I’d like to avoid terms like post-apocalyptic when describing Sung-Hee Jo‘s End of Animal. But it’s necessary. Please do not conjure images of 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, or anything by by Roland Emmerich. It’s much closer to the almost-great movie The Road by John Hillcoat, in that there is no emphasis on the how or why. But more on the immediate and up close and personal effects it would have on a group of individuals.
This is a healthy reminder to anyone that were something to happen like say, here in America, would it really matter who did it, when, and why–the Chinese or the Russians? Not really. It’s this nearly clinical standpoint of the film that keep its message and atmosphere timeless, avoiding avenues that might make it more culturally relevant to South Korea (the film’s origin), and less so to any other group of viewers.
The film does take place basically in the middle of nowhere, and opens in a taxi carrying a pregnant teenager named Soon-Yung. She’s traveling to her mother’s home. The taxi driver stops to pick up a hitchhiker along the lonely road, and the three travel together at first carrying on polite conversation, but it quickly gets weirder and more ominous. The dialog in this opening scene is dexterous and precise.
It’s thrilling from start to finish. But the way it finishes is even more intriguing as everything that runs on electricity stops working. The car stops moving, cellphones won’t turn on, and there’s an enormous flash of light in the distance. After this opening scene, there’s an interesting shift in the film’s focus. The words take center stage at first, but later, the story is told almost exclusively through actions.
Abandoning every sense of wilderness survival common sense, the three split up, leaving the expectant mother alone sleeping in the back of the cab. Alone, they each experience different things, although we’re not allowed to see exactly what each one of them experiences. Soon-Yung ends up traveling alone and coming across all sorts of people who could be menacing, or may be friendly.
There’s also a creature with a terrible roar and growl that’s always lurking just beyond the reach of light, stalking these characters to eat them, it seems. It’s difficult to tell in Sung-Hee Jo’s darkly atmospheric world what’s real, and what’s only being perceived. What is clear is that every interaction Soon-Yung has seems to be sucking the life out of her and her unborn child. Although, a mysteriously omniscient man promises he’s protecting her while only communicating through a walkie-talkie.
It’s important to understand the lack of gravitas or sensationalism. These characters are serious, and in a very serious situation, but not artifically so. There’s no music to up the intensity, or give false importance to certain scenes more than others. If I were pressed to compare it to a similarly genre-d film, it might match Michael Haneke‘s Time of the Wolf in tone.
There’s less a sense of desperate panic, and a more meditative pace, prompting considerations of things both physical and spiritual, if I’m not mistaken. Although, it’s difficult to put your finger on exactly how. The true horror comes from the not knowing. Neither the characters, nor the audience will have their questions answered and it’s an uncomfortable feeling. The ending is as ambiguous and quietly shocking as you could hope for. And while that may prove an obstacle for some in their enjoyment of the film, it’s seems to be me to be a perfect, and realistic fit to a situation so dire and and, least at first, directionless.
End of Animal is a stunning film that should not be missed.