Kev reviews one of the biggest grossing South Korean comedies of all time. Sex is Zero is filled to the brim with gross out humour and boobies; available to own now from Panik House.
*There will be some spoilers as I discuss the film throughout this review. I have only placed spoiler boxes for scenes that I feel reveal major story breakthroughs. Feel free to skip to the DVD portion of this review if you don’t wish to know how several gags play out.
For years now the sex/gross out comedy has been entertaining audiences all over the world; it’s clear that we’re meant to empathise with certain situations that recall days of youth involving embarrassing situations and so forth, and it is perhaps these additions that make the genre so widely popular. Personally I have never been a huge fan; I will give some films their due however, but I often find that as the years go on there seems to be a greater air of desperation about these flicks. Yun Je-gyun’s Sex is Zero capitalises on the success of the recent Farrelly brother’s exploits, not to mention the hugely popular American Pie series. On top of that he goes way back by acknowledging a string of 80s hits that he undoubtedly drew inspiration from, such as Porkys, Animal House and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. There’s only one real goal here, as with all gross out comedies, and that is to outdo anything that’s been seen before; to be as disgusting as possible in order to generate the most groans and fits of laughter. In 2002 Sex is Zero became South Korea’s most successful comedy of all time, which is made even more curious by the fact that the film is as mixed as a bag of liquorice allsorts.
The film takes place at a SungKyun kwan University where former Navy man Eun-shik (Yim Chang-jeong) is beginning his freshman year in law studies. He’s soon distracted from his work, however, when he falls head over heels for pretty aerobics student Eun-hyo (Ha Ji-won). Though she doesn’t appear to find him equally as attractive she still goes so far as to indulge his fantasies through teasing; Eun-shik tries his damn hardest to win her over, even if it means using extremely radical means. When Eun-hyo begins to date pretty boy on campus Sang-ok (Jung Min), who also happens to be seeing fellow aerobics student Kim Ji-won (Jin Jae-yeong) sparks fly as several parties become angered or distressed. But that won’t stop Eun-shik from attempting to gain Eun-hyo’s affections, even if it means risking his life in the process.
The things that people do for love are often silly indeed and Sex is Zero does well to highlight that, only just how far does a person have to go in order to earn the affection of the one they so desire? Such is the predicament that Eun-shik finds himself in as the film’s central protagonist. Vying for Eun-hyo’s affections he puts himself through a series of often dangerous and highly embarrassing situations that are so ridiculous that you’d have a hard time in believing that this was a twenty eight-year old man with no common sense. But then I guess love really does turn people into hopeless idiots. Eun-shik is a likeable chap, sure, which is why it’s all the more frustrating to watch him get progressively dumb as his attempts remain futile. More interestingly is that when he’s not causing self harm, such as jumping out of windows and getting involved in strange spiritual concentration exercises, known as Cha-Ryeok, he’s actually a decent enough chap who just hasn’t had enough breaks in life. There’s a moment during the third act in which director Je-gyun attempts to turn his character around when introducing a very serious storyline involving pregnancy, which soon takes over the film to such a high degree that the tone becomes reminiscent of several South Korean comedies, such as My Wife is a Gangster, Marrying the Mafia and My Boss, My Hero, the latter of which was directed by our man here in 2001. While clearly the growth of Eun-shik’s character is commendable as he takes on responsibilities for the things that he needn’t have to there’s a large looming threat over proceedings that is finally hammered down during the scene in which The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.Eun-hyo’s mother visits her in hospital and learns that she got pregnant and subsequently aborted the baby, to which later the physical stress upon her body almost caused her to bleed to death. Her mother then violently assaults her daughter as she lies in bed trying to recover, whilst hitting her yelling “Slut! How could you do this you bitch?!” It’s hard to believe that any kind of commentary should belong here, whilst for the aforementioned My Boss, My Hero there was a keen sense to establish the ills of the public school education system. It could be argued that many girls get themselves into similar situations, and that this might be a huge issue in Korea and elsewhere in the world, but there’s no real need to potentially destroy what is essentially a comedy film, and it’s my belief that there’s no room for both this and overly depressing, dark bouts of drama. Certainly there are some wonderfully delivered scenes of poignancy, which are light affairs and even do so much as to generate a tear or two. These often come by during the more subtle and heartfelt moments and work particularly well in seeing to it that the audience will sympathise with the lead player.
