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Mad Sad Bad 3D (Sinchon zombi manhwa 3D): Jeonju Review

Mad Sad Bad Still - H 2014
Jeonju International Film Festival

The Bottom Line

A successful and significant showcase of stereoscopic imagery augmenting non-action, driven drama.

Venue

Opening film, Jeonju International Film Festival, May 3, 2014

Directors

Ryoo Seung-wan, Han Ji-seung, Kim Tae-yong

Cast

David Lee, Park Jung-min, Park Ki-woong, Nam Gyu-ri, Kim Soo-an

Three A-list Korean filmmakers join forces for a 3D omnibus debuting at the Jeonju festival.

Nearly a year after the pan-European portmanteau 3X3D bowed and wowed cinephiles at Cannes, a trio of Asian -- or to be specific, South Korean -- filmmakers have offered their riposte: a more mainstream and narrative-based version of the premise, Mad Sad Bad has proved to be a beguiling take on what could easily be the emerging subgenre of the stereoscopic omnibus film.

While their European counterparts have used their vehicle to mull over the possibilities and pitfalls of 3D, Ryoo Seung-wan, Han Ji-seung and Kim Tae-yong embarked on a more immersive embrace on the format. It's a statement that the extra dimension could be used to heighten the alienation of characters in both urban and rural environments.

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With Mad Sad Bad, the three filmmakers seem to be saying how it's the stories and the characters that matter. Driven by full-fledged stories and nuanced characters -- well, at least two-thirds of it, but more on that later -- Mad Sad Bad could easily have worked without the stereoscopy. That's perhaps why the Jeonju International Film Festival actually elected to screen the 2D version as its opening film May 1, before unfurling the 3D version in later shows.

As the curtain-raiser for an event seeking to reposition itself after last year's much-maligned swerve toward glitz and glamor, Mad Sad Bad has provided the Jeonju festival (and also the film's producers, Korean Academy of Film Arts, and the studio backer, CJ Entertainment) with a winner. While the two-hour omnibus is not exactly festival bait like 3X3D, it could easily find a berth in more mainstream, perhaps nation-based showcases. Success at home in South Korea, where it will open May 15, should be assured.

Indeed, the directors could be said to have emerged from this experiment with their reputation intact, if not enhanced: Ryoo, Kim and -- to a lesser degree -- Han have shown themselves flexible in adapting to different lengths and formats and being able to tell a full-fledged story in a reduced amount of time, while also blending the latest technological contraptions into their authorial imprint.

Ryoo's Ghost, which begins Mad Sad Bad, is an effective case in point. Based on a real-life incident of online obsession gone horribly awry, the story revolves around Seung-ho aka "Snow-wolf" (David Lee), whose willingness to bond only with his 'net friends leads him to a plan to free a girl supposedly being confined by a violent boyfriend who disapproves of her "loony" obsession with online games (hence the episode falling under "Mad"). Here, 3D works wonders in bringing vividly to the screen the ethereal nature of these virtually circulated half-truths -- whether the victims' pleas for help or the other netizens' cursory and morally unmoored expressions of sympathy and support.

The stereoscopy, which is used to heighten depths of field in scenes involving factory conveyor belts, highways and supermarket aisles, is just one of Ghost's multiple strengths. Ryoo has cannily transformed this revenge of the nerds into a twisted take on an actioner: As Seung-ho and his sickly, thickly spectacled comrade-in-arms "B-gen" (Park Jung-min) "go out to the world" with their code names, conspiracies and a murderous mission, Ghost could easily be a miniature variation of, say, Ryoo's 2013 espionage thriller The Berlin File. And the fatalism on show here is all the same, with the comical touches in the beginning gradually dissipating as Seung-ho and his friend become both victims and perpetrators in an unjust city of violence.

The gripping, edge-of-seat tension slackens somewhat with the second entry. At least on paper, Han's Saw You promises to be a spine tingler, what with its ominous title and the premise of a dystopia in which the hordes of undead -- whose marauding instincts were tamed by medication and segregation -- toil as slave labor under the tyrannical whims of untainted human beings.

But while Ryoo adapts a teen drama into a cracking 3D suspense thriller, Han has gone the other way by transforming his part into "zombie melodrama." It's actually a term coined within the story by protagonist Yeo-wul (Park Ki-woong), a cruel factory manager who spits at the sight of the weak, melancholic (hence its entry as the "Sad" segment) and impossibly photogenic zombie Si-wa (Nam Gyu-ri), who's desperately refusing the advances of a fellow worker.

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But as Yeo-wul does this and also chides advertising selling plastic surgery and memory-forgetting pills for zombies, the Big Reveal is hardly that much of a surprise -- what's startling, perhaps, is how the episode descends all the way into the cliche scenes of slow-motion self-sacrifice. Whatever symbolism there is -- human manipulation of the undead as a metaphor for capitalists trudging the working class underfoot, Yeo-wul's arrogance and amnesia representing the self-denial of the plummeting middle class -- is all but lost amidst the soap-like narrative and mise-en-scene.

Luckily, Kim's installment arrives to save the day. Featuring a nuanced and refreshingly endearing turn from child actor Kim Soo-an, Picnic explores the tribulations and trauma of elementary school pupil Soo-min, whose advanced-beyond-her-age demeanor is the result of her growing up with a busy (and economically struggling) single mother and a seemingly autistic younger brother; the situation at home leads to wishes unfulfilled or even extinguished, and a possibly constrained future life.

Despite such unforgiving circumstances, Soo-min maintains a remarkable steeled will about her own agency in life -- and it's because of this personality trait that she embarks on the titular excursion, which, somehow, reveals her own complex humanity (she would readily admit -- and then be punished for -- being a "bad" girl) and also something about her sibling. While star-in-the-making Soo-an offers a near-perfect portrayal of Soo-min's contradicting emotions, Kim pulls off a masterstroke by setting all this to 3D: by separating the girl from the background, the director manages to heighten her loneliness from people and things around her.

Meanwhile, the same could be said of Kim's decision to move the story to the country, which would see Soo-min (and her brother) set against dauntingly vast rural landscapes. With such a sturdy mix of fine-tuned story (courtesy of screenwriters Andrea Yoon and Min Ye-ji) and validly employed stereoscopy, Picnic offers not just a grand finale to the omnibus, but also an answer to the question about the significance of 3D or any other advance in filmmaking technology. It's all about moving the heart and the mind -- and Mad Sad Bad ticked those boxes with its well-crafted bookending chapters and maybe a lightweight filler in between.

Venue: Opening film, Jeonju International Film Festival, May 3, 2014

Production Company: KAFA Films in association with CJ Entertainment

Directors: Ryoo Seung-wan (Ghost); Han Ji-seung (I Saw You); Kim Tae-yong (Picnic)

Producers: Kim Jung-min (Ghost), Han Ho-jung (I Saw You), Kim Hung-min and Park Kwan-su (Picnic)

Cast: David Lee, Park Jung-min, Sohn Suh-yun (Ghost); Park Ki-woong, Nam Kyu-ri (I Saw You); Kim Soo-an, Park Mi-hyen, Yu Gi-seong (Picnic)

Screenwriters: Kim Tae-yong, Ryoo Seung-wan (Ghost); Han Ji-seung (I Saw You); Andrea Yoon, Min Ye-ji (Picnic)

Directors of photography: Lee Jae-hyuk (Ghost); Choi Sung-won (I Saw You); Kim Woo-hyung (Picnic)

Art directors: Jo Hwa-sung (Ghost); Kwa Jae-sik (I Saw You); Kim Byung-han (Picnic)

Editors: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum (Ghost); Park Kyung-suk (I Saw You); Lee Jin (Picnic)

Music: Jo Young-wook, Hong Dae-sung (Ghost); Jung Joong-han (I Saw You); Jung Jae-il (Picnic)

International Sales: CJ Entertainment

In Korean, 120 minutes