Bring the Pain
There are a few sure ways to pack in American audiences for a foreign film: 1) have it banned in its home country, thereby tempting those looking to be titillated, 2) pack it with gratuitous sex, or better yet, 3) do both. This logic perhaps explains how Jang San Woo’s Lies sold out 3,800 seats in San Francisco’s enormous Castro Theater back in April 2000 when it premiered as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. There’s nothing so effective as soft-core S&M cloaked in art house credentials and a political backstory, in bringing out the conscientious and curious alike.
Lies is based on Tell Me a Lie, a novel by Jang Jung Il, which was deemed so scandalously sexual in Jang’s native South Korea that the author was actually jailed for several months as a consequence. Director Jang San Woo was similarly threatened with prosecution, and ended up having his film banned in Korea and Japan (though eventually, it was approved for release in Korea where it’s now the fifth highest grossing film of all time). While such censorship is (of course) abhorrent, even the most liberal free speech advocates might find their own tolerance tested as they watch the film’s two protagonists—known only as Y (Tae Yeon Kim) and J (Sang Hyun Lee)—spend over 90 minutes buck-naked, insatiably fucking and beating each other with bamboo rods until their backsides erupt in bloody welts. The sex isn’t technically “hardcore” (i.e., there’s no penetration) but figuratively speaking, yeah, it’s pretty hardcore. The plot is single-mindedly simple—Y is an 18 year-old virgin who decides to embark on an affair with J, a married, 38-year-old sculptor. Within five minutes of meeting each other, J systematically deflowers Y (an event tactlessly indicated with screen cards that read “First Hole,” “Second Hole,” etc.), with an eye to the explicit that will have many a viewer wondering exactly how “simulated” the sex is. But before you can even blink at the (s)excess, the two have already upgraded to J’s secret S&M fetish for spanking and being spanked.
From here on, the film follows a predictable pattern for at least the next 60 minutes—J & Y meet, they get naked, suck ‘n fuck, and then they whip each other silly with an increasingly impressive arsenal of rods and sticks. In one inspired scene, the two lovers comb a busy construction site, scavenging the flotsam for flogging equipment like a couple shopping for picture frames at the Pottery Barn. Brief side-stories are slipped in—Y’s strained relationship with her best friend Woori (Hye Jin Jeon), who had hoped that Y would deflower her; J’s whipless marriage to G (Hyun Joo Choi); Y’s difficult relationship with her patriarchal, vengeful brother (Kwon Taek Han)—but the film spends most of it time tracing Y’s ascent from schoolgirl innocence to dominatrix sophistication and J’s simultaneous descent into sexual obsession.
Those looking for greater subtext about sexual empowerment, challenges to conservative social mores, or explorations of the inner complexities of gender roles are likely to leave disappointed. Within the film itself, there is no greater point than watching, verite-style, J and Y’s affair consummate, again and again, in one dingy motel room after another. The sticks get bigger, the whippings more savage, the sex more violent, but as a character study, Lies offers surprisingly little insight into the motives, obsessions, and compulsions of either Y or J. One lone exception occurs early on when Y explains to J why she agreed to embark on their affair. She simply states that most of her older sisters and girlfriends lost their virginity to rape and she wanted to choose her first sexual partner rather than have him literally forced upon her. Her candor is unaffected, yet it speaks volumes to larger issues of sex, gender, and power that Y faces in her world. But within a blink of the subtitle, the idea is gone, and nothing more is made of it.
The lack of moral conclusions and narrative depth has caused many critics to blast the film as just a bit of kinky porn done up in art-house wrapping. So far, the most vehement criticism has come from the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Mick La Salle who calls the movie one of the worst of the new millennium, suggesting, “Lies would be considered a legitimate porn film, were it a little better. Two things keep it beneath even the low reaches of smut: 1) The people are not fun to look at; and 2) They don’t seem to be enjoying themselves.”
One wonders if La Salle watches much “legitimate porn,” since the bulk of cinematic “smut” usually features cheerless, unattractive people. But the wider point here is that he and other similar critics misjudge Lies as just a dressed-up porno. That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t get as tedious to watch as the mechanical, rote sex present in so much adult film, but those who see the sex as the be all, end all of the film miss a vital point that La Salle’s crosstown colleague at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Chuck Stephens, understands: “Lies isn’t only about fucking; it’s about fucking with the censors in order to exorcise the demons of Korea’s, and Korean cinema’s, past.”
The subtext that appears “missing” from the film’s storyline actually manifests when you think of the film as a shock-laden polemic in a larger dialogue around sex and society. Why else make a movie based on a novel so controversial it inspired book-burnings and jail sentences? With Lies, Jang deliberately seeks to confront the most taboo aspects of sexuality head-on, with no frills about it. Maybe one reason why American critics don’t get Lies is because its frank focus on sexuality and sexuality alone lacks either the romanticized dreaminess/dreariness of Frederic Fonteyne’s An Affair Of Love (2000) and Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999) (two other films notorious for their explicit sex) or the lurid, talk-show appeal of Gough Lewis’ disturbing Sex: The Annabel Chong Story. Certain critics only see the naked, twisting bodies, but to write off Lies as just being about sex only is like dismissing Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers as just being about violence. Both films need to be considered not just for their comments on society (which Lies mostly lacks) but also their impact on society. Jang rubs the raw nerve of a culture where sexual repression and perversion are embraced without much apparent contradiction—a marked difference from the U.S., which steadfastly denies that it engages in either.
This isn’t to valorize Lies as a brave and noble effort, though. For one thing, that Jang would thrust two amateurs into such hypersexualized roles is problematic from the start. This partially comes to light in some brief, fascinating out-takes that appear during the film. In one, Jang shoots a heated, physical argument between Y and Woori, as they wrestle and scream at one another, and when the scene is finished, it’s clear that both are visibly upset and not just acting. Kim has to take a few moments before she can come back to do the retake. The more fascinating out-take comes when Jang interviews his two principals at the beginning of the film, probing their feelings about the roles they’re about to play. Kim is noticeably uncomfortable with the thought of all the nudity involved, yet she is more concerned with pleasing the director and production crew, adopting a “take one for the team” attitude. In stark contrast to the strong-willed and confident character she plays, Kim displays neither quality at the beginning of production—it would have been intriguing if Jang had followed up with a closing interview.
Alas, Jang doesn’t revisit this practice again, leaving unanswered how working on such a film might have transformed the attitudes of its principals, let alone anyone else. Jang effectively hints at a greater awareness of how powerful the film could be, but falls quite short of going any further with that exploration. For Y and J, even all their passion play can’t keep them together and in the end, their relationship seems more professional than personal. Lies follows a similar trajectory, exploding in shock appeal on the front end, but gradually slipping into an affair that feels empty to watch, literally and figuratively. For all its sexual extravagance, this is a film where the conversations that follow it are likely to be more interesting than the film itself.