual odyssey of obsession, madness, castration and death. Jang’s couple find little of that and what they do find takes them waaaaaaaay too long as far as audience interest or patience is concerned.
Alas, this film is so bad that it calls into question my previously held opinion of Jang. Is it possible that those earlier films, including THE LOVERS IN WOOMUK-BAEMI, were a fluke? And worse, might Korean cinema as a whole, vibrant, unselfconsciously direct, powerful in comedy and in drama, which is just now making inroads into American art houses, once again be relegated to the festival circuit as a result of the release of the morbid and sorry mess that is LIES? One hopes that the concurrent release of another Korean film, Myung-See Lee’s NOWHERE TO HIDE, an action flick with panache, if no moral compass, is enough of a balm to forestall that.