Fantasia Fest 2015: CRIMSON WHALE — A Somber Korean Animated Sci-Fi Tale

Crimson Whale is an animated, South Korean science-fiction tale centered on the experience of a young girl who gets drawn into a strange adventure. Taking place in the year 2070 after the Earth has been rocked by ecological disaster, the film mixes elements of coming of age and post-apocalypse with shades of Moby Dick.

Great cities lie in dilapidated ruins. Society is still trying to hang on (kind of like the original Mad Max), but lawlessness seems to have more or less taken over. Young orphan Ha-jin is a denizen of this dark world, a loner who survives through a combination of intelligence and deceit. She’s no saint — when we meet her, she’s selling drugs to foolish customers, then robbing them once they get high. But most importantly, she also harbors a strange secret — she has the ability to communicate with whales.

Ha-jin manages to get herself into a serious jam but is rescued by a mysterious pair of interlopers who shanghai her off to sea on a crazy mission. Having discovered of Ha-jin’s gift, they intend to to use her to lure a very particular whale. Nestled deep in a volcano is a cavern filled with priceless crystals, guarded by a monstrous lava whale. Many have tried to pillage the volcano, only to meet their deaths, but this particular ragtag band of pirates intends to use Ha-jin’s ability to even the odds.

The pirates act kindly to Ha-jin, even inviting her to join their “family”, offering a ray of hope in a despairing world. Their female captain in particular takes a liking to the girl, at times even showing maternal tenderness.

When the pirates finally battle the lava whale, it will be their ultimate test of not only their mettle, but their sincerity as well. Are these people really an adoptive family , or just con artists taking advantage of a young girl’s special gift? The answer isn’t a simple one.

The film’s animated style belies a gloomy perspective. Despite some cutesy character designs and occasional moments of levity, it is a melancholy and grim vision of desolation. This is a world where casual violence, drug-dealing kids, human trafficking, and corrupt cops are simply the norm. The oppressive tone is informed by the same edginess as Japanese anime, and the drab, ruinous environs aren’t merely the physical backdrop, but also reflective of the ugliness of humanity.

My favorite design, though, is the lava whale, with its volcanic-inspired platelike shell and impressive size, making for a memorable creature and finale. It’s a magnificent design and the highlight of not only the final act but the entire film.

Clocking in at a brief 70 minutes, Crimson Whale moves briskly and keeps the plot economical, culminating with an unexpected but appropriate finish that’s mirthless yet hopeful.

A/V Out.

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