Jung-Woo has a crush on his art school’s best student, Ju-Hee. Ju-Hee makes very little conversation with her classmates, instead focusing on her ultimate goal. She will travel to France to further her art studies no matter the obstacles. When Jung-Woo discovers how exactly Ju-Hee makes ends meet, it gives him the opportunity to get closer to the object of his affection. But as with most stories of young love, things don’t go smoothly. Though we might think peer bullying and gossip abound in high school, Hong Deok-Pyo’s The Senior Class shows that this exists even among college students. Since these youngsters are on the brink of becoming adults, this is exactly where angst and conflict arise.
Where there is a secret, there is always someone willing to spread his or her knowledge – even if not entirely accurate. The power of the rumor is something we’ve seen in other Korean films such as Old Boy (2003, Park Chan-Wook). Ju-Hee’s secret eventually spreads, even if it was no fault of Jung-Woo’s. Desperate to graduate with her peers, Ju-Hee begs for help. Normally, Jung-Woo would have jumped at the chance to help the girl he loves. Since his feelings appear to be unrequited, he instead keeps to himself information that could help her. His angst causes him to hurt the already-distraught girl. When love so intense has no outlet, it can grow bitter. Jung-Woo’s white lie ultimately breaks Ju-Hee’s heart, much like she has (unknowingly) broken his.
There is so much build-up, yet Jung-Woo’s romantic feelings never reach his target. His only release is one furious masturbation scene. The film analyzes and even taunts the viewer’s ideas of who is good and who is evil. Is Ju-Hee a trashy bitch like the rumors say she is? Or is she simply desperate to reach her goals? Likewise, is Jung-Woo completely innocent? These are questions left open to interpretation.
The Senior Class tackles taboo subject matter, and was not entirely well received in Korea. The sexual content might feel jarring because most audiences are still uncomfortable seeing it within the framework of an animated film. Even for non-Korean viewers, the scenes are graphic and most akin to the hentai films of Japan. The Fantasia crowd has been very supportive so far, but Montreal might be in the minority. Even international festivals like Annecy are not too keen on this genre of film. Aside from hentai-lovers, animation is still largely recognized as family entertainment – cute or fantastical like a Pixar or Ghibli creation. In contrast, Hong wanted to use animation to convey realism and arm it with more adult emotions. As a result, the film is quite tense throughout. It may not be an action flick, but the human feelings therein offer a similar adrenaline rush. Well-portrayed emotions can be stronger than any car chase or murder mystery. During a brief interview, I asked Hong how he managed to evoke such intense reactions and anticipation from his viewers. He said that each character has very different personalities, values and obstacles. Audiences just naturally feel this tension between them and their goals, as well as in their interpersonal relations. Jung-woo, for instance, is very upset. His pain doesn’t come across overly dramatic, but instead ablaze with authenticity.
I asked if Hong felt the suicide rate in Korea might be higher within the arts community and schooling system, than in more academic or so-called mainstream fields. Though he said there are no official percentage studies on the subject, one might assume that financial issues could influence the suicide rate. The term “starving artist” would imply that art students might be more likely to meet financial despair than other members of society. Artists feel pressure to succeed; to produce, which could lead them to find other jobs to support themselves. Ju-Hee has done exactly that.
Similarly, Hong and the writer/producer of The Senior Class, Yeon Sang-ho (Train to Busan, Seoul Station), often ask themselves if they are choosing the right path in the animation field. Should their studio, Dadashow, make a Ghibli style film? Something family-oriented? Is this the ‘other job’ they must do in order to continue creating? But then when they see the success of a film like Perfect Blue (1999, Satoshi Kon), it’s like emotional support to pursue their chosen path. Both Yeon and Hong loved Perfect Blue, and its influence is noted in The Senior Class’s characters’ internal struggles, as well as the inclusion of graphic sex.
To perfect the accuracy in the sex scenes, Hong acted out the choreography/body language, filmed himself, and shared it with his male animation team members (it was simply more comfortable to not show the footage to the female animators). Though this may seem hysterical, the funniest part was actually when Hong said the scene samples would look more genuine if he had a choreography partner. He asked if anyone on the team would volunteer, but they all fled very quickly.
Despite any staff awkwardness, in the future, Hong says he’d like to work on porn-with-plot type projects, but is also thinking about (surprise, surprise!) a family-oriented film. He expressed the desire to one day even work on non-animated thrillers or action films. For those interested in seeing some of his older work, Palgwang is a 4-hour animation based on an original comic book. The film was the number one digital download at the time of its release in 2014. The English title is Master and Man, and though it is elusive, it is apparently floating around on the internet.
Fantasia Festival Screening:
De Seve Theatre (Concordia), July 17th, 2017 at 5:10 pm.