New for me
I have to admit that Sex Is Zero fits a rather rare place among all the Korean films I've seen, which is that of a raunchy gross-out sex comedy. Now, the natural comparison point to Sex Is Zero is going to be the American film, American Pie, which features a similar brand of mixing up horny young people with wild and frequently gross antics, but the Korean film unsurprisingly also manages to add its trademark shift to the serious for the final reel, which isn't as seamless as it could have been. But, then, the film is as wildly structures as its goofy characters resulting in a viewing that frequently loses its steam. But even though the film did seem like a chore to watch at times, I'm not going to lie that some of the comedy elements had me laughing out loud, so it's a bit of a mixed bag.
Set in college, the story's protagonist is the hapless butt monkey