Part of what makes filmmaking in Asia so interesting is that they can tell a story through the medium of animation that would never be animated in the U.S. It’s perfectly acceptable, and yet in this country all too often animation gets called “cartoons” and is relegated to children or family fare, or in some cases the raunchy or x-rated. We’d never have made a movie like South Korean director Yeon Sang-Ho’s The Fake, a very disturbing drama about fraud, murder, and the willingness to believe. That it tackles such weighty subject matter isn’t nearly as notable as how dark it’s prepared to go.
The story follows a small rural community outside of Seoul, South Korea. The 144,000 people who live there are going to be displaced after their valley is flooded to make a reservoir. A young faith healer and a flashy but seemingly kind businessman build a church and invite the villagers to come and worship. If they trust this businessman with their money, he can build them a tower block to live in and they can all “be saved” together. Many of the villagers are old and sick but they put their faith completely in these men, even to the point of buying bottles of holy water to drink instead of taking medicine.
One family in particular has a young daughter who’s just been accepted to a major university in Seoul and gleefully goes to her drawer to get the tuition money she’s saved for years, only to find that her alcoholic, abusive, and rarely-there father has returned and stolen the money for drinking and gambling. This man raises a ruckus at a restaurant that refuses to serve him and the church businessman intercedes, clobbering the drunken father with a brick in private. The man goes to make a complaint and sees the businessman’s picture in the police station as a wanted con artist. Now, the father, full of rage, tries to convince the people of his village that they’re being swindled, but seeing as he’s a horrible person, they want nothing to do with him, thinking he’s simply an agent of the devil.
The other key player in this drama is the faith healer himself, who truly believes in doing the right thing and helping this community. When he discovers his business partner is indeed swindling the community, he tries to convince him to do the right thing, only to be met with the threat of having the young priest’s illicit tryst with a former parishioner (who committed suicide) resurfaced and punishment doled out.
The Fake tells you right up front that there is deceit and trickery involved in the story, but what the film does well is take these characters into the greyest of grey areas. People who see as horrible sometimes do good deeds, and people you see as righteous sometimes do the worst things imaginable. The Korean title for the movie is Saibi, which actually translates more literally to “Something that looks like something else but isn’t.” This is a much more accurate title, in that it doesn’t pass judgment or assign any kind of morality to it. These characters look like they are one thing, but are actually another, or both, or neither.
The movie does tend to get so bleak that it becomes a hair away from absurd, almost like a morality play in which no bad or good deed goes unpunished. It felt a little bit like a violent Afterschool Special by the end, but as an allegory for whether or not belief itself is a bad thing, it works very well. If an old, dying woman is happy believing she’ll go to heaven if she pays her whole life savings, and is able to pass away with a smile on her face and contentment in her heart, is it anyone’s place to tell her she’s wrong? This is the dilemma our characters face.
I would recommend The Fake, but certainly don’t go in expecting a typical “anime” with a lot of action or fantasy elements. This has none of that. It’s as stark and troubling a drama as any you could watch, and it makes the audience think for a little bit amid all the sadness, despair, and lies– three adjectives you don’t normally get with a “cartoon.”