Too often do I wind up feeling like quirky films botch their execution because of their quirkiness. The idea that being weird is enough to make a film good is hardly appealing, which is why it is refreshing to see movies that can land that balance. Especially when some drama can be injected into the absurd. Collective Invention is not without its flaws, but for something that has a mutant fish-man as its connective tissue, it is surprisingly heartfelt and politically-charged in its initial throes.
Aspiring journalist Sang-won (Lee Chun-hee) wants to get a gig reporting on important matters that affect the nation of South Korea, but when he is hired on the down-low by a media outlet to report on a man who has become a fish-man hybrid, he becomes wrapped up in the story itself. Sang-won struggles to handle the responsibilities of reporting on a human rights case, as him and Ju-jin (Park Bo-young) try to get help for Gu (Lee Kwang-soo) and help him adapt to his new fish-like habits.
What makes Collective Invention more than just a story about a fish-man trying to adapt to life with humans is its political angles. Gu didn’t just magically become half-man-half-fish. After a pharmaceutical trial gone wrong, he began mutating and over the course of the film becomes more and more fish-like. The question of whether he is still deserved the same rights as humans seems ridiculous, but so does director Kwon Oh-kwang’s entire portrayal of South Korea. It’s satire at its most absurd, with even a flimsy attempt to dismiss the human rights case by making it look like Gu masturbated during the trial. Jokes like this are funny, but also paint a flawed portrait of the judicial system.
There is also the notion of celebrity which Collective Invention is willing to dabble into briefly, though it tries its best to focus on a flawed system. Gu’s father returns to him after a long absence – seemingly to capitalize on his son’s fame and potential cash-flow – while his ex-girlfriend Ju-jin is trying to help him win his case. Meanwhile, Sang-won is merely there to become a reporter. Everyone has something to gain from Gu, except for himself. There’s a real sadness to Gu’s predicament which makes this comedy have a little more heart to it than it seems. It isn’t just a fun time making jokes about a man who became a fish but a tale about someone confused about their identity, and whether they’re worth more in people’s eyes now than ever before.
It’s one of the few subtleties of the film and I loved every moment they explored it. When the movie has Gu on-screen it is extremely satisfying, even if it tends to be one line per scene and nothing more. You can tell he is constantly questioning things despite the fact that he is largely emotionless with a large fish head. When Gu isn’t on-screen, the film loses a lot of its steam. Turns out that the quirk of the film is also the anchor of it. Large gaps do happen where you’re supposed to care about Sang-won or Ju-jin. Unfortunately, none of their characters seem particularly interesting. By the time character arcs end, I simply didn’t care. Even Gu’s arc loses its impact because of how much the movie tries to make you care about other characters.
Everyone is predictably changed in one way or another and Gu winds up feeling like a catalyst for that predictable change, as well as a secondary character. The idea to make him be a reason for people to change makes sense, but Gu’s arc loses power because of it, which shouldn’t be the case when he is the reason individuals changed in the first place. While the satirical elements of Collective Invention are well-done and even riveting at times, they don’t make up for the obvious characters and lack of focus that plague the later parts of the movie. It’s funny and even heart-warming for its first half – with plenty of biting satire – but feels slight by the end.
Screening courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival