After helming a lavish period adaptation of Les Liasons Dangereuses in 2003 under the title Untold Scandal, director Lee Je-yong has moved on to comedic and contemporary stories set in South Korea. First came Dasepo Naughty Girls (2006), a zany tale of sexual promiscuity within a high school, and other characters the students meet in their pursuits of lust and love. Less barmy was the mockumentary-style Actresses (2009), where female stars clash behind the scenes of a photo-shoot. Similarly satirical is Behind the Camera, which has both cast and crew within the film industry in its sights. However, the film is neither blackly comic nor surreal. Dasepo Naughty Girls was both, mainly because of its multiple characters and narratives. Though Lee’s sex comedy was a flawed film, it was also more cohesive and entertaining than Behind the Camera.
The central conceit is perhaps the film’s biggest problem. As with Actresses, the film is told in the mockumentary style. Director Lee plays himself, and has decided to try and make a short film by being away from the set, and only using phones and webcams to interact with the cast and crew. He keeps arguing that it is a bold experiment in filmmaking – mainly because no-one has done it before. Lee has also flown to Los Angeles in order to ensure that he can maintain his experimental conditions. While most of the actors and crew are initially supportive of this venture, it quickly leads to tensions and distracted conversations – both on-set and off.
This premise is constantly mocked throughout the film. Many actors wonder why it is necessary, and the director mentions several times that Park Chan-wook has already made a film on an iPhone. Lee may genuinely be playing catch up to bigger names in Korean filmmaking (he says Kim Jee-woon is currently making a film in LA with ‘Arnie’); or he could also be mocking technological experiments that try to drastically alter the filmmaking process. In either case, this does not come across as comedic. Director Lee mostly looks bored when he is using Skype, and the actors constantly look fed up having conversations through webcams. Again, this could be part of the joke. However, the actors do not have as much charisma within their two-faced conversations and on-set shenanigans as in Francois Truffaut’s Day For Night (1973), which Lee seems to be aiming for. Both in Day For Night, and in Pang Ho-cheung’s frantic Vulgaria (2012), it is the main character’s interaction with those on-set that allows for some of the best jokes. Lee, instead, has taken himself out of the equation.
There are some engaging moments, such as the crew’s pranks on Lee because of his limited field of vision. The late conversations about whether or not he is actually in Seoul, and not LA, have an unexpected outcome. Yoon Yeo-jeong also provides amusing anecdotes about working with both Im Sang-soo and Hong Sang-soo. This is humorous for viewers who have knowledge of certain South Korean actors and directors, though it is potentially significant for another reason. Many of the other scenes do just involve conversations between the actors and crew members, meaning they unintentionally resemble Hong’s minimalist style. This set-up could be another joke on the other director’s behalf, but the result often means the scenes are as unengaging as Hong’s films.
The film’s funniest line is “We’ll do the tears with CGI”, which follows an unsuccessful crying scene. It is mentioned early on, and it signifies the film’s problem. The tone and humour is inconsistent, and definitely tails off before the halfway point. The final scenes are much more heart-warming than scathing, which undermines the earlier attempts at black humour. As a result, Lee’s satirical intentions are clear, but they are not carried out fully on-screen. His next film, My Brilliant Life (2014), is a drama about a boy with progeria. It will be interesting to see if Lee continues in this vein, or if he perhaps learns some lessons from other Korean directors who successfully dabble in black comedy.