Arrested development seems to be the great malady affecting Millennials worldwide. In the post recession, post-#occupyeverywhere, Doomsday prophecy-obsessed world we live in, what’s the point in growing up when the future that awaits us is, at best, on shaky ground, or worse, possibly nonexistent. The figures of adult authority preaching their “pull yourself up from your bootstraps, find a purpose, get a job, meet somebody nice, get married, and shoot out babies to fuel the machine again” philosophy isn’t unattractive to most people, but how can anyone achieve such “lofty” goals when getting a job has turned into an epic poem?
For the stocky and affable Won-jun (Back Seung-kee), life couldn’t be any sadder. Living with his parents, acting as a gopher for some unnamed business, and the butt of many nasty jokes about his nonexistent sexual experience, he does what weaker men can”t. Yet, Back, doing double duty as director and lead actor, is not after high melodrama. For his first feature, Super Virgin (2012), he attempts great pathos by co-opting the myth of Pygmalion and appropriates the Hans Christian Andersen tale of The Ugly Duckling to tell a very funny, but dark romantic fable.
In Super Virgin, Won-jun’s solution to his sexual and romantic drought comes in the form of *pause for drum roll* an avatar. A vessel which he can body jump to whenever he wishes with the assistance of a Nobel prize-seeking engineer/scientist whose unhealthy desire to bed his own female avatar creation is one of many little side jokes that, in the hands of a lesser talent, would just be plain creepy. However, in Back’s film, this one note quirk is weaved into the scientist’s overall backstory, that of an egocentric workaholic who’s so enthralled with his own greatness that his soul mate literally is of his own creation. Designed to have all the physiological features of a human being, these avatars are like us in every way, except for the annoying fact that they are handsomer/prettier than the average person.
Won-jun takes the miraculous gift he has been given and quickly gets to work bedding as many women as possible. With the loss of his sexual innocence, any strong feelings of accomplishment at finally being one of the “beautiful people” or amusement at his skills in seduction laughably involving just randomly propositioning women on the street, are fleeting. Won-jun is ultimately, like all loveable losers, a hopeless romantic and pines for the love of a milquetoast woman, a recent transplant to his hometown of Incheon, who has a mean habit of kicking any man in the balls who stands uncomfortably close to her.
Soon Won-jun is faced with a great predicament, casino a universal fear that anyone who’s ever fallen in love must face: which mask do we show to the person we love? Is it fair to present a false image as long as our feelings and intentions towards that person are genuine and sincere? The director doesn’t offer a simple answer to this problem. Won-jun’s plight, though unique in very obvious ways, is still something that we can all relate to. The option to either embrace reality in all its ugly awkward glory or choose a false romantic ideal has not just been thrust upon Won-jun; our own interpretations of what we think he should do will ultimately color our interpretation of the film’s open-ended finale.
Aside from the narrative, one of the charms of this film has to be the Z-grade movie aesthetics. Incorporating the usual tropes of on-location shooting, verite style camerawork, and DIY production design, Super Virgin’s cult status is not only guaranteed, but its low budget, 5,000,000 Won (around US$4,500) to be exact, gives the film a unique visual identity. A perfect example of this is the lab where Won-jun goes to transform into his avatar. A production designer working on a bigger budget film would have taken the time to dress the set either in the style of a hokey mad scientist’s lab or as a super high-tech laboratory, both acceptable and familiar settings but nonetheless unoriginal compared to the doodle strewn lived-in space that appears in Super Virgin. Aside from that, the wordless dinner scene between Won-jun and his parents is a hilarious bit of physical comedy, reminiscent of Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977), illustrating with just a few grunts, awkward nods, and the sound of chewing and slurping just how loving and dysfunctional Won-jun’s family is.
Of all the films I had the great fortune of seeing at this year’s PiFan, many had a healthy mix of comedy, horror, drama, and sci-fi, but only Super Virgin had, in my opinion, a mysterious alchemic blend of genre and art, proving that money and spectacle are no substitute for strong story, sincere acting, and an assured visual style. Talking to the director after the screening, I asked him if he was planning a new film yet and when could we expect to see it, to which he assured me he was and that the release date would be sometime next year. Curious as to who would be cast, he remarked that he would be working with the same group of actors in Super Virgin, comically adding that they were cheap to hire. Whatever his next project may be, hopefully lightning strikes twice. I anxiously wait for the next Back Seung-kee masterpiece.