A middle-aged actor on the verge of a nervous breakdown is the engaging central character of “I’ll Just Live in Bando,” the promising feature debut of South Korean indie animator Lee Yong-sun. Pivoting on a deep moral dilemma faced by the protagonist, this low-budget labor of love is dotted with wry humor and will resonate with mature audiences who likely won’t care about, and may even warmly embrace, Lee’s old-school animation technique. Berths at the prestigious Annecy and Ottawa animation fests bode well for the film’s prospects of further international exposure. A limited local release is planned for early 2018.
With an absurdly low $42,000 at his disposal, Lee has wisely invested in getting his script right in the first place and then placing visual emphasis on character design and facial expressions. Background detail and body movement are on the basic side of things, but this has no detrimental effect on the film’s overall impact. It may lack the gee-whizzery of much contemporary animation, but “Bando” scores high marks where it counts most.
Bearing a passing resemblance to Bristow, the office worker in Frank Dickens’ long-running comic strip, 46-year-old Oh Jun-koo (Lee Seung-haeng) is a downtrodden thespian who hasn’t worked in ages. The closest he gets to treading the boards nowadays is teaching drama part-time to unappreciative college students. His home life isn’t much better. In short and snappy scenes it’s established that wife Mig-yeong (Lee Seul) is a socially ambitious nagger who’s always working late, and son Hyeon-jun (Choi Chae-in) is in trouble with police after setting off fireworks on the roof of an apartment block.
Just as Mig-yeong starts making noises about moving to a more upmarket neighborhood and sending daughter Hyeon-seo (Kang Ye-sol) to an expensive school, Oh receives a lucrative acting offer. At virtually the same time Oh is told he’s in pole position for a permanent teaching post. Only catch with the latter is it means giving up acting for good. No sooner has Oh sacrificed what he loves for greater financial security than a serious spanner is thrown in the works. He witnesses what appears to be Professor Cho (Lee Yong-u) sexually assaulting student Kim Ki-pum (Oh Ga-bin).
All this leaves Oh in a grave moral quandary. Cho has recommended Oh’s appointment, but any scandal involving Cho would ruin Oh’s chances of receiving the job. With simple and highly effective strokes of his animator’s pen Lee shows Oh’s brow furrowing ever more deeply, eyeballs reddening and close-ups becoming more frequent as he wrestles with the question of asking Kim to not press charges.
But everything may not be as straightforward as it seems. Revelations about Cho and Kim and flashbacks to the moment in question bring forth the possibility of a different interpretation. The film would be on very dangerous ground if it made any suggestion that sexual assault is permissible, but this is certainly not the case. Instead, Lee examines the broader circumstances and roles played by all parties to give viewers much food for thought on a serious subject.
“Bando” is never bogged down by this question. Oh is given plenty of time away from it to either stress out further over marital matters or to enjoy a lovely dad-daughter moment eating ice cream while encouraging Hyeon-seo to follow her dreams. There’s also a nice touch of Bart and Homer Simpson in Oh’s relationship with Hyeon-jun. Even while admonishing him for being naughty it’s clear Oh just loves the boy’s cheeky spirit and charm.
With an invaluable assist by Yang Kwang-sub’s pitch-perfect score, “Bando” comes to a highly satisfying conclusion. No one wins everything; no one loses everything. Life goes on.