SFIFF54: Post-apocalyptic[-ish] ‘End of Animal’ startles and puzzles, yet enthralls

Pregnant teen Sun-Yeong (Lee Min-Ji) finds herself terrorized by strangers, including an elementary school boy (Park Se-Jong), in the mysterious and unsettling 'End of Animal.'

There are only a few films that can make you squirm a lot, make you laugh a little bit, play with your mind, and keep you hanging in anticipation. Usually, those special kinds of cinematic gold absolutely requires you to watch from beginning to end to piece a puzzle together. Luckily, as terrifying as it is for most of its duration, the South Korean movie End of Animal is fascinating enough to naturally seduce viewers into enduring with its heroine a very troubling and mysterious journey.

Directed by Jo Sung-Hee, this described tale of “personal apocalyse” is open for debate in terms of “personal.” End of Animal starts off hauntingly from the get-go as Sun-Yeong (Lee Min-Ji), a teen taking a taxi out of Seoul to give birth at her mother’s home, is joined by a menacing passenger in a red baseball cap (Park Hae-Il). The man memorizes aloud private details about both Sun-Yeong and the elderly cab driver (Kim Young-Ho) before counting down to a cataclysm where “angels will descend.” After a white flash, Sun-Yeong awakens and finds herself abandoned in the stalled cab. Though the driver has left a note saying he will be back and Sun-Yeong’s cell phone is dead, the pregnant teen wanders off to catch up with him at a rest area, only to hear scary noises in the forest, discover the disappearance of electricity,  and encounter a disgruntled young couple, a lonely but threatening fifth grader (Park Se-Jong), and a psychotic man on a bicycle (Yu Seung-Mok). Her fellow cab passenger communicates with her via walkie-talkie, giving her warnings as if he is watching her and reading her mind. As more grim discoveries are made and events are unraveled, the purpose of Sun-Yeong’s existence in a strange new world becomes all the more clear—though for a very unsettling reason.

The only reasons why this otherwise outstanding film would have scored lower would be the vague or nonexistent answers to questions, flawed pacing, and little or no use for a few of the supporting characters. But after hearing the moviegoer sitting behind me explain it to someone else and sitting down to write out this review (And I’ve always wanted to say that, my friends, is one benefit of blogging: It makes you think hard and realize things that you may not have thought or realized upon the initial viewing of a film), there is much to appreciate and love about the film, if you can manage to wrap your head around it. Maybe one thing to love is that you can’t wrap your head around it. The supernatural elements can sure make one question what the film’s reality was. But perhaps End of Animal was meant to be a sci-fi/fantasy. Or a suspenseful psychological thriller, or a dark drama, mixed with some unexpected funny moments and scenes of horror. One of the absolute best things about the film is that it can’t be precisely categorized. It evokes so many strong feelings in viewers with the intriguing story in itself and storytelling techniques. However, it is for certain that overall, End of Animal is disturbing and bleak in nature.

Blood and gore is surprisingly not gratuitous (Blood sprays, an injured foot, and a peek of a severed hand is probably as worst as it gets), but the menace and intensity tips the scales. The unknown man in the baseball cap delivers frightening chills in the opening scene only by how he delivers his lines, amplified by camera technique (He never turns around and the camera doesn’t try to focus on his face either). Sun-Yeong’s struggles with the kid and the bicyclist make for the most horrifying scenes in the film, ultimately moreso than with the passenger and whatever is hiding in the forest. Furthermore, although character development is lacking just for a few, there isn’t a bad actor in the cast. The youngest, the heroine played by Lee and the little boy played by Park Se-Jeong, are especially impressive. Lee makes us feel her character’s pain and fear as she suffers through the cold and dangerous wilderness and the threats of her fellow wanderers, and Park’s “I can beat any sixth grader even though I’m in fifth grade” chant (Paraphrased) and corresponding actions (i.e. baseball bat in hand when he finds out the unfortunate fate of his dog) are scare-inducing. In another riveting aspect of the movie, the cinematography by Baek Moon-Soo is gorgeous and spectacular, most memorable in the film’s climax: As Sun-Yeong is faced with life or death, the sun sets amidst her cries, until there is nothing but darkness and the overwhelming feeling that something either dreadful or miraculous is about to happen.

Truthfully, miracles are probably two to none in End of Animal. The film is creepy and upsetting, and its plot and happenings may be hard to grasp for some. But its high quality in many aspects, catering to a myriad of dark movie genres, and magnetizing ability to hook viewers make it an eye-popping, heart-pounding, and thought-provoking art house piece.

OVERALL: 8.5/10

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