Friday, 27 January 2012

마당을 나온 암탉 / Madangeul Naon Amtak / The Hen Leaves the Yard / Leafie: A Hen into the Wild

It seems a little counter-intuitive, but this kiddie-friendly animation about cute talking animals seems much more likely to prove to the world that Korea’s animation industry is becoming mature and able to make its own artistic statements than a sci-fi feature film like Wonderful Days. That’s because while Wonderful Days seemed derivative and fell short of what it aimed for, Leafie certainly has obvious influences but possesses a very unique style, voice and completeness.

While this is the story of a battery hen who escapes from the farm and then hatches and raises a little orphaned duckling, it also makes clear from the very start that it is not going to pull punches or sugarcoat the fact that battery hens and injured wildfowl don’t live very long. Our heroine Leafie (Ipssak) only escapes the farm by pretending to be dead and being dumped in a hole with a load of chicken corpses, and encounters with the one-eyed weasel are by turns violent, bloody and depressing. So despite some broad comedy and a couple of sections with an over-reliance on fart and poop jokes, this animals-on-a-farm story has a lot more in common with the markedly adult, harrowing Watership Down than with Disney’s Home on the Ranch.

Ipssak escapes the weasel with help from the proud, impressive Wanderer, and finds a place to live with the help of the fast-talking Mr Otter/Mayor (a Korean pun on the word ‘Dalsu’). Unfortunately, Wanderer’s mate succumbs to the weasel. Trying to help, Leafie keeps the duck egg safe, but sadly Wanderer, with an injured wing, cannot fight off the weasel forever. The duckling hatches, and believes Leafie to be his mama, and the two of them go to live by the waterfront. They are not easily accepted and it’s really no place for a hen, but little Greenie (Chorok) grows up to be a strong young duck like his father. However, he’s also very much an outsider, not understanding why he is so different from his mother and having to ask other local creatures to teach him how to fly. When the migrating ducks come to the area, though, he may just find his place.

It’s really the air of melancholy that gives the piece its mature feeling. Everyone but Leafie thinks creatures should know their place and never stray from them. Poor Chorok spends his youth a confused outsider. And of course, the final ending is as bitter as it is logical – though it makes me wonder how far a small kid would understand it.

It helps, of course, that the film is both visually beautiful and distinctive. Anime has heavily influenced Korean art and animation, and though it’s distant in a world of animals, it can be seen in some of the eyes, expressions and action scenes. Other more comic animals look like they’re from European comics, and the ducks whose names are the equivalent of Do Re Mi and Fa look like something from Wakfu. The one human character, the farmer, reminded me of the way the characters move in Avatar, which of course is also Korean-animated. The backgrounds are gorgeous, recalling children’s picture books, presumably like the one on which this story was based, and the animation is very impressive, both fluid and imaginative. This is the first full-length feature from Odoltogi Studios, but I very much hope it will not be the last.

(South) Korea has spent so long producing great quantities of animation for the rest of the world and being completely under-recognised for it. It’s time for the apprenticeship to end and the country to get a chance to make cultural statements of its own in the medium. And this feels like a big first step. I regret not seeing it when it was screened at the Korean Film Festival. Though the plot is simplistic and rather episodic, the characters’ individual journeys work extremely well, and while Chicken Run did it to some extent with roosters – in a comedic context – I never thought until this that I’d find a duck badass. .

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