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Crimson Whale
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by Jay Seaver

"Shaky, but mostly from the earthquakes."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Two animated features from the Korean Academy of Film Arts played the festival this year, and there's enough underlying similarities to make a viewer joke about them coming from the same class assignment or, more seriously, ponder how young filmmakers may have their minds in similar places: Both "On the White Planet" and "The Crimson Whale" ("Hwasangorae" in Korean) are 70-minute pieces of dystopian science fiction about outcast orphans different from their peers falling in with questionable people on a quest. "The Crimson Whale" is the more conventional one, although it's still a weird, sometimes uncomfortable piece of work.

Its orphan lead is Ha-jin (voice of Kang Wui), a pre-teen girl in the year 2070 who was born on an island but now lives in a Busan which seems to no longer bother rebuilding from the earthquakes the hit the Korean peninsula on a near-daily basis, selling drugs and picking pockets. She can talk to whales, though, which is why a group of pirates led by one-armed Baek Song (voice of Kim Sung-in) are looking to recruit her: They know the location of a gigantic lode of Uncentium, but it's located at the center of a volcanic island and guarded by a "volcano whale", and they will need this "piper girl" to call and influence this fearsome creature so that they can kill it.

Despite being a fairly short feature, it takes writer/director Park Hye-mi a while to get to the meat of it; there's a fairly lengthy first act showing Ha-jin's life on the streets of Busan that is a lot of introduction considering that the quick-witted, cynical girl of that portion will spend a lot of time seasick and otherwise following Baek Song's lead for much of the back end. It's far from wasted time - Ha-jin is a very entertaining "hard-boiled kid" character and Park does better than push the right buttons for her - although it's a bit of a relief when it's time to move on; the film is in nasty territory by then and there's no need to keep digging deeper.

The movie shifts into dark adventure territory then, and kind of overstuffs itself with supporting characters as it fills out Baek Song's crew, enough that the viewer doesn't necessarily get to know any of them very well and the thing that most in the audience would expect to really drive the rest of the movie - that Ha-jin has been brought along with the express purpose of killing this whale despite the fact that being used to kill whales is what gives her nightmares. It makes the climax some well-staged pulp - Park has learned the fundamentals of directing good action fairly well - but makes it struggle a bit for emotion beyond some fairly standard beats.

She shows some definite skills as an animator, though, visible even though the film is made without a whole lot of resources. Character design is distinct, although the simple, sometimes harsh lines look kind of primitive in many scenes (for what it's worth, Korean comics often have that same sort of style as well). She gets a lot of expression from them, though, Ha-jin in particular. The picture tends to be a little more detailed than it initially looks, though, and the alternate styles Park breaks out for flashbacks (genuinely creepy) and the firey island (kind of surreal) make strong impressions.

All told, "The Crimson Whale" winds up a pretty decent movie of its type - a little shaggy compared to similar movies that Japan produces by the truckload and maybe lacking the fierceness of some of the other recent animated films from South Korea, perhaps, but also a first feature. It's not a bad seventy minutes, and it will be interesting to see what Park does in the future.

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originally posted: 09/16/15 12:08:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Hye-mi Park

Written by
  Hye-mi Park

  Wui Kang
  Sung-in Kim

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