Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sang Hyun Lee, Tae Yeon Kim
Written by: Jang Sun-woo, based on a novel by Jang Jung-Il
Directed by: Jang Sun-woo
MPAA Rating: Unrated (but should be considered NC-17
Language: Korean with English subtitles
Running Time: 112
Date: 09/04/1999

Lies (2000)

1 Star (out of 4)

Cold Fish

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The medium of film has proven its excellence at showing violence,chases, music, and dancing. Those things are visual; they move. Filmalso excels at capturing human emotions; laughter, love, and tears, alsoas a result of its forward-moving nature. But for some reason film hasfailed again and again at depicting human sexuality. Jang Sun-woo'sLies is the latest in that string of failures.

Sex is one of the most interesting aspects of our lives, and because of our puritanical background, it's also taboo. So whenever a writer or a filmmaker decides that it's time to break the mold, free-thinking critics gather around him or her without taking stock of what it is they've done. It helps that the director of Lies served prison time for his art. How can I say anything against so radical a filmmaker?

I can because Lies is a reprehensible, repulsive movie. It begins with Jang, off-camera, interviewing his "actors," amateurs who have agreed to be in this movie, one a 38 year-old married sculptor (called "J" and played by Sang Hyun Lee) and the other an 18 year-old girl (called "Y" and played by Tae Yeon Kim). We see virtually nothing of their everyday lives, only their secret hotel room trysts. They begin by sniffing each other's armpits, escalate to whipping and spanking, and, finally, commit acts that cannot be accurately described in a family newspaper.

What makes the film worse is that the young girl, though she seems to have control of the relationship, is nonetheless brutally exploited. The middle-aged man is clearly getting the best of this horrific relationship. She has a speech in which she explains that she wanted to choose her own sexual partner before she got raped (her sister was raped while still a virgin). That the movie brings up the idea of a living horror like this and doesn't deal with it is another of its many crimes.

Last year a film called Romance, directed by Catherine Breillat, attempted to blow away sexual mores in film, but also failed. The reason both Romance and Lies fall short lies in their depiction of the sexual act. Both films try to show an analytical, experimental, or even clinical view of sex, but without the special chemical reaction that titillates. In essence, these movies lack foreplay, love, affection, attraction, and animal magnetism.

Just to show that this an aesthetic viewpoint and not a prudish one, I do recommend titles like Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972), Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and David Cronenberg's Crash (1996), which balance both elements with inspired characters and genuine moments of intelligent and wondrous exploration. Lies, on the other hand, is the sexual equivalent of poking a dead bird with a stick.

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