Early on there’s no inkling whatsoever as to how the film will develop, not at least in terms of the tone it takes on. Certainly it’s predictable in that we have a group of guy friends and a group of girlfriends who will go through a series of simple vignettes, while a few twists involving a love triangle plays out amidst the “action”. And so most of the first hour – in this ninety-six minute film – deals with everything that’s bizarre, awkward and embarrassing about college or university life or just getting the girl. Sex is Zero kicks off in the best possible way, selling the film immediately with its leering sports bra shots during an aerobics exercise, whilst the stereo plays the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat”; we know its intent and there’s no way it’s gonna apologise for it. Subsequently there is of course plenty of bra, panty and naked shots of several well endowed and ample young females which might well do enough to get any boy’s heart racing. In fact several times during the film this is indeed the case and oddly enough it leads us into several scenes in which we see two or three of the best friends masturbate in the same room together half naked, as if it was normal for friends to get together and do that. Much of the humour here obviously leans toward that of a sexual nature, from the boys indulging in fantasies to actually getting a taster of a girl, upon which they do some very unsavoury things. Once again the humour becomes too forceful; there’s a moment in which one of Eun-shik’s friends, Chansu (Choi Seong-euk) takes Yoon Kyoung (Yun Shi-ooh) back to a hotel because she’s drunk and needs to rest. Passed out he unbuttons her top and looks at her breasts in awe, which should have really stopped there, but then he removes her bra and sucks on her nipples, when suddenly she wakes up and bawls her eyes out. This is totally understandable from her perspective as this young man is taking advantage of a paralytic innocent; we in turn sympathise with her when clearly we are meant to be laughing at the guy’s ridiculous excuse, blaming her for his actions. It ends up being too ill-judged to be funny.
When the film decides to head into real gross out territory it once again becomes a victim of having too much ambition. The most famous scene involves one of Eun-shik’s friends masturbating into a frying pan (in front of another guy again) because he believes that sperm contains the same properties as egg whites and therefore his friend can enjoy a nice fried egg. It’s just not funny in the least because in this case it truly is one of the most insanely ludicrous things to have ever been commited to celluloid. Sperm gags can be funny, we all know the famous hair gel scene from There’s Something About Mary, not to mention the other Farrelly production Kingpin, involving a cow milking effort gone horribly awry, but there’s an even greater sense of grasping here that fails to generate the kind of response that it’s obviously hoping for. And speaking of There’s Something About Mary, just when you think that Sex is Zero is about to head into the same territory – when Eun-shik gets stuck for a hair gel to use – it takes a step back and introduces a strawberry jam element. Initially a few flies circling around Eun-shik’s head is funny, until he steps into an abortion clinic when everything just goes so flat that you expect a tumble weed to roll by.
