Teenage Hooker Became A Killing Machine [lit. The high-school student who got chopped up while selling herself in Daehakno is still in Daehakno] is a sixty minute short directed by Nam Gee-woong, who also produced, wrote, edited, scored and provided cinematography. Shot on MiniDVD in 2000, it stars Lee So-yun as a high school girl who has fallen into prostitution, but when her secret shame is discovered by her teacher (Kim Dae-tong) he threatens to tell all, unless she provides him with sexual favours – or rather she offers them. When she becomes pregnant the teacher hires three brotherly hit-men to take care of her. Their mission is a success, or was, until she’s revived as a cyborg by a crazed inventor working at the mysterious DSH Division 6. Recalling the traumatic events she sets off down a path of bloody revenge…
Teenage Hooker came at a time when the South Korean film industry had just started to get exciting, though given its nature it never really became anything more than a minor cult oddity, managing to slip through with little fuss back home, before slinking off to the United States where it was banded around the festival circuit to much higher praise. And it is indeed a curious little number, owing itself to the kind of visceral cinema ushered in by the likes of Sogo Ishii and Shinya Tsukamoto in Japan, not to mention some of the more cult-y U.S. efforts from the eighties, which should in turn appeal to those with their tastes a little more firmly rooted in the bizarre.
With little in the way of dialogue, Nam Gee-woong uses the surrounding environment and eclectic, alternative music offerings to drive along much of the sparse narrative, which at its core consists of a familiarly recycled revenge theme. Most of the time his visual style, which consists of careful compositions rather than energetic camera movement - save for a lengthy mid section - works considerably well given his budget constraints, while at times there’s an odd air of pretension when he attempts to marry his sights and sounds. The occasional operatic rendering, complete with images of a performer is interesting; while its beauty juxtaposes the film’s grim inset, however, it doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose at all other than simply being there, having no real frame of reference. Of course this is likely down to Nam Gee-woong’s theatrical background, in which he spent most of the nineties with the Il-san Opera Company, moving on to various projects as an A.D. and set designer. But despite the inclusion being such a labour of love it doesn’t quite gel, and as we see later on there are far more notable examples wherey the director’s almost sweet-natured score and K-Rock intermissions work to better effect. However, Teenage Hooker Became A Killing Machine is quite captivating in terms of visual tone. The screen is often awash in primary colours and Gee-woong captures a perfectly gritty and dirty atmosphere in reflecting the schoolgirl’s chosen profession, while illustrating the immediate dangers surrounding her. There are considerable amounts of blooming and blown out lighting which tend to overstate things, but then stark realism isn’t the name of the game here.
Though Teenage Hooker’s run time clocks it at an hour it occasionally suffers from awkward pacing; its Achilles heel being that Gee-woong drags out more than a few scenes far beyond the normal requirements. The opening credits alone last for a staggering seven minutes (add to that a further four at the end), set to images of Lee So-yun accompanied by the film’s pleasant central theme, which of course strips the story down even further to its bare essentials. As is often the case Gee-woong indulges himself in all manners of ways, his only problem being that once his experimental journeys take flight they never really land. This proves to be a hit and miss endeavour, showcasing some extremely long-winded scene transitions, next to some momentary shots of brilliance. The dance-off sequence which last for two minutes and rarely deviates from Kim Dae-tong’s standing position is one of the strangest scenes I’ve witnessed in a long time, yet it’s also one of the most satisfying pieces of the film, being strangely hypnotic and instantly memorable all the same. It’s one of the rarer moments in which humour works to the advantage of a sombre predicament involving sex and bribery. Likewise Lee So-yun’s reflective and considerably lengthy monologue around the mid-way point grabs our attention due to it being one of the few instances in which we can get an insight into her mysterious character. When the film isn’t stuck between a rock and a hard place it does manage to up the momentum, getting from A to B with little hassle as the girl mercilessly slaughters her past tormentors in her school get-up, which then becomes an exercise in surreal perversion that has the film occasionally work better as a parody of Sci-Fi and action conventions (see cast discussion) - it’s just that we don’t know whether it’s intentional or not.
Minor plot spoilers in the following paragraph.
It’s hard to imagine a great deal, if any kind of social commentary can be gleaned from Nam Gee-woong’s fleeting picture; it’s not until the final few minutes that he places a brief spin on things, but by that time it appears to be too little too late. The teacher mentions how it was he who dictated the girl’s actions and thoughts; how it was he who created her mental programming, thus turning her into an “inhuman bloodless machine” - to which the girl replies by shooting him in the balls with her metallic penis-gun, before shoving it down his throat and blowing his brains out. This steel phallic symbol, presumably acting as some kind of metaphor in an act of role reversal could perhaps be Gee-woong’s way of highlighting obvious sexual dominancy and ultimately stating that you reap what you sew, but his film is rather ambiguous from the get-go. Moreover is he trying to challenge the notion of a society whereby children are exploited by their peers? Perhaps, but then the opening fifteen minutes or so would suggest that it is in fact the young generation who are leading others into a world of perversion and decay; after all the girl knowingly prostitutes herself to dozens of men (so we’re led to believe) and uses her puppy-dog demeanour to manipulate her surrounds, bearing no remorse or guilt for her actions, and with a back story only hinting at an unstable family life there’s little for our brains to work with and little sympathy to be gained. As such the film has this unclear, almost contradictory nature whereby the director’s intentions seem blurred by his far more visual dependency.
