originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/630160...
It’s a Thursday again, which means it’s the day for animation! We’re up to 20 of these now, and tonight the plan is to check out a few Korean directors. Not just South Korean, either!
You’ve almost certainly seen quite a lot of Korean animation before tonight, because animation studios from America and Japan frequently outsource significant parts of animation, particularly inbetweening, to South Korean studios where labour is cheaper. Although this is starting to change (as costs of living and wages in South Korea have risen, making other countries more attractive for outsourcing), many renowned ‘American’ series like Avatar: The Last Airbender succeeded on the immense talent of Korean animators.
Tonight, however, my focus is on Korean-directed, Korean-language animation. …which means most of it has been frustratingly hard to find - in contrast to anime where nearly everything ends up with a bluray release and most things get decent subtitles and plentiful seeds, with Korean animated films I could usually only find DVD quality at best, typically in torrents that are barely surviving on their last few seeds or gone altogether. So some of the films I planned to watch tonight are still downloading, and I may have to adjust plans.
South Korean animation seems, from the limited overview I’ve been able to make, to be somewhat similar to the broader South Korean film industry in tone and style. The films I’ve found tend to be serious slice of life or dramas, with character designs leaning to the realistic, telling stories of growing up, guilt and adult ennui, and a few of them go hardcore into the gore. (I have one I may save for if we ever do a horror-themed night, perhaps on Halloween…)
I’d really like to be able to do indepth posts about the history of Korean animation studios and directors like I have been able to for anime, but unfortunately the information just isn’t available in English in the same way. So instead, I’m just going to describe what I’ve found…
Kim Moon-Saeng - Wonderful Days (aka Sky Blue) 
One of the most visually impressive films I’ve got is Wonderful Days, dir. Kim Moon-Saeng. From what I’ve been able to find, Kim is best known for his extensive work in TV commercial animation, but Wonderful Days is his only narrative film.
So what is it? Visually, it takes heavily after cyberpunk anime like Ghost in the Shell, Psycho-Pass and Ergo Proxy. It’s a blend of CG backgrounds and cel animation, and - from what I’ve seen scanning through the film - it’s got a lot of impressively smooth, realistic animation.
The plot concerns a kind of post-apocalyptic setting with - as you’d imagine, from cyberpunk film - a severe class divide. Most of the survivors of humanity live in a walled city, while the ‘diggers’ work outside to provide them energy. The story concerns a digger named Shua, who ends up in a love triangle with a security officer, Jay, and her commander, Cade, while the a brutal crackdown by the city sparks a major revolt.
The film has mixed reviews, praising the animation but dismissing the story. Well, hey, it’s animation night innit - and there’s a lot of striking designs for masks and face markings, strong images of streets and machines, and especially a lot of very effective, naturalistic character animation. The animation style reminds me heavily of shows like Korra, but I can’t confirm if it had any of the same animators.
I have been able to find the Korean director’s cut of this film at the very last minute, so hopefully we won’t have to put up with the English dub.
Lee Sung-Gang - My Beautiful Girl, Mari  and Yobi, the Five-Tailed Fox 
Lee Sung-Gang got his start mostly in short animated films, but in 2002 he seems to have made a splash at Annecy with My Beautiful Girl, Mari, a gentle magical-realist story about a young boy in a fishing village coming to terms with the loss of his dad (to an accident) and best friend (who is moving to Seoul). He finds a strange marble which allows him, when he takes it to the ruined lighthouse just outside his house, to enter a magical world of flight and big fluffy dogs.
The film adopts a fully lineless, cel-shaded style that is unusual in animation, with a very realism-oriented drawing style. To me, by far the best part of it is the gorgeous animation of animals, particularly cats. While the humans often feel a bit stiff in their movements, the cats are lively and characterful in a way that shows a real love. The film’s naturalistic dialogue and scenes of fishing create a very strong sense of place, and there’s some lovely animation of water in addition to the excellent cats.
Lee briefly headed into live-action (pshew!), but returned to animation in 2007, with a mythologically themed story Yobi, the Five-Tailed Fox. This time, the animation takes much more after anime (at risk of cliché, there’s definitely signs of ghibli influence); the character designs are more stylised, the expressions more dramatic. The story concerns an alien stranded on Earth, who is adopted by a five-tailed fox who transforms herself into a human girl, taking the name Yobi. Yobi inevitably finds herself increasingly tangled with the human world, but suitable Peril arises in the form of a fox-hunter, and a magical soul-stealing lake.
