If Yeon Sang-ho’s “The King of Pigs” served as a brutal reminder that feature-length animation can be an ideal medium for harsh social critique, the Korean helmer is at it again with “The Fake,” a ferocious, unsubtle indictment of organized religion in a country known for having one of the world’s most active evangelical movements. Aggressively unpleasant by design, the picture nonetheless maintains a certain unpredictability by letting none of its characters off the hook: not the clueless townspeople who seek refuge in prayer and worship, not the businessmen quietly scamming them through the church’s back door, and certainly not the thuggish nonbeliever who takes it upon himself to expose Christianity for the great delusion he thinks it is. Hard to like but even harder to dismiss as it careens from satirical polemic into over-the-top violence, this angry provocation should continue to stir divisive conversation on the fest circuit; it opened domestically last month.
Exuding a corrosive cynicism that leaves no one onscreen untouched, Yeon’s sophomore feature unfolds in a small Korean village that is about to be flooded in preparation for the construction of a hydroelectric dam. Preparing to vacate their houses, the townspeople have fallen under the spell of a charismatic church pastor, Choi Kyung-suk, who has promised them a new home — and the reward of a place in heaven — in exchange for their savings. Going along with the church’s plans despite his own reservations is Sung Chul-woo, a sincerely devout junior pastor who nonetheless has his own dark, troubling secrets.
Into this cesspool of small-town corruption steps Min-chul, a hulking brute who has just returned to the village after a brief stint in prison, and who immediately resumes terrorizing his wife (who spends almost the entire film cowering with a cross in hand) and abusing their college-bound daughter, spending her hard-earned tuition money on booze. Ugly, violent, and with a vocabulary that seems to encompass every vulgarism and expletive in the Korean language, Min-chul is a figure of unrepentant savagery. But in Yeon’s most perverse stroke, this skeptic also becomes the story’s moral center, the lone truth-teller who becomes obsessed with exposing the powerful church elder as a con artist — the con, of course, being the very notion of a loving, all-powerful God who honors and rewards the faithful.
In his withering assessment of how easily Christianity can be bent for the purposes of deceiving, controlling and silencing a complacent majority, Yeon has made, in some respects, a blunt instrument assailing a blunt instrument, and he divides his contempt equally between the scheming perpetrators and the gullible victims. Much of the film’s time is devoted to the villagers, from a humorously barbed gathering that satirizes the idea of automatic forgiveness as a Christian imperative, to a somber scene in which one slow-witted believer is confronted with the grim reality of death.
In the roaring, blustering Min-chul, the film gives us a protagonist who is at once impossible to root for and hard not to admire in his determination to take down Choi at any cost. Soon the knives come out and the bodies start to pile up, as the story descends into a whirlwind of carnage that feels like both a sop to action conventions and an attempt to take the material to an operatic extreme.
It’s a ludicrous, off-putting development — and yet, even as it veers toward moral and physical chaos, “The Fake” doesn’t loosen its grip. There’s no denying Yeon’s pessimistic view of the human condition or his essentially dog-eat-dog view of civilized society. But there’s also enough restraint and complexity in the director’s gaze — particularly when he lingers on the sights and sounds of wailing, whimpering villagers, offering themselves up in prayer and song, in fellowship and in solitude — to frustrate an easy reading. That’s true all the way up to the film’s surprisingly compassionate sting-in-the-tail coda, which holds out the legitimate possibility of faith growing under the darkest, most unexpected of places.
Visually, the animation impresses with its painterly backgrounds and richly detailed interiors, capturing the wild, desolate beauty of the story’s bleak environs; these softly textured images stand in marked contrast to the characters’ faces, their frowns and scowls rendered in crude, angular strokes. The score plays a crucial role in establishing a tone of keening despair, rising in a crescendo of agony as the action escalates onscreen; the voicework is effective, if at times similarly shriek-y.