'Collective Invention' ('Dolyeon Byeoni)': TIFF Review
An oddball fable from South Korea about a man who becomes a cause célèbre after genetic splicing gone wrong renders him half-man, half-fish.
South Korean director Kwon Oh-kwang’s Collective Invention features the kind of bizarro premise that gets a screenwriter on the Black List but more often that not results in a film beset by the knotty tonal problems that waylaid something like The Beaver, Jodie Foster’s abortive dramedy from 2011. The story of a man who develops the upper half of a fish after a misguided bid to come up with an artificial food substance that will solve world hunger, this debut feature unspools as a kind of science-fictional cousin to Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank from last year.
This time the head never comes off, but for all its commitment to its quirky premise the film’s overtly satirical broadness seems too literal-minded to be trenchant, and it flits between farce, social allegory, detective story and polemic without ever really alighting on any of them. International traction looks limited by the dearth of laughs in a curio that seems (at least for most of its running time, until it turns po-faced) desperate to elicit them.
A rapid-fire montage introduces us to the sorry story of Park Gu (Lee Kwang-soo, hidden underneath an amphibian’s head throughout), whose participation in testing for big pharmaceutical company Ganmi Medical goes disastrously awry when he sprouts scales, webbed hands and a fish’s head. A voiceover from milquetoast reporter-in-training Sang-won (Lee Chun-hee) describes the fish-man’s journey to fame and peak merchandising potential, while the film crosscuts between newsreel footage and home video of Gu shot by the hapless Sang-won. Everything else is shot by d.p. Kim Tae-soo in drably autumnal tones befitting the pall under which all the characters labor: Gu isn’t the only one who appears to be walking underwater.
Having laid out this overview by way of prologue, the filmmaker then goes back to the beginning to fill in the detail; the shuffling of chronology remains somewhat disorienting throughout. Sang-won, keen to prove his bonafides to his editor (Jung In-gi), discovers Gu through the Internet, in a story posted in an online forum by a woman who claims her boyfriend has turned into a fish. That woman, Ju-jin (Park Bo-young), reveals she turned Gu in for a reward – “Why can’t I? It’s a capitalistic society!”.
Dr. Byun (Lee Byung-jun), the scientist spearheading the pharmaceutical company’s testing program, believes that what he’s doing is for the greater good, even at the expense of one man’s humanity. He’s dismayed when his product, ‘Vector 9’, goes on the market at an extravagant price – a “luxury item for the top 1%”. Gu escapes his clutches, but only briefly: public opinion begins to turn against him after footage emerges purporting to show Gu masturbating under the covers while leering lasciviously at a nurse. At a press conference, the nurse tearfully reveals she has nightmares about being raped by a fish.
Gu is ordered to return to the lab to resume testing (“Korea must have a global presence in the field of medicine”, declares the press) where he’s treated with disdain – and without anesthetic – as he undergoes further clinical experimentation. Gu’s father (Jang Kwang) and lawyer (Kim Hee-won) are out for themselves, using him to springboard into lucrative careers. Even the wide-eyed Sang-won pretends to be a documentarian instead of a journalist out to make his name. The bedrock institutions are no better: an evangelical church group gets the fish-man up on stage to be exorcised only for the pastor to end up beating him around the gills. Gu's maltreatment is gross, but cartoonishly so; too unsubtle to be powerful.
Magritte’s 1934 painting of a fish with human legs, from which this film takes its title and central gimmick, is striking for its lack of context. Collective Invention the movie provides too much, using that hauntingly affectless motif as a launching pad to skewer the media, the government, Big Pharma, religion and even capitalism itself – but never gaining much of a purchase on any of them. Chiefly because the film’s kooky characters, pitched a few clicks north of normal, never really register. The jaunty score from Jeong Hyun-soo works oddly in conjunction with the more downbeat turn of the film’s second half, and that diffuseness hangs heavily around the scaly neck of this particular metamorphosis.
Production Company: Woo Sang Film
Cast: Lee Kwang-soo, Lee Chun-hee, Park Bo-young, Lee Byung-jun
Writer/Director: Kwon Oh-kwang
Producer: Kim Woo-sang
Executive Producers: Jeong Tae-sung, Lee Changdong
Director of Photography: Kim Tae-soo
Production Designer: Choi Im
Costume Designer: Hong Soo-hee
Editors: Kim Hye-kyeong, Kim Woo-il
Sound Recordist: Gong Tae-won
Composer: Jeong Hyun-soo
Sales: CJ Entertainment
No rating, 92 minutes