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AFI FEST: Yeon Sang-ho's The Fake

Whoever said animation was just for kids clearly hasn't been introduced to the grim work of South Korean filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho. His sophomore feature, THE FAKE, showcases the kind of South Korean social ills seen in his debut film, THE KING OF PIGS. But this time, he dissects another subject – religious cults – through his realistic animation style.

The story centers on an unlikely anti-hero, a drunk abusive father named Min-chul who reappears into his family's life, only to feed his gambling habits with his daughter's college savings. Meanwhile, their small country town is on the brink of devastation as their land will soon be flooded by a dam construction project. Apprehensive of their future, the townspeople turn to the leaders of a church that promises them a haven-like housing development in another town. However, the church leader, Choi Kyung-suk, is a wanted man seizing the opportunity to lure the entire town to give their fortune to him. In his maddeningly drunken state, Min-chul smells something foul in the air and tries to expose Choi as a fake.

As with any cult, the only way to have subservient devotees is by stripping their soul bare, only to slowly give back what was already theirs. The whole town becomes susceptible to irrationality when they are starved by desperation and fed false hopes and illusions about the power of God. Ordinarily sober people become inebriated with the intoxicating sense of God's will, and it blinds them from taking responsibility for their own lives. The townspeople oscillate between good and evil – a distinction that becomes murky as good-intentioned people become monsters.

As human beings, we shake our heads and think that this could never happen to us, but director Yeon holds a mirror to the audience to suggest that at any moment, desperation can gnaw and puncture our toughest layers, turning even the utmost "nonbeliever" into a "believer." Like a powerful religious leader himself, director Yeon does not let us go so easily and instead creates a simmering tension for the entirety of the film that compels us to wonder if we are any better than the characters on screen.

It's no news that Yeon's films are not easy to swallow, but as with any arduous journey, there is a transcendence that allows us to look beyond ourselves and question our preconceptions of who we are. THE FAKE is a dark and provocative commentary on modern South Korea that never ceases to shock or challenge viewer's perception of religious cults and themselves.

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