Despite having many poor gags Sex is Zero does have a few decent ones. Eun-shik’s friend and former Navy officer Choi Seong-guk (Choi Seong-guk) trying to emulate Korean singer Yoon Chong-shin is hilariously played, being deliberately awful in the process, while Eun-shik eating a rat poison-filled sandwich topped with fried sperm (something that pays off despite that initially odd scene) manages to raise a few chuckles – mainly due to the actor’s reaction that it’s a tasty sandwich, while we of course know better as he races almost naked down a series of corridors, pursued by his best friends. But it’s the film’s slapstick humour that generates the most smiles. I’m often of the belief that South Koreans deliver amongst the best in slapstick comedy these days; there’s never a moment in such a film where someone getting slapped around the head isn’t funny. Here we have the addition of the Spiritual Exercise Group in which Eun-shik and his friends belong. They have adopted this Shaolin monk-like ritual of training their bodies to withstand pain, while lacking all other fundamental qualities. Seeing the groups’ comradery and genuine friendship is a nice sight, and watching them smash things over each other’s heads to try and make themselves feel a bit more manly is often endearing, even though we might roll our eyes at how gung-ho their attitudes are. And then there’s the more painful moments including an extended vomiting scene with Kim Hyun-hee (Ham So-won), which as we all know can be strangely funny, whilst being disgusting at the same time, although for my money Team America remains the king in this field. Furthermore we have Eun-shik being kneed in the bollocks, which isn’t so much hilarious as it is cruel, but the aftermath in which we see X-rays of his testicles as doctors deliberate over removing them does cause a light chuckle, and how can you not feel for him in that situation? So Sex is Zero isn’t without its good points, working best simply when it isn’t trying so damn hard.
By now I’ve totally made the film sound crap, which isn’t necessarily the case, because regardless of everything it doesn’t do right Sex is Zero is still fairly entertaining. It helps that it has a manageable runtime and that there is some kind of progression for several of its characters, although there’s an apparent rushed quality during the final act as the director tries to squeeze in the main sports competition and tie up Eun-hyo’s difficult storyline at the same time. Yun Je-gyun manages to helm his picture as well as any of his others by keeping things energetic above all, while issuing some very attractive shots that include both his female cast and the surrounds in which the camera often fiercely moves. Sex is Zero is a spontaneous ride that is held up by a credible cast, whereby both leads and supporting actors manage to offer some very fun moments, despite a wonky script.
Panik House has released Sex is Zero on a respectable disc; coming housed in a standard amaray case it features a bright and cheery cover with glittering silver strands. Mmm, shiny. Inside you’ll find a reversible booklet featuring notes by Mike McPadden, who harps on about how great it is, while a Spanish translation follows. A sticker replicating the front cover, sans glittery bits, is also included. The DVD menus come with an option for English or Spanish set up screens.
Sex is Zero is presented in a non-anamorphic aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Why is this Panik House? There is absolutely no excuse for it whatsoever. It’s very disappointing to see things not improving a great deal after the Pinky Violence discs, especially when the company is supposed to be dedicating itself with a serious and passionate commitment toward the films it puts out. With that said the transfer is otherwise nice enough. Detail is very good and colours are often lush, with good black levels and decent contrast tones, though I suspect slight boosting to hide some grain that seeps through at times. Aliasing proves to be a distracting factor here also, particularly when there is at least one main character wearing a striped t-shirt for most scenes. There are also minor moments of print damage, although these do not prove to be distracting, as well as a little Edge Enhancement.
Sound wise we have a choice of Korean DD2.0 or DD5.1 Surround, the latter of which eclipses the 2.0 by quite a margin. The soundstage is put to solid use, with front and rear speakers channelling various effects nicely, while dialogue has a decent amount of directionality also.
Optional English subtitles are available in a yellow font that reads well but seems to have been altered ever so slightly in terms of approximating certain things. The best example is when Korean won is converted into dollars, so for example Eun-shik will say he spent $1,000 on a ring.
Audio Commentary with Mike McPadden and Mr. Skin
The chaps from Mr. Skin.com are joined by Panik House President Matt Kennedy as they talk about a particularly favourite genre of theirs – the sex comedy. These guys obviously don’t know anything about Korean cinema, but then they’re not called in for that, rather their overall thoughts on the genre is required; as such the duration of the commentary has them referencing many sex comedies of the 80s while pointing out similarities between them and Sex is Zero. Certainly the guys know their stuff in relation to this and carry plenty of enthusiasm, but they rarely deviate from American cinema because they’re otherwise stuck for things to talk about when it comes to South Korean film. Matt Kennedy tries to discuss a little about Korean tradition and specific film trivia when prompted, but never actually manages to offer much of interest that we don’t end up seeing on the extra features included.