Still, when it’s not so bogged down by ill-thought notions there’s plenty of fun to be had, thanks to the two leads who are effective enough in their roles. Kim Dae-tong is a perfectly archetypical and whacky cartoon villain, donned in equally cartoon-ish make-up, which sees him looking like a plastic baddie from Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, or Robbie Rotten from the more recent kiddie show Lazytown. He laughs insidiously throughout most of the picture (and no doubt director Gee-woong encouraged him no-end), whilst maintaining a creepy and darkly humorous persona. Meanwhile Lee So-yun is simply a sport as the almost silent assassin. While her character’s complexities never allude to much she nonetheless has to go through a manner of weird and wonderful routines, from wearing prosthetic robot breasts and penis, to caressing plasticine-faced baddies and bearing her real boobs and bum for good measure. She gets the odd moment to deliver some touching dialogue, but like the film’s title suggests she’s ultimately a female Terminator who don’t give a damn. Give her a pair of black shades and a sailor uniform and you got yourself an enjoyable heroine who lends herself nicely to the film’s somewhat parodying nature.
The film is presented in a non-anamorphic 1.85:1 ratio and is a standards conversion. Teenage Hooker isn’t a normal looking picture; shot on MiniDV Nam Gee-woong had then heavily processed it in post production and so we get a far from clean image. The screen is often murky and drab and the colour balance and contrast levels distorted, while detail is a little soft, but this is all intentional and would be otherwise acceptable if not for the two glaring problems listed above. There is additionally a hint of low-level noise, which can’t really be missed due to so many dark moments in the picture, but it’s not detrimental to one’s viewing pleasure.
The Stereo Korean track doesn’t fare much better I’m afraid. While I’m sure it’s the best that the director could manage at his disposal the audio level is very restrained throughout. Dialogue and music can only be enjoyed by turning up the volume control considerably more than would otherwise be necessary.
English subtitles are included. These seem to offer a new translation from computer generated subs, however they’re forced on to the image which is a little disappointing, but Third Window did state to me in the past that they may have to go this route to due to cost issues, so it’s not entirely surprising. Still, there are noticeable grammatical errors at times, which so far continue to see the company miss out on a spot of quality control with their releases.
Kangchul (released 2000) is a thirty minute short film shot on 8mm from director Nam Gee-woong. It tells of a cyborg named Ik-bum (Na Ik-bum) whose purpose is to fight a dragon called Kang-chul, to whom the man’s fiancé Wol-i (Lee Ji-hae) is to be sacrificed to. Once more though Kang-chul has turned the poor man into a miserable wreck of blood and broken bones, where he lies somewhere on a train. A lone warrior named Musa (Kim Ho-gyem) listens to Ik-bum’s story of how Kang-chul had almost destroyed his way of life, before he sets off to try and slay the beast himself.
Gee-woong’s camera stays fixated on the speaker for approximately 20 minutes, whose lengthy monologue tells of his sorry predicament, while a lone soldier stands over him and listens. Slowly moving, the camera captures a sense of claustrophobia and fear as the man ponders upon his current state of mind, not knowing how much of him is truly human anymore over his reprogrammed body. From this there’s a feeling that the director wishes to convey something or other about humanity slowly succumbing to machines in an uncertain future, reaching a point where it becomes impossible to distinguish one’s own self from the forces it fights against. Or I could be totally wrong; Either way it’s a subject matter that’s been explored before, and while this is no Matrix or action masterpiece such as Cyborg and Universal Soldier (both starring Van Damme incidentally) it’s a decent enough, if still overlong technical showpiece from Gee-woon. With its accompanying piano compositions it sets an interesting tone, even if the fight at the end is a bit rubbish.
English subtitles are provided and they’re burned onto the image. The quality is a little ropey, with the subtitles having some fairly poor grammar. I’m not sure if Third Window did these or if the print used is one that was shown around festivals a number of years back. The translation is perfectly understandable but the presentation could have been a little better.
It’s a shame that Third Window hasn’t included the short Chow Yun-fat Boy Meets Brownie Girl, from the same director, as that’s a feature I would also like to see. Still, it’s nice to have this inclusion. The only other material on the disc are trailers for current and up-coming releases from the company.
Teenage Hooker Became a Killing Machine is a flawed but interesting piece of work. It’s certainly not for everyone; some will find it a laborious slog and others will likely find enjoyment in some of its more bizarre moments, filled with blacker-than-black humour. Director Nam Gee-woong is a talented individual; that he managed to work on so many things at once and show a good understanding of how to technically present a picture should be praised. But he lacks restraint here, seeming to care little for the intricacies we might otherwise expect to find in characters such as these. Teenage Hooker is simply unfocused, not really knowing what it wants to be: a visual exercise that greatly clouds any themes it might set out to explore.
Although in the end I find Teenage Hooker to be just above average I’m glad that Third Window Films has saw fit to release it on DVD, as this was a film I’d be holding out to see since hearing about it a few years ago. Recently the company has slashed prices on its back catalogue, which I presume is down to fledging sales. With an r.r.p. of £7.99, this is worth it for the curious individual.