Head (South Korea, 2011)

One of my favorite Korean films is Save The Green Planet (2003). More than any other, it blithely disregards generic compatibility and instead splices every conceivable idea, trope, and storyline so effectively that it becomes a veritable cornucopia of emotion. It was at times horror, torture porn, thriller, action, romance.  It led with comedy and was completely ridiculous, but also enormously infectious. Head follows pretty much the same recipe, it even features Baek Yoon-shik, although this time as the torturer rather than the tortured, as he was in Save The Green Planet. Unfortunately, the elements in Head do not come together as a whole and instead are a slapdash mishmash of filmic devices, aiming far but often landing wide of the mark.

From what I can piece together, the story revolves around a messenger (Ryoo Deok-hwan) who is delivering cargo, which turns out to be the missing head of a famed scientist (Oh Dal-su) who has committed suicide. He discovers the head and is soon tracked down and apprehended by Baek Jeong (Baek Yoon-shik), but not before he manages to hide it. Baek calls the messenger’s sister, an ambitious reporter stuck reporting on entertainment news, and tells her he will kill her brother unless she hands over the head. To relay any more information would be pointless, as I’m really not quite sure what transpired after that point.

The film’s main problem is that it is extremely difficult to fathom what’s going on. The main thrust of the action, simple as it is, shouldn’t be difficult to follow, but alas, it is mired by a backstory that is indulgently complicated and not nearly explained well enough. At certain points the plot begins to focus before breaking off into new threads and barreling sideways through them. It is only near the third act when the film starts to take shape. There are still massive holes in the story but at least it’s made clear by this point that the plot is a mere front and excuse for some offbeat setpieces.

A lot of the cast will be recognizable to fans of Korean cinema. I’ve already mentioned Baek Yoon-sik who, aside from Save the Green Planet, has portrayed some of the industry’s most memorable and odd characters such as his roles in The President’s Last Bang (2005), Tazza: The High Rollers (2006), and the wrestling coach in Like a Virgin (2006). Oh Dal-su appears as two live characters and a corpse’s head, but only very briefly, understandable considering that he’s appeared in ten films in the last two years, including last year’s Hindsight, Late Blossom, and Detective K, and 2010’s Troubleshooter, Foxy Festival, and The Servant. He seems to relish in the brief time he has on screen, especially in the scene featuring both of his characters. Joo Jin-mo-I plays the corrupt detective (as he always seems to) and this is one of his six roles from last year, the others being Heartbeat, Children…, The Apprehenders, Quick, and Mr. Idol.

The reporter is played by Park Ye-jin who I haven’t seen on screen since 1999’s excellent Memento Mori. Unlike the seasoned veterans that populate the rest of the film, she does not show a great aptitude for comic timing and she has difficulty conveying her character’s emotions effectively. Ultimately, she just doesn’t seem right for the part. Playing her brother is the young Ryoo Deok-hwan, previously scene in My Little Bride (2004), Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005), Like a Virgin, and The Quiz Show Scandal (2010). He does well in his role, despite the fact that he is strapped to a chair for the majority of his on-screen time.

The filmmakers seem to be indicating that it is not imperative to follow the minutiae of the story. However, while the set pieces are each more ridiculous and outrageous than the last and do display some original thought, they lack the cohesion and technical skill necessary to successfully pull them off. On the whole, the mise-en-scene is not particularly imaginative. Strangest of all, unlike Save the Green Planet, which it tries so hard to emulate, it forgoes playing with a colourful palate, instead opting for a grey, and rather dull colour scheme.

Director Cho Un was part of the editing team behind Save the Green Planet, which makes a whole lot of sense. It is also clear that he is an editor, as a lot of tricks are used throughout, often to cover up mistakes in the production. Being involved in film production myself, I can attest to a prevalent trend among first-time directors and editors turned directors. Frequently a cinematographer, an assistant director, or sometimes even a producer will express concern over what has been shot: “Is it okay, should we do another?”; “Do we have enough coverage?”; etc. Invariably the answer is “don’t worry, we’ll fix it in editing.” This is never a good idea, as primarily it limits your options, but can also force your hand in the editing suite if something is amiss. In Head, ellipsis, jump cuts, split-screen, and flashy transitions abound to string the incongruous elements together and to patch over what the director was not careful enough to adequately film during principal photography.

Head has its moments, including the old-folks home sequence and the delightfully macabre imagery in the mortuary (like the butcher’s display case of human body parts), but it is best seen as a collection of such moments, rather than a film which aptly integrates them into an engaging story, the way Save the Green Planet did.

Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.