REVIEW: Korean "Lies" Makes Sex and S&M Political
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/10.5.00) --Finally a sentiment you won't find on a Hallmark greeting card: "I know you really like me because you've eaten my shit."
Yes, Jang Sun-Woo's "Lies" flushes out territory few have dared to explore, other than say Pasolini, Divine, and a few proctologists.
Already banned in Korea (although later released with cuts) and censored in France, Jang's incendiary adaptation of Jung-Il Chang's controversial novel is at first glance a romance whose foundation is sex for sex's sake. Let's be libidinous and to hell with the nuns of the world.
Y (Kim Tae Yeon), a high school student and virgin, hooks up with a classmate's phone pal, J (Lee Sang Hyun), a sculptor in his late thirties. Seduced by his voice, Y decides to be initiated into the world of lubricants and orgasms by this unseen man.
Why this immediate need for copulation? Y's two older sisters had been raped, and Y wants to have a less unfriendly sexual initiation.
Well, after a little more conversing, the anxious duo meet at a bus station and soon are alone in a poorly attired hotel room. They kiss. They strip. Y sees her first penis. She goes down on her first penis. Then comes copulation. And so forth. Although at first J opines, "I don't need the frustration of a virgin," he in the end is very satisfied. As is Y.
Finding each other perfect mate material, these alphabet people meet and re-meet, always moving a step or two beyond what they mastered in their past sexual romps. Soon S&M enters the picture with Y being the submissive, then there's some coprophilia, and eventually Y becomes the dominatrix J apparently always wanted her to be. The couple even starts scouring parks for attractive pieces of wood that they can use to whip each other into delirium.
Sounds hot? Surveying the midtown screening room I attended, the answer to that is mixed. There were few bulges in pants and numerous walk-outs. In fact, the lovely lady next to me exclaimed at least thrice when X and Y started stripping yet another time, "Not again!" She didn't realize that was the exact reaction Sun-Woo Jang wanted.
Jang was not out to make a porn film. Getting a penis to stand up and salute you is an achievement nearly any hack director who sprinkles the popcorn concession stand with Viagra can achieve. "Lies'" intentions, though, run away from arousal and toward political commentary.
In a Korea where homogeneity is sanctioned, where there is a dour uniformity in everything from politics to dress to customs to accepted reactions to specific stimuli, how and where can one achieve individuality? Why in the bedroom behind closed doors and pulled shades, of course.
With their clothes off and lying on anonymous mattresses that supply the stages for their trysts, J and Y become alive. Here they can shed their frightened, emotionally unvaried, everyday exteriors.
But why the journey from blow jobs to skin-bruising beatings?
As Simone de Beauvoir noted in her controversial Marquis de Sade essay: "Pleasant sensations are too mild; it is when the flesh is torn and bleeding that it is revealed most dramatically as flesh."
Only sexually-charged pommelings can eradicate J and Y's numbness.
When Y returns to school after one particularly rough hiding, she proudly displays her black-and-blue spoils of love. Standing on a toilet in a bathroom stall, Y shows her ass to her best friend, who is as admiring as she is shocked.
It's hard not to be jarred by these carryings-on, especially since Jang begins the film with interviews with his two leads who are first-time actors. Lee Sang Hyun is in reality a sculptor while Kim Tae Yeon is a fashion model. Their chats give "Lies" a documentary feel, so when the actors, who are first seen reading from scripts, eventually become their characters, it's hard to remember that what we are watching is fictional. The performances are that flawless as is the direction and Dal Palan's music.
"Lies," in the end, is as disturbing as was last year's "Romance," and the upcoming "Baise Moi" ("Rape Me"). It's strange how we have to turn to imports to have any serious dialogue about sex in this country. Either a superbly daring film like Kevin DiNovis' "Surrender Dorothy" (1998) won't get distributed or we have to turn to "American Pie" for sophomoric patter about the merits of cunnilingus and to "Road Trip" for the joys of heterosexual prostate massage. That an orgasm can be political never enters the picture.
It's enough to make you run out and buy a hair shirt and cat-o'-nine-tails.
[Brandon Judell is contributing film critic to indieWIRE.]