d. Sun Woo Jang; pr. Chul Shin, Jonathan Kim; scr. Sun-Woo Jang; novel. Jung Il Chang; ph. Woo-Hyung Kim; m. Pa-Lan Dal; ed. Gok-Ji Park; cast. Sang Hyun Lee, Tae Yeon Kim, Hyun Joo Choi, Kyon Taek Han, Hyuk Poong Kwon (112 mins)
Sexual Power & Obsessive Relationships
The mainstream exploration of explicit sexual power issues in obsessive relationships is often considered to peak with Nagisa Oshima’s Japanese film In The Realm Of The Senses (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray] in the mid 1970s.
The controversy over that film still rages and whilst the new South Korean film Lies is not as graphic in its depiction of sexual sado-masochistic obsession, it is nevertheless clearly indebted to Oshima’s film and in many ways is partially intended as a modernization and deconstruction of that classic. It seems that the director Jang Sun-Woo intended the film to be a deliberate challenge to Korean censorship regulations. After all, the author of the novel on which the film is based spent two months in prison when judged a “pornographer”. Indeed, Lies was at first banned there but after the film received enthusiastic responses on the international Festival circuit the ban was repealed and the film released with cuts. It subsequently became the most widely screened Korean film in the USA where it was duly considered a cross between In The Realm Of The Senses (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray] and the equally controversial Last Tango in Paris (Uncut Version) [Blu-ray]. However the film fell into the standard rut that greets sexually explicit films, with many critics calling it an art-house film whilst many others simply dismissed it as a failed porno movie.
Coprophagic Sado-Masochism and the Teenage Schoolgirl
Lies tells the story of a passionate sado-masochistic affair between and older man and a teenage schoolgirl. She responds to an ad apparently and meets this man whereupon they embark on a sexual adventure from hotel room to hotel room (where some people are concerned about the age of the girl).
The girl tells her school friend about it. The more the affair continues the more she learns about her lover’s sadistic side. He likes to whip and beat her with a variety of objects as a form of foreplay. She lets him indulge his fantasy and discovers that she likes it. However, she gets even more pleasure when their situation is reversed and she becomes the aggressive partner, whipping him. Together, they become connoisseurs of pain, forever in search of new instruments with which to beat each other. Correspondingly, he learns that he too enjoys the beatings and their sex becomes ever more perverse, extending even to coprophilia. The more passionate they are,the less the outside world seems to matter to them, although it is ultimately the girl who emerges as more in control of her own destiny as she embarks on a college venture. He is determined to see her no matter what the apparent cost to his professional and personal life.
The director uses various distancing devices to constantly remind the audience that they are watching a fictional account of sexual congress: thus, the film utilizes inserts from audition tapes in which the actors talk to the camera about their characters; and in one scene the camera continues after the scene is over to reveal the camera crew at work and the after-shot behaviour of the actors. In that sense, it is arguably about the responsibility a filmmaker has to the nature of “authenticity” when all he is creating is in essence an interpretation and as that cannot be true, merely an approximation of a greater truth. It is even punctuated by chapter titles, which seem a coarse parody of the pretensions found in such as Pasolini’s controversial Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray] (at time of writing still refused DVD release in Australia but available uncut in the UK). Instead of Pasolini’s titles referring to the circles of Hell, director Sun-Woo here has titles like “the first hole” to refer to the process of sexual conquest. In terms of the coprophilic scene, the depiction in Lies whilst graphic is nowhere near as explicit as the feast of excrement in Salo: indeed in Lies the excrement-eating allows for one of the film’s most subversively comical lines.
Sexual Awakening, Sexual Pleasure and the Segue into Sexual Perversion
Despite its agenda and its apparent obsession with the pleasures of flagellation, the film is not as intense or as graphic as other works although at times it comes close.
Thus it lacks the sense of a purposeful descent into psychosexual passion, the director instead insisting that we are taken away from the proceedings instead of being drawn into them. It is a self-reflexively deliberate distancing choice. It looks like a cheap film and its study of a girl’s progressive infatuation with the phallus ultimately leading to role reversal and pleasure in dominance is a theme that has emerged through the better pornographic movies of the 1970s, where women’s pleasure is a central concern. Indeed, Lies is reportedly very popular with women in South Korea where the film is taken as a measure of female authority and self-expression in sexual mastery.
Yet without the pornographic explicitness found in Oshima and such modern directors as Catherine Breillat (whose Romance was initially refused classification in Australia but is now available uncut in region 4 DVD), Lies feels almost pointless, deliberately denying the physical authenticity of explicit sexual contact. For a while though it seems as though it will increase in explicitness and flirt with pornographic convention. Indeed, the plot hook of a young woman’s sexual awakening by an older man, a libertine of sorts, is a standard device in much American film pornography. With such awareness of other forms, the distancing effects in Lies seem to disguise what many have considered an inherent prurient interest – an indulgence in schoolgirl sex and perversion with no discernable point other than deliberate taboo-breaking. Filmed in shortish scenes, it repeatedly dissipates whatever intensity it can muster although it cleverly reveals the man growing more childish and dependant the more mature the girl becomes. As a film about the consequences of the surrender to physical pleasure it has earned a place in film circles.
Style to Burn
One is constantly aware thus of the fact that these are actors as well as characters, and thus drawn to their relationship on both levels: on that aspect the film is most tantalizing.
Only some grotesque, looming angles and flashy editing rhythms punctuate the concern for reality. The frank sex talk stands out almost as a life-force amidst the background sounds and at times it is as if the sounds of people in sexual congress dominates the film’s world (complimenting the visual emphasis). Likewise, the sounds of the numerous beatings carry the force of flesh in pain. Indeed, the moans, kisses and so forth in combination with the outside ambient world and the hiss common to cheaper sound recordings adds to the porno quality of the movie. The film wants to be more than porno however and strains for effect even in the voice-over narration.
There is a text page DVD special feature containing the director’s thoughts on the film, and how he apparently intended it to break down conventional moral distinctions and the apparent myth of sexual perversion.
USA DVD PURCHASE INFORMATION: Lies
(C) 2011 Robert Cettl ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
logo & illustrations by Ed Seeman, used with permission