Depending on the play of fate and the mood of the audience, I may end up showing either of these films. My main concern is that Mari is kind of slow-paced and doesn’t really feel like it goes anywhere - but perhaps people are in the mood for something dreamy about childhood loss. Yobi on the other hand definitely sounds like a kid-oriented movie, but one we might well enjoy for its creatures and animation.
SEK Studio - Squirrel and Hedgehog (1977-2012)
This is, so far, a collection of South Korean animation. For the economic and political reasons you’d expect, the North isn’t a huge player in the animation industry - but they do have one fairly large animation studio, known in English as SEK (Scientific Educational Korea).
SEK handles a fair amount of outsourcing work, largely for South Korean studios - which means they’ve ended up handling Western shows by passing down the outsourcing chain. For example, they did a lot of work on the Simpsons movie, and also handled inbetweening on an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender (season 3 episode 1, if you’re wondering).
But they also produce various TV animation for their domestic audience! Their best-known series are The Boy General, Clever Racoon Dog and Squirrel and Hedgehog, and the latter has made its way out to be subtitled in English. You can find a collection of hardsubbed episodes on this Google drive.
Squirrel and Hedgehog is known for its startingly nationalistic tone and graphic violence. Its animal characters wear realistic military uniforms and fight with modern weapons. The story concerns a group of largely herbivorous animals who, facing invasion by the army of weasels, unite to fortify their hill. It is, Wikipedia says, regarded very fondly in the DPRK, and was even released outside North Korea in Italy as Brave Soldier, albeit with a nonsensical edit and redub.
I’ve previously wondered if the geopolitical themes were exaggerated by Western commentators, but no, they’re kind of transparently obvious when the animals start straight up wearing military uniforms and marching to patriotic songs. Later on, the Americans - represented by wolves - join, and apparently they are made to seem so imposing that the show has gotten a sort of American fandom taking it in a totally unintended light.
Despite this unintended flattering of the enemy, the jingoistic message of the show is more than clear. What’s odd about it is how little effort it makes to brush over any of the horrors of war - it’s not one of those American war cartoons where nobody dies. That said, despite being a semi-serious war drama, it has a lot of songs; character songs, choral songs, all sorts. The Russian character, Bear, does a whole dance performance in the first episode.
On an animation level, early 70s Squirrel and Hedgehog is a bit of a weird watch. It’s smooth enough, but the motions don’t have a lot of weight. It uses a lot of looping, and interpolates poses without a lot of regard for making the overall motion smooth, or expressing character through animation. A few years later, they’d improved the animation considerably - I downloaded episode 15 and saw some pretty strong full-frame animation of a ski chase. Over the course of its run it went from traditional cel animation to computer animation in Flash.
Mind you, I don’t want to give the impression that all North Korean animation is heavily militaristic propaganda, but… a lot of it is! Apart from this kind of propagandistic work, SEK has made a number of animations of fairy tales, taking after the tradition of Soviet animation in themes, if not style. There is also a notable North-South collaboration titled Empress Chung, but thanks to its extremely limited release, I have not been able to find a copy.
Other Korean animated films of note…
In the course of researching this, Elaine and I found a few other films - a gentle slice of life story about two orphans in a monastery titled Oseam (2003, dir. Sung Baek-yeop), and an intense zombie film titled Seoul Station. Although I’m not planning to screen them tonight, I hope we can get to them later - Seoul Station might fit a horror themed night, and Oseam can go with whichever of Lee Sung-gang’s films we don’t watch. There’s also some more realism-oriented drama in The King of Pigs (2011), in which a murderer unites with his childhood friend, and The Fake (2013), in which a priest dupes a small town. Perhaps down the line, we’ll get a chance to check out more of these films.
My plan is basically to screen a Lee Sung-gang film, probably Yobi the Five-Tailed Fox, then episode 1 of Squirrel and Hedgehog, and finish up with Wonderful Days. After that, we have a bunch of specifically Korean animated music videos, courtesy of scattermoon (who helped compile this list). I’m going to rush to make a title card.
Animation Night 20 runs today at 7pm UK time, i.e. 40 minutes from this post going up (sorry it’s so late). The place is twitch.tv/canmom. Hope to see you there!