I saw End Of Animal last night at its first screening at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, in an almost full house. I got the feeling that nobody knew what to expect — I heard murmurs to that effect as we lined up on George Street, and the SFF writeup throws down quite a challenge:
“There’s almost nothing in contemporary cinema to compare with Jo Sung-hee’s stunning debut.”
They’re right, though. At least nothing I’ve seen. End of Animal was director Jo Sung-hee’s graduation film from the Korean Academy of Fine Arts, and from the very beginning it feels like proper, atmospheric cinema. The landscape looks threatening. The characters are shrouded in mystery. The story is revealed slowly — and ambiguously — and an unsettling dread permeates every shot.
In the opening scene, we are introduced to Sun-yeong, a young, heavily pregnant woman (Lee Min-ji). She’s travelling home to her mother’s by taxi from Seoul, and in a deserted part of the country they pick up another traveller: a young man in a baseball cap (Park Hai-il). Their new companion, however, is unusual: he engages Sun-yeong and the driver in conversation and seems to know far too much about them — details that no stranger could possibly know. His speech is punctuated by the occasional number, counting down… and when he reaches zero, the world goes white.
Sun-yeong awakes to find herself completely alone: there’s no sign of the driver or the man in the baseball cap, and nothing electrical works. The car won’t start, and her phone won’t respond. All she has is a scribbled note from the driver, saying that he’s gone for help and that she should stay put and wait.
After this taut opening, the film blossoms into an engrossing combination of road movie and post-apocalyptic horror film. Director Jo gives the film an atmosphere of mounting dread that’s a welcome change from the last couple of “horror” films I’ve seen; here, it’s the unseen or unknown that we fear, and we have to piece it together from the hints that we’re given. It’s definitely more arthouse than genre pic; there’s no flashy CGI creature of the day popping up in reel one here, and no big explosions or simple answers.
Sun-yeong is not your average plucky horror heroine, either. Young, heavily pregnant, and diffident almost to a fault, she’s the last person you’d expect to survive on her own in the middle of nowhere. Lee Min-ji gives a good performance, combining trusting innocence with a dogged persistence. Director Jo concentrates the camera on her, often following her closely with hand-held camerawork, the better to seduce us into identifying with her — when we’re not looking over her shoulder, we’re watching the poor girl trudge along in the cold, supporting her back.
A-list star Park Hae-il (Memories of Murder, The Host) has great fun with the role of the unnamed Man In Baseball Cap, and took the part for free, to help out the director. The supporting cast are good too, particularly Park Se-jong, who plays a lonely, pugnacious boy with a baseball bat.
If I were to look for a fault in the film, perhaps I’d point to the uneven pacing, but it’s a minor quibble. End of Animal is an unnerving film, one that leaves you going over it for some time afterwards, trying to piece together an interpretation. It’s beautifully made, particularly given that it was effectively a student film on a tight budget.
I was mesmerised, and I hope we see more from Jo Sung-hee soon!
(Note: there’s one more Sydney screening of this film at SFF, this Thursday 16 June. Tickets look to be still available as of this writing.)