Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Wonderful Days of Korean Animation

Review: Sky Blue (Kim Moon-saeng / 2003)

Sky Blue is a Korean animated science fiction film that was simply not as big a hit as it should have been. Released in 2003 and with a $30 Million budget, it disappointingly mostly just did the festival circuit, before finding somewhat of a home on DVD. There is no doubt it deserves to find an audience, for being a revolutionary piece of cinema for its visuals, with a fairly solid story backing up its presentation. Labelled as “Akira for the 21st Century”, fans of Cyberpunk, Anime and Sci-Fi will find it a short and sweet ride into the future.

The film’s original English title and Korean language title are both Wonderful Days, a term which describes the idealised lives of those that live in the Ecoban, a high-tech megacity built by an elite group of individuals. The Ecoban is a highly sterilised environment that fits right in with something straight-out of Metropolis or Star Wars. Sky Blue does in-fact reference many films from the sci-fi genre before it, that which seem to give the film more of a history that it so craves. From Blade Runner to The 5th Element, we have seen much of this before, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to see it again.

Set in the year 2142, the world of Sky Blue is one that has been destroyed by civilisation and environmental pollution. Mankind has given in to its frailties and desires, with a strict hierarchical society emerging. The world is split amongst those in the Ecoban and those that live in the slums that surround the outskirts of the city, known as the “Marrians”. They are refugees that scrounge for food and items of trade, and continue to fight amongst themselves for some sort of self-worth. The more those in the Ecoban burn off gas fields and pollute the Marr, the more energy produced and productive the Ecoban becomes. The cycle of life has been turned on its head by Director Kim Moon-saeng and the 300 staff that worked on the film for 7 years.

We enter at a critical point in the Delos systems lifecycle (that which powers the Ecoban), as its running out of energy. The leaders of the Ecoban fear the Marr, who outnumber them 10-1, will break down the cities walls and put an end to their haven. Thus they decide to make plans to start re-polluting the environment. A ragtag team of Marr renegades fight back by staging terrorist like raids at the heart of the Ecoban’s power source. Among this group of fighters is a quiet enigmatic man Shua, who operates in a fashion that is reminiscent of V from V for Vendetta. Shua has a mysterious past, and was once a citizen of the Ecoban before he was outcast as a murderer and long thought dead. His presence in the city after a decade long absence reignites a love triangle with a childhood friend Jay and her boss, security commander Cade. The balance that had remained steady for the first 100 years of the Ecoban is now unstable, and things are going to change.

Sky Blue utilizes an intriguing blend of animation styles, where some scenes seem photo-realistic with terrific representations of the likes of rain and fog, while other cell animated objects contrast in an interesting blend of 2D and 3D CG Animation. The human characters seem straight out of a Manga with a Cel-like composition, while backdrops often remain static as more detailed features fly by. The most important element Kim uses is creative cinematography and camera angles. Be it on the front of a futuristic motorcycle (a shot straight out of Terminator 2), or in a fluid slo-motion spin as characters battle it out (think The Matrix). Colours are washed out in the Marr with Bland Browns and Greys, while bright Blues and Purplesfill the hallways of the Ecoban, of which the steel walls themselves shine with a pristine history. 

The film has a serene score that is highlighted in multiple musical interludes, transforming dull dystopian backgrounds, littered with hundreds of windmills that no longer turn, into somewhat of a transcendent drive to escape such surroundings. Sound effects are a blast to your senses, with Machine guns, RPGs and explosions bouncing around the soundscape, with nice touches of futuristic devices littered throughout. Staging for the action set pieces is overall quite enjoyable to watch, with a great shot in-front of a stain glass window being one of the most memorable.

There is a downfall in the plot of the film though. Characters are not fully developed, and little could they be in the films short running time. We seem to start off with a focus on Jay, which soon shifts to Shua and his little brother Woody, and then a turn to the renegades from Marrian. It isn’t too confusing that it can’t be followed, but doesn’t give a great connection to the characters themselves. We also don’t see enough of the people living in the Ecoban, to see if they are being repressed of if they are oblivious to the outside world, or indeed if they actually have a ‘better’ live or not. The love triangle that is not a love triangle is quite underwhelming although I did enjoy the relationship between Cade, Jay and Shua, giving tension to the story. Kim does achieve a great sense of melancholy throughout the film, but flashbacks for Shua and Cade aren’t enough to make you truly engaged by them.

The film seems to be marketed to an international audience, with Character designs not specifically Asian, English language songs featured throughout and Darcy Paquet having a hand in the scenario of the film. It’s not entirely surprising giving Kim’s background of being a TV Commercial director and operating out of Hong Kong. Korean animation had lagged behind that of its Japanese cousin for too long, and Sky Blue was the start of a semi-successful period for the region, being followed by the Kwak Jae-yong scribed Ark (2004), the adult oriented Aachi and Ssipak (2006), and finally Yobi the 5 Tailed Fox (2007). Upon reflection on those features there is no reason why Korean animation can’t increase its worldwide presence. Kim signed on in 2008 to direct Empire of the Ants, adapted from a popular French science fiction novel by Bernard Weber, and I am truly looking forward to what he produces next.

I have read Sky Blue was compared to Appleseed upon its release, and while it does feature advanced motorcycles and rapid fire machine guns, Sky Blue is much more of a mature piece with an importantmessage to tell. Science Fiction films have often rested on the message they have behind their slick exterior, and Sky Blue is no different. From Class issues to Environmental discussion, the world of Sky Blue may not be too far off a realistic prediction of our own future. Let’s just hope they are Wonderful Days.

Region 2 Blu-ray Review
The Transfer
Sky Blue on Blu-ray looks as sharp as ever. The 3D really shines in Blu-ray format, while the cel-animated characters still remain effective. The film has a great flow to its action set pieces and the swift presentation of it here on Blu-ray is the way to go. Given that it was made in 2003, it would likely still look impressive on DVD, but here it gets a fresh coat of paint.
The Audio
The biggest let down of the disc is it only having the option to hear the English dubbed version of the film. This version is quite different in tone from the original Korean track, with the characters sounding more upbeat and some awkward futuristic dialogue. Many fans will search out the Korean original, which makes it a shame they were not catered for here.
The Version
Given this is the international release of Wonderful Days,a couple of minutes have been cut out compared to the Korean theatrical version. I saw the original back in ‘05 and from memory it cleared things up a little and was a more rounded out storyline. Given the film is only 82 minutes, I don’t see why a couple minutes of film had to be cut.
The Extras
This Tartan Video Blu-ray release includes a special feature entitled “Page to Screen”. It’s a short featurette focusing on the films long development time and how it came about. Its short, itsinteresting, but it’s not enough. For a film such as this, given its development and visual platform there is no doubt there is more extra content out there. And that was shown with the 2 Disc DVD previously released by Tartan themselves. Many fans of the film may already have that version, so they may just want to upgrade for improved visuals and clearer sound, and that’s great, but given the space capacity of the blu-ray medium, I feel the extras could have been carried over.

Blu-ray specs:
Video: Anamorphic 1.78:1 Presentation (1080Resolution)
Audio: English Language, 2.0, 5.1, DTS
Page to Screen featurette
BD25 Disc
82 mins run time

Sky Blue on Blu-ray looks and sounds great, but is presented here in its international edited version and English dub, with the disc having little extra content. I would recommend this release highly if you have the 2 disc DVD already and are looking for a great upgrade. The Melbourne International Animation Festival claimed that Sky Blue is something “we have never seen before”, and it’s true. So go see it.

This review was originally posted on NewKoreanCinema here as part of my work for that site. You can see all my reviews here.

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