A mature student gets the hots for a cute aerobics champ in “Sex Is Zero,” South Korea’s second — and hugely successful — gross-out youth comedy. Much like its trailblazing predecessor, “Wet Dreams,” released a couple of months earlier, “Sex” manages an engaging romantic spin on the “American Pie” formula, but with a much larger ensemble cast and more ambitious production values than “Dreams.” Released locally last December against the second “Harry Potter” opus, pic clocked a horny 4 million admissions (some $20 million-plus), just shy of the teen wizard’s total. Broadminded Western fests should check it out as a latenight audience pleaser.
“Sex” gets straight down to business in its main-title sequence, which cross-cuts a male initiation ceremony for law student Jang Eun-shik (actor-singer Im Chang-jeong) — involving drinking a mixture of liquor, saliva and cigarette butts — with a workout by Lee Eun-hyo (Ha Ji-weon) and the aerobics team — featuring loads of T&A shots. First act expands on this opening, as Jang and his three pals gloat over Lee and her three pals, in between getting involved in episodes involving sexual frustration.
The gross-out meter is pretty high, but handled in a joyful way, leading to a night out which ends in unexpected sexual liaisons between the two groups. Jang, however, is still sidelined, as Lee is dating the school hunk, Ham Sang-ok (Jeong Min), who’s peremptorily dumped bitch-on-wheels Kim Ji-weon (Jin Jae-yeong).
However, in what is becoming almost a trademark of South Korean cinema, the film morphs into something different in the extended third act, shifting between the sweet, the sour and the genuinely touching. Lee pays the cost of her liaison with Ham, events build to the National University Aerobics Championships, and Jang stills holds out hopes Lee will fall for him.
Thanks to a strong, evenly shared script — which, unlike “Wet Dreams,” is not heavy on verbal puns — the large cast develops an emotional momentum in the second half as the gross-out stuff lessens and character comes more into play. Aside from the 10 main leads, pic is peppered with other roles, such as the sadistic aerobics coach (Yu Chae-yeong) and her macho b.f. (Choi Seong-guk), that also develop mini plotlines.
Sophomore writer-director Yun Je-gyun (“My Boss, My Hero”) shows a talent for building ensemble gags, as well as for pulling the carpet from under the viewer’s feet with abrupt switches of tone. He’s helped by a good cast, led by Im as the dopey, indestructible, straight-faced Jang. Young looker Ha (the journalist in “Phone”) is OK as the object of his affections, but is outclassed in personality by her fellow distaffers.
Film is slick at a tech level, and brightly shot with a lively soundtrack. Original title is a Buddhist saying that roughly means “reality is an illusion” — though it adds the handle: “a morally confused sexy comedy.”