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Senior Class, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Another so-called nice guy who probably still thinks he deserves more."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Yeon Sang-ho made the jump to live-action films with "Train to Busan" last year, but that doesn't mean he's left animation entirely behind: The animation studio where he produced "The Fake" and "The King of Pigs" is still a going concern, and he contributes the script for "The Senior Class", which exhibits the same brutal cynicism and reflection of societal ugliness as the films he directed. It's not quite so strong a work; Yeon and director Hong Deok-pyo don't quite pull their punches, but they often don't have the right target.

Shin Joo-hee (voice of Kang Jin-ah) is the star pupil in a Seoul college's visual arts department, and on top of being talented and ambitious, looking to study in Paris after graduation, she's beautiful, if a bit difficult to approach. She certainly seems to be out of the league of Choi Jung-woo (voice of Lee Joo-seung), a less-praised but studious classmate with his sights on making comics on the web. Jung-woo's friend Baek Dong-hwa (voice of Jeong Yeong-gi) earns a bit of extra money as a courier, but he also like to drink, and one night he foists a delivery to the Vovo "spa" off on Jung-woo, who is surprised to run into Joo-hee there, earning money for Europe under the name "Su-im". It's a secret that could bring Joo-hee and Jung-woo closer, but it's also the sort that inevitably gets out.

Hong's film doesn't quite embrace visual ugliness the way that Yeon's animated work generally has; few characters have scowling, pinched faces as the default, but the general feel of the film will be familiar to those who have seen other films from Yeon's Studio DADAshow, with the characters simply drawn (rapidly losing detail the further they are from the center of a scene's action) and moving a bit stiffly, as if their joints aren't quite so flexible as they should be. It's a slight limitation to the animation that heightens the emotion on display in a scene because it favors bolder movements unencumbered by background elements that may run counter to the main thing the filmmaker is trying to get across in the scene.

It's the sort of thing that requires a very specific sort of voice-acting that's equally brash, and the film's cast provides it. Kang Jin-ah makes Joo-hee the opposite of the gasping innocent; there's a heaviness to her voice that suggests she's used to overwhelming people with her physical assets and her talent, and as a result can be kind of sluggish when delicate maneuvering is called for. Lee Joo-seung puts just enough self-pity into Jung-woo's voice that the audience might not immediately flag him as a sad case, but there's a seed to grow in the latter half. Jeong Yeong-gi dives into Dong-hwa being a jackass with gusto.

It makes for a good start, as Hong and company make sure that, while there's something kind of sweet in how Jung-woo and Soo-hee grow closer, there's still enough sexist and snobbish attitudes in the air to make this story winding up a fairy tale unlikely. This is the sort of movie is easy to feel frustrated at during the last act because there are times when it's not clear whether the hypocrisy of the main character is fully articulated. Hong and Yeon have made the decision to present The Senior Class almost completely from the point of view of a male narrator, so there's a lot of talk about how broken up and hurt he is, and under-sells how he's not the one really suffering. There's a very thin line between holding up a mirror to ugly behavior so that audiences can see how selfish it is and tacitly accepting them, and there are times when the filmmakers could do with challenging the guy who thinks he's owed something for only being a little bit disrespectful earlier, at least if that sort of toxic nice-guy, posturing is meant to be a target. It doesn't help that the script starts to trip itself up in other ways toward the end as well, as the previously self-assured Soo-hee becomes extremely passive, further allowing Jung-woo to drive the story.

Even with those caveats, it's mostly well-done - even if it does sometimes seem to be more a film about teenagers than college students, Hong doesn't shy away from the cruelty involved with this material, and given that one expects abstraction from animation, that lets it hit a bit harder. It's unfortunately familiar material, but a decent take on it.

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originally posted: 09/02/17 00:01:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Deok-pyo Hong

Written by
  Sang-ho Yeon

  Ju-seung Lee
  Jin-ah Kang
  Yeong-gi Jeong

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