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I Am Trash
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by Jay Seaver

"Not trash, but certainly not pleasant."
3 stars

SCREENED AT FANTASTIC FEST 2014: "Just jerk off when your brother tells you to" isn't quite the first line of "I Am Trash", but it's close and gets the audience's attention. It also turns out to be one of the less horrific moments in this movie about a family of sex offenders. If that description puts you off, you're probably well-served trusting those instincts.

Writer/director Lee Sang-woo delivers that line as a character of the same name, a street cleaner and de facto head of his family. He wants his brother Sang-tae (Yang Myung-hun) to masturbate because he is prone to acts of sexual violence otherwise, and it seems to run in the family: Third brother Sang-gu (Park Hyung-bin) is molesting his barracks-mate while on his military service, and their pedophile father has just been released from prison after a ten-year sentence for raping an eight-year-old girl. The still-traumatized girl's father, Yong-suk, has casually informed Sang-woo that he will castrate the father if he shows up in town.

Signs posted in their neighborhood suggest that the mother went missing twelve years ago, so it appears that the brothers never had much in the way of sensible guidance. Sang-woo may try, but he's established as weak early on, getting attacked kids on the street as he does his job in the first scene. It's a theme that continues through the film, as he's blackmailed by someone who knows of his family's crimes and stymied in his attempts to get Sang-tae to actually take a job. It seems like a rather pessimistic view - men are slaves to their urges, while the women presented are all helpless victims - although it does serve to highlight the jam Sang-woo is in trying to exist with one foot in the civilized world and one in his family's. Perhaps that's what life is like for the sort of man his father and brothers are: Aggression is normal, women (and weaker men) are targets, and those who would impose some sort of order deserve contempt.

Director Lee doesn't hold back from showing things that way. He's made a film too explicit to be shown in Korean cinemas, and while it's not just a baggage of sexual assaults from end to end, those are certainly scenes that will make an impression on the audience; Lee doesn't hold back - quite literally, in some ways; any penis seen in closeup belongs to the filmmaker, who won't ask his cast to do anything he wouldn't do himself! The film was shoot guerrilla-style on the streets of Seoul, and certainly looks it at times, low-resolution and sometimes awkwardly framed, and while the film only seems to linger when it has a point to make by it - including a long, single-shoot rape scene - it inevitably wears on the audience.

Considering the micro-budget/outside-the-system nature of the movie, the cast isn't bad. Lee Sang-woo is often the most grounded in his role, while the actors playing his brothers go bigger in a way that may make them a bit less sinister but certainly gets the point across, with Park Hyung-bin silently malevolent as Sang-gu and Yang Myung-hun a bit of a wild animal as Sang-tae, especially once the father re-enters the the picture, playing his scenes opposite Park as a sort of evil guru imparting knowledge to an eager student.

(Apologies for mixed-up and missing names; as of this writing, the film is still new enough to not be listed in detail our at all on most English-friendly Korean film resources, and the actual credits were not subtitled.)

Given the subject matter Lee Sang-woo chose, he's made a fairly solid film, and fans of challenging material will find plenty to admire. On the other hand, it can be a tough 97 minutes to endure just to illustrate that having a family full of sex criminals is awful. I kind of want greatness to sit through that, and "I Am Trash" doesn't often get past pretty good.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=27855&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/28/14 11:31:29
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Directed by
  Sang-woo Lee

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  Sang-woo Lee

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  Sang-woo Lee



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