The original Korean DVD release featured two audio commentaries, one from the director and one from the cast members. This would have been a very good addition had Panik House decided to license and subtitle those instead, or alternatively found a qualified commentator to who could give us a little bit more background info.
Audio Commentary by Jesus “El Pelos” Olvera
The Entertainment Editor of Al Borde serves up his thought on the film in Spanish. Now it’s nice that Panik House is catering for a Spanish audience, but wouldn’t it be nicer if subtitles were provided for these commentaries so that the rest of us can enjoy them? I don’t know if Olvera gets deep into the film’s production or if he just waffles on.
Behind-the-Scenes: The Making of Sex is Zero (39.51)
This feature takes us behind several scenes, from filming the gym montage and pool locations to stunts and gags. There isn’t a whole lot of dialogue except for when a couple of actors are interviewed later on when we visit the first day of photography. Highlights here include Ha Ji-won’s embarrassing leg-opening scene and the disco scene in which she can be seen bursting into giggles. Ham So-won dedicating herself 100% by physically making herself sick at the request of the director deserves a pat on the back, and here I was thinking they used special effects. We also see Yim Chang-jeong go through some heavy tasks as he goes through some very real physical pain for the sake of entertainment. I think the director owes these guys and gals big time.
Memories of Sex is Zero (23.02)
These interviews take place approximately two months after the film’s success. Yun Je-gyun starts off by talking about what he’s learned from the experience, which scenes were hardest to film and where he got his ideas from, to which he insists every scene was based on the real life experiences from either himself or old friends. Ha Ji-won is asked similar questions such as how has her career benefited since starring in the film, how she prepared for her role and what genres does she prefer to work in? She mentions her initial reservations at first, until a meeting with the director prompted her to change her mind. Choi Seong-guk is next and he chats about starring in his first film role having been a TV actor for the past eight years. The interviews get briefer when we arrive at Jin Jae-yeong, who describes working on her first project in four years and being thrust into the film’s most sexually charged scene which called for plenty of nudity on her part. Singer Yu Chai-yeong tells us about her experience and future ambitions, while rounding up the piece is former model Yun Shi-ooh, Yi Shin and Choi Seong-euk, who also offer an anecdote or two in relation to their sex scenes.
Bloopers and Outtakes (20.13)
Here we have seventeen stops, though some feature more than one scene being shot. These range from alternate takes to simple bloopers, the latter of which are indeed funny and show us that everyone working on the set truly is having a great time.
Deleted Scenes (7.25)
These are presented as seven time-coded scenes. Some are far too dark in tone, featuring Eun-hyo and her mother, while others are extensions, with a few extra light gags. Nothing here that really warrants being in the film.
The original theatrical trailer along with an extended trailer can be found here. A promotional music video also accompanies this section. As with a lot of Korean trailers there are some spoilers and if you wish to preserve as much of the humour as possible then I’d advise skipping these and watching the film first.
Poster & Still Galleries
These are divided into two categories – “Posters & promotional Art” (5 pics) and “Production Stills” (58 pics).
This is a mixture of critical views and actual production notes, with only some key points being lifted from the actual notes
The official Panik House press kit which they send out to review sites and so on. Basically we get a picture of their original flyer with a large text reproduction.
A very small selection of brief biographies on Yim Chang-jeong, Ha Ji-won and director Yun Je-gyun.
Sex and Zero’s main fault lies in its wildly mixed tone. Certain moments prevent it from being a total disaster, while Je-gyun proves once again that he has a hard time in focusing on one clear objective; something that he’d try to remedy for his next, and best film to date, Romantic Warriors. What starts out as being an entertaining enough film, with a few gags falling flat, soon turns into a bit of a mess that has far too many depressing moments for its own good. On the disc front it’s a shame that Panik House hasn’t put as much care into the film’s overall presentation as it has with its extra features.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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