Collective Invention (2015) Korean Movie Review
Have you ever wondered what would it be like to have “relations” with a mermaid? Do you know a female who has a human upper body and a fish lower body? How are you going to do it?
This idea is a setup for an old joke that has been told a lot ever since mermaids came back into the public consciousness. This joke usually leads to some inventive suggestions regarding “doing” it. And afterward, the discussion leads to a reverse-mermaid or merman. You know a being with a fish upper body and a human lower body.
Why am I opening with this?
The Korean movie “Collective Invention / 돌연변이” (2015) is about a reverse-merman. And no. There is no “sex” stuff in the movie. This is not “Howard the Duck” (1986).
Mmm… Lea Thompson!
I recently went to the theatre for a rerelease of “Back to the future” and she was “delicious” in the movie.
In terms of the plot, imagine “The Fly” (1986) was satirical comedy being retold by a lab associate of Jeff Goldblum’s character but with a tinge of nostalgia and longing for the good days when our guy was all innocent and idealistic.
Yes, bad things happened
Yes, someone turned into a giant fly and killed people
It was the good old days
That would be the movie “Collective Invention” (2015) which has the misfortune to get a terrible English title. I have no idea what it is meant to say. The Korean title can be translated into “Mutant” or “Mutation” which has textual and sub-textual meanings.
What is that?
As the narrator of the movie, you have “Sang-Won,” a disillusioned former reporter wannabe and now just a variety show editor, reminiscing about when he first started out as a rookie reporter. He was assigned to report on a tip regarding something weird since it was just thought to be a crank call. Following up on this tip, the Sang-Won finds the “Fishman,” a young man who haplessly joined a medical experiment and was experiencing some side effects if you can call what was happening to him “side effects”. He is basically turning into a person with a sardine head and the condition is progressive.
I mean reverse- a mermaid!
Oddly enough, his lower body seems to still remain human and the movie never seems to acknowledge this fact or why. This makes the movie weirder. “Collective Invention” (2015) is a small and weird movie.
The rest of the movie is just Sang-Won tagging along and observing as various segments of Korean society react outrageously to this rather weird ‘X-File” or Frankenstein’s development.
If you think the plot description is rather light, you would be right. There is not much plot here. In the larger scheme of the movie, plot and even characters do not matter much. “Collective Invention” is, at its heart, a wacky social satirical comedy. It is not meant to be literal or even a reasonably realistic story. This is why it is okay that the world in the movie doesn’t react to this situation in believable manners. It is not meant to be real. Just an absurd reflection of reality. I mean…
There is a man with a “Fishhead” here!
This seems like a bad joke…
But, the fact that the movie is about a “fish head” person does not really matter. The subject of this movie could have been aliens, angels, fairies, or even leprechauns. It just needs to be weird. The thing that matters is that no one really reacts in an objective manner to a weird situation. They just react according to their own biases, flaws, and agendas. The weird elements of the Fishman is just there to heighten the ridiculousness of Korean society.
What kind of ridiculousness?
You have the shallow and superficial public who cannot even comprehend the higher social and philosophical consequence of the “Fish man” beyond their petty emotion and social media tweets. You have the media just exploiting the situation for sensationalism and their pockets. You have the greedy corporation that funded the experiment and the scientists that conducted it. You have the legal system and the politicians that are just incompetent. You even have the movie poke fun at some wacky Korean religious cults.
Wacky Korean religious cults!
The satire is not only limited to organizations of society. The movie satires the Korean patriarchy and the modern Korean female youth with their easy romantic relationships. The “Fish man” himself is criticized as being the representation of modern Korean men who are passive, thoughtless, and wishy-washy. Even the narrator Sang-Won is not free from the claws of criticism. He is a naïve idealist that has no will to actually do anything.
Satire is not an easy thing to do. It is a difficult thing to balance a viewpoint and comedy at the same time. Thus, not all satires are actually funny. However, “Collective Invention” is funny. The satire tends to veer on a more dry tone but it is still comical because there is truth to the exaggerated representations of Korean society in the movie. They are actually pretty biting. The weird and quirky details of the movie also help.
