Collective Invention (Dol-yeon-byeon-i)

Korea (2015) Dir. Kwon Oh-Kwang

The general public are a fickle lot who will idolise or demonise a person in the blink of an eye, depending on what they are told by the media, who also can’t make up their minds how to treat people – unless any gain to be made is theirs. This debut from Kwon Oh-Kwang sets out to hold the media and society to account with this curious black comedy drama.

Park Gu (Lee Kwang-soo) participated in some experiments for a major pharmaceutical company Ganmi Medical which went horrifically wrong and now Gu has mutated into a half-man half-fish. Gu manages to escape the lab and heads for the flat of a girl he thinks of as a girlfriend, Ju-jin (Park Bo-young). She however doesn’t like him and immediately tries to shop Gu in for a reward.

This backfires so instead Ju-jin shares the story of her “boyfriend” on internet message boards which catches the attention of rookie TV reporter Sang-won (Lee Chun-hee) who uses this as a way to kick-start his career. The media attention turns Gu into a cult celebrity but with Ganmi losing face they decide to fight back and fight dirty.

On the aesthetic front, one might recall the Japanese films from earlier in the decade such as Calamari Wrestler and Executive Koala, in which chief characters were actors in animal head masks (and suits). Gu’s fishy appearance is similar, with the actor’s real face only shown in brief flashback footage, but the film’s tone is decidedly less whacky.

Kwon is intent on delivering a social satire with an acerbic bite but the humour isn’t strong enough to raise any laughs, even when it gets a little low brow (one trumped up case against Gu involves him supposedly pleasuring himself while a nurse tends to him) for a cheap laugh. Instead, even with the ridiculous premise, Gu is firmly presented as a sympathetic character, the treatment of whom is often reprehensible.

Gu ended up the way he did because a scientist at Ganmi, Dr. Byun (Lee Byung-Joon), was developing a new protein food that would eliminate global starvation. His experiments involved using fish DNA bonded with humans to see if the fish’s limited reliance on food could be replicated in humans, resulting in what he called Vector 9.

This revelation sees a switch of focus to Dr. Byun as Korea has never been at the forefront of a scientific or medical breakthrough before, and this is seem as the chance to improve their standing on the worldwide stage. With this Gu becomes a money making public icon but he is the only one who isn’t benefitting from it.

Even his father (Jang Gwang) comes out of the woodwork to get some of the action, engaging the services of a lawyer Kim (Kim Hee-Won), who also wants to make his name from Gu’s plight. From here, the balance of power shifts as Ganmi are sued and censured, then after some underhanded tricks Gu is the one on the receiving, and his days as popular figure are quickly over.

On paper the story essentially writes itself and the quirky fish-man premise does work as an obtuse way of making a point about the cult of celebrity and how the media can make and break a person on a whim. The scientific aspect of the plot is somewhat warped as Byun’s motives were fundamentally noble in searching to cure world hunger and indeed he is non-plussed when he is vilified for his work after initially being praised for it.

So what is Kwon’s objection here? Is it an abstract critique on the testing on animals or the gene splicing of human and fish DNA? Unfortunately it isn’t made clear enough what his stance is, unless it was more to a way to cynically address the sentiment of national pride Vector 9’s development engendered.

A thankfully clearer message is the truth about the research which, as you might expect, pours scorn on the social elite and their corrupt levels of power. Truth be told, there is hardly any likeable characters in this film outside of Gu himself, but even then he is an idiot for not reading the experiment contract in full before singing it. But we do feel for him as his life is taken from him in more ways than one, betrayed by all around him.

Ju-jin is an openly selfish cow, foul mouthed, confrontational and openly hostile towards Gu, sticking with him to get the most money out of the association. She may provide a couple of amusing comedic moments through her violent outbursts but as a character she is very off putting. Gu’s father is just as volatile but less obvious about his lack of sincerity in fighting Gu’s corner.

With Sang-won practically redefining the term “milquetoast” despite his intent to bring integrity and honour to TV journalism and Byun being a bit late to the Gu support group party, it is no wonder the poor guy/fish is driven to suicide. Kwon deserves credit for creating a supporting cast who don’t follow the usual protagonist sidekick tropes, but one decent person would have been nice, only Sang-won coming close.

Because most of the main characters are painted in shades of grey, it is remarkable that the cast are able to subtly define the blurring of the lines in their portrayals. As odd as this may seem, Lee Kwang-soo is the most effective performer here, despite being under a latex mask. Gu’s default fish face looks melancholic but through Lee’s body language he conveys a range of emotions the mask hides.

A promising debut for Kwon on the presentation front, Collective Invention – the title of the famous reverse mermaid painting by Belgian surrealist René Magritte – has a wonderful premise for an incisive satire and a kooky comedy but struggles to decide which to be. Well made if rather slow, the ideas are a little too big for this first timer.

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