COLLECTIVE INVENTION (2015)
Director: Kwon Oh-kwang
Genre: Black comedy
Run time: 1h 33m
The bizarre but tender story of a man turning into a fish after a clinical trial mishap and his fight for acceptance and peace
“The story of a man who is also a fish.”
That is the casual set-up line in Kwon Oh-kwang's peculiar tale of wanton pharmaceutical ethics and the modern celebrity obsession.
For such an outlandish set-up, the film is surprisingly threadbare and overly restrained once it gets going, but it still provides plenty of off-beat visual interest and social commentary.
Our sorry protagonist is Park Gu (Lee Kwang-soo) who participates in a clinical trial with pharmaceutical giant Ganmi Medical, but the consequences extend beyond mere side-effects when he transforms into a half-man half-fish mutant hybrid.
Gu manages to escape the clutches of Ganmi and seeks out his girlfriend (mainly in his mind only) Ju-jin (Park Bo-young), who duly turns him back in for a reward, later protesting “Why can’t I? It’s a capitalistic society!”
Before we see this, we meet TV editor but wannabe reporter Sang-won (Lee Chun-hee), who tries to shoot his own documentary on Gu after reading online about how a woman’s boyfriend turned into a fish.
There is also Dr. Byun (Lee Byung-jun), the scientist behind the experiment who is trying to develop a product that can end world hunger, only to discover that the company’s plans for the food source are as a “luxury item for the top 1%”.
During all of this, Gu become a divisive public figure, complete with an expansive line of merchandise, but public opinion turns against him after a smear campaign from the pharmaceutical company.
The film employs a shuffled chronology, though it is not clear if this adds much, as we flick between Gu’s path to his fishy future, the documentary investigations of Sang-won, and the vested interests of Ju-jin, Gu’s father, their human rights lawyer and a powerful pharma firm.
The film’s visuals work well. Lee Kwang-soo is cast as Gu, but spends the film under a fish head, an effect which is largely realistic despite its incredible nature. So well that your initial surprise at seeing the post-trial Gu quickly becomes the normal. A good lesson in acceptance for all of us there.
The frustration of the film is that after an interesting set-up and first half, it runs out of steam when it could continue its absurd path with more success. It is a film that has more potential than you may suspect, but by allows itself to drift and meander for long segments, it dilutes the frequency of laughs and the narrative thrust.
The pharmaceutical industry – a common target for cinema – is portrayed as cruelly as you might expect, but Collective Invention does achieve some interesting shifts in the scales (no pun intended) of power and evil.
You could not call this film a subtle satire in any form, as the government, human rights, national pride, celebrity obsession and even religion are all prodded with a rather large stick. But there is enough absurdity, heart and laughs throughout to largely keep your attention swimming in the right direction.
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