The Fishman has to be hydrated constantly with the water sprayer
This is somewhat of a relief as being funny is basically the main thing the movie has going for it. It is not a big movie. It is not a deep movie nor exciting also. In addition, as I mentioned before, there is not much plot and what is on paper is rather ridiculous. But, it works with the satire. In terms of the characters, I would have to say that all of them are mere caricatures used in satire.
For example, Park Bo-Young plays a character that could loosely be called the girlfriend of the “Fish man.” Even though the actress is trying to do her best impression of Jun Ji-Hyun from “My Sassy Girl” (2001), she barely has anything to do. She is just there to start the story off and then disappear 30 minutes into the movie. You could just cut all her scenes out and give some lines to other characters and the movie wouldn’t change much.
The tale is the same for most of the characters.
Even the “Fish man” is basically just the McGuffin of the movie. He is a mere story device to carry along the satire. We do not know much about him and even his human face is a mystery. I would even go as far as to say that the “Fish man” is not the protagonist of the story. It is the narrator Sang-Won who is the real protagonist of the story. I’ll get to that later.
So, why is this a problem?
If the movie stayed as a satirical comedy, I would say there is not much of a problem. The movie is funny and biting. What else could you want from a satire?
Why be serious?
The biggest problem with “Collective Invention” is that only half the movie is a rather outrageous satirical comedy. The other half tries to be more of a drama with a message. You know “actually” having character development, emotional depth, and even actually having real characters? This divide is stark in its contrast as the latter hour or so of this movie is not funny at all. There is still outrageous stuff happening but now rather than being funny, it is more unsettling.
This is where the movie reveals itself to be the story of the narrator Sang-Won, via retelling a story from his past, finding out that “what do you know? The thing I felt guilty about for years turned out be not as bad as thought. I’m free from feeling guilty. Yippee!” “Collective Invention” is really the redemption story of a “moderate leftwing idealist.”
This type of ideological bent is less evident in the first half of the movie when it was poking fun at Korean society. The guns were pointed very diversely. However, if you think about it, a moderate leftwing idealist would think that everyone, even fellow members of the left, was corrupted. This is where the subtext of the Korean title of this movie becomes more evident. “Mutation” does not only refer to the “Fish man.” It also refers to everything wrong with Korean society pointed out by the movie. They are a mutation of the pure ideal of what Korean society should be.
In order to put this story on screen, the movie approaches it straight. Now the movie is a drama. But there is a problem. None of the characters are built up enough during the satirical comedy half of the movie to facilitate this shift in direction. In addition, the actual events of the movie is still ridiculous. The movie does give us a few decent scenes between the Fish man and Sang-Won. However, it is not enough and, within the overall context of the movie, feels forced.
The movie also somewhat contradicts the bipartisan biting satire of its first half by going easy on those who do not really deserve it story-wise as they did not really change in character nor act differently. These characters are somewhat on the left side of the ideological spectrum or have some sentimental aspects to them.
The sum of these elements, while not making the movie unbearable, does burden the second half of the movie that doesn’t have much going for it without the humor supporting it.
As a small and weird movie, “Collective Invention” was a pleasant surprise at first. I laughed at the satire of Korean society. It is rare for a mainstream Korean movie release to be that biting about Korean society. The cast, while not given much character work, supported the comedy well.
In contrast, the second half of the movie was a letdown as I watched the movie awkwardly trying to be more of a drama. It does not have the depth of thought nor control of the characters and story to make this attempt work. One cannot make that type of dramatic turn to the left in a movie work without significant preparation.
In terms of the effect of the fish head, it is decent although nothing to call home about. It is just a fish head with a decent motor controlled facial expressions. The technology reminded me of the 90s special effect work being produced out of Hollywood.
Overall, I would say “Collective Invention” is worth watching at least once if you like smaller quirky movies. It may also help you get to know the weirder side of Korean society. I give “Collective Invention” a grade of B-.
Score: B- or 6/10