Atheist that I am, I'm uneasy about creative works that mount an attack on organized religion. Not because the attacks are entirely unjustified — you could exhaust a sea of ink writing about the debilitating effects of blind belief — but because such attacks too easily substitute for a nuanced understanding of the subject. The Fake is ostensibly such an attack, since it deals with fraud committed in the name of God, but its real subject is not religion or even hypocrisy. It's about attempting to engender empathy for a character who by any measure deserves none.
This is the second animated feature by Sang-ho Yeon, whose 2011 film King Of Pigs took me by the collar and rattled my eyeteeth some months back. The Fake followed in 2013, and it is more polished both in that it has better technical credits and tells a more ambitious and troubling story. Both films are now available domestically by way of Olive Films, as part of a newly inaugurated sublabel that deals in animated productions. They deserve the attention, since they both constitute examples of rare South Korean animated productions that aren't works-for-hire but original creations. And given how tough they are to swallow, they hint at how South Korean animation can draw effectively from that country's tradition of realistic cinema, rather than from anime or even escapism generally.
A village and its outcast
The Fake takes place in a backwater town somewhere in South Korea, where the only thing that ever happens is people making plans to leave. A development project is in progress to build a dam, flood the plain where the village sits, and compensate the locals with money for resettlement. But a scam artist, "Elder" Choi, has buddied up with a handsome young pastor, Sung, to bilk everyone out of their savings by having them donate to their warehouse-front church. Sung seems sincere in his faith, but it's clear from the start Choi is in it for nothing but the money. He's already swindled a fair amount of cash by way of scams like selling holy water that's alleged to have cured the tuberculosis of the wife of the general store owner.
Into this pit of vipers returns Min-chul, a fortyish man whose wife and daughter live in the village, but he himself drifts in and out of it so often it's hard to say he actually lives there. He is easily the vilest creation in fiction I have seen in years, and the movie goes to great lengths to ensure we draw this conclusion. When he loses at cards (he suspects the others of cheating), he beats them up and steals their cash. He spends his daughter's savings, the money she was saving for college tuition, and justifies it to himself because that was proof she wanted to run out on him. He finds fault everywhere, picks fights with everyone. There is literally not a single redeeming quality to him.
One night Min-chul in a bar, getting plastered, when he runs into Choi in the men's room. Choi is outwardly a man of God, but he's not above smashing Min-chul's head in with a brick when no one's looking, just to get the other man to stop bothering him. Min-chul ends up being hauled off to the police station when the bar owner complains about his violence, and there Min-chul is flabbergasted to see Choi's face on the WANTED poster. "That's the fucker that beat me up," he splutters, but the bar owner is so repulsed by him that she doesn't even want to agree with him on that note, and the cops are not inclined to help.
Then there is Pastor Sung, a good and decent man who nevertheless participates in the swindling of the locals, and is able to execute all the more efficiently on it by dint of radiating sincerity and humility. When Min-chul tracks down Choi at their church, Sung is in the process of executing a bogus faith-healing in front of his credulous flock. Min-chul calls him out on it, but again, nobody listens to him — not least of all because he spots his daughter in the congregation and has to be restrained from slapping her senseless. The one thing Min-chul is right about is being rendered utterly moot by the fact that nobody wants to be seen as "taking his side".
Sympathy for the poor devil
A few people in the film are worth our sympathy. One is Min-chul's daughter, who only wants to attend a good school as a way to escape from the dead-end-ness of her life (and cut her father out of the picture for keeps). When Min-chul robs her, Choi offers her work with the church as compensation — and as a way to further cement her trust and avoid ticklish questions as he moves into the final stages of the scam. The job turns out to be a hostess position in a karaoke bar, being groped by drunks, something that sends Min-chul even more into a rage. Not because he wants to protect his daughter from harm, mind you, but because he sees her as property. His lack of basic human feeling for her is so profound that at one point when she despairs of ever having been brought into a world where her own father can't love her, he replies: "I guess that's just your fate." He at least knows he is incapable of love, but it's not like that has helped him do anything about it.
Another person we feel for is Pastor Sung, young and handsome, gentle in demeanor and sincere in his faith — yes, even as he participates in one scam of Choi's after another. We find, to our dismay, that Sung is not there by choice; he is only in this situation because Choi has been blackmailing him by threatening to reveal something out of Choi's own checkered past. In a previous pastorship, Sung took pity on a teenage girl in a bad situation, slept with her, and was expelled from his position over it. Sung does not want those who have taken refuge in him, so to speak, to feel betrayed, but the longer he sticks with Choi the more likely he'll end up betraying everyone by default anyway.
And then, incredibly, there's Min-chul. The most remarkable thing about The Fake is how it manages, slowly and by degrees, to generate empathy in the audience for this awful man. Not sympathy, and not forgiveness, but empathy, and certainly pity — the pity we feel when watching the death throes of an animal that never had a chance. Because Min-chul has spent his entire life being despised, Sung and the villagers are only too quick to close ranks and protect Choi when Min-chul fingers him as a scam artist. And as Min-chul plows deeper into suffering — most of it of his own making, it has to be said — we see his mask slipping from time to time. We see tears that come from someplace within himself that he won't even admit exists, and we see him swat them away by finding something else to stoke his rage, and we despair right along with him.
God's love: for everyone, or no one
Works of gritty social realism usually aren't heavily plotted; they tend to bop from one event to the next, and build up a big picture by degrees. The Fake, though, is structured like one of those brooding indie kitchen-sink quasi-noirs where things that only look like loose ends actually circle back and plug into one of the story's themes. A subplot involving the local general store owner and his tubercular wife at first only seems to be either local color, or yet another way of showing up Choi's hypocrisy, as the wife swears by Choi's holy water that allegedly cured her TB. (It did not.) But by degrees this part of the story provides an insight — the store owner is perhaps the only person in the world that Min-chul can call a friend, and if a man can have even one friend perhaps he's not entirely beyond redemption.
The climax of The Fake, though, tries to weave together one too many threads into a single one for its own good. One of the other subplots involves a developmentally disabled young man with an ailing grandmother, someone for whom the village as a whole tends to come together to provide support. Characters like this are rarely used well in fiction, because they're either used to dispense potted child's-eyes wisdom, or because they're used as puppets of the plot in ways that are unflattering to both them and the story at large. Here, it's the second of those two, and so there's a messy climax that involves him arriving at just the right (wrong?) moment with a kitchen knife. It doesn't come off as inevitable, just gratuitous, and it nearly undermines the genuinely shattering final scenes. Those, by the way, are followed by a coda that I took to be a fantasy sequence of sorts, since they seem entirely implausible by the movie's own logic but make a kind of internal emotional sense — they're metaphorical, not literal.
The Fake didn't have a huge budget, but it isn't hamstrung by that. Its character designs are clearly CGI-assisted, but they're animated with a close attention to how a subtle shift in body language or facial features can give away far more than a whole monologue, and they're surrounded by backgrounds and landscapes that have a painterly lushness. By the time the story had established itself, though, the style had become all but invisible. I paid attention to the animation only in the sense that it was a stylistic choice, a way to tell a story in a highly controlled fashion, not because I felt like it was short-changing its artistic potential as animation.
Critics often find themselves champions of lost causes. They make cases for things that would otherwise go unnoticed, or which require substantial stamina or devotion to appreciate. The Fake has its deck stacked against it in many ways, and not just because it's an animated production that's not intended as goofy escapism. It's because it asks us to cast our lot with a character who in real life wouldn't earn a germ of our comfort, or even our attention. If God is unconditional love, the movie seems to be arguing, are we prepared to give that love even to a wretch like this? And if we're not, then what are we doing about the world that allows such wretches to come into it unloved, and leave just as unloved? Good question.