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Shin Sung-Il is Lost

September 2nd, 2006 (06:55 pm)

current mood: satisfied but confused

Colonel Sanders as the Antichrist...

© 2006 D. Gordon

Shin Sung-Il is the name of a famous Korean movie star. Shin Sung-IL is also the name of the little boy at the center of Shin Sung-Il is Lost. We're warned early on that this isn't an homage to the star, or to the movie Spirited Away (which, translated from Korean, apparently mentions that someone is lost). But we're not warned of much else to come...

The orphanage where Shin Sung-Il lives is in a forgotten town, populated by birds, stray dogs, and forgotten children. Sung-Il could be 12, could be 15 – he's been at the orphanage too long for anything about him to be more than guesses. But he does believe in and take to heart the message of the strict religious adults around him: eating is a sin perpetrated by Eve, a temptation, a cross to bear, something dirty to hide. He's not alone in this. The children live off Choco Pies (a very popular Asian snack, much like a scooter pie, and with the status of Oreos in the US) and pints of milk, consumed under beds, in the lavatory, and in abandoned refrigerators. The director and the guard, however, aren't quite so observant; they'll turn the office sign to "We're Out" and enjoy a healthy stir-fry behind locked doors. It takes a new girl looking for lunch and a broken lock to show the children that the dogma underpinning their world might not be as black and white as they assume.

At first the movie comes across as a slow trek through the main theme of the kids simultaneously eating and not eating. But partway through it becomes clear that there's something else going on (although not so clear what that something else is). This movie creeps up on you, leaving questions about what is real and what's imagined, what's actual vs. what's seen through a child's eyes. One wonderful scene has Kim Kap-soo (another little boy at the orphanage) describing what happened when he saw the director and the guard eating. Behind the huddled children we see the director and the guard seated at a low table, gorging themselves and disobeying every sacrament they've imparted to the children; using exaggerated motions to eat, then sweeping the table clear to engage in a stilted, posed "sex" scene. For the children, seeing them eat would be as bad as seeing them have sex; and with no knowledge of what either would look like, we see the scene awkwardly imagined through a child's eyes.

The visuals are notable, as well. The director, Sin Jae-In, uses a number of tools to tell the story. Very notably, color and sound mark some of the points where the characters' emotional states are at their most agitated. I wouldn't say the children are naturals, but their comfort levels are well-suited to the material. Sin tosses a number of balls into the air, and keeps them balanced throughout the film.

But this isn't an easy movie to follow. It's often not clear what's happening, either in the action or the backstory. Not knowing the children's full backgrounds is one thing; not knowing much of anything about their plan to escape makes things difficult to follow. And did Shin Sung-Il really run away? Where is he now? Is he imagining the whole thing? (He's already had hallucinations.) Hard to tell, and a stumbling point in the story (even if you argue that you know as much as one of the characters would); but the conflict between the boy and his new environment (where sympathetic adults continually try to feed him) goes a long way towards making up for it. The story ends by telling us there will be a sequel (revolving around Kim Kap-soo); hopefully that will go some way towards filling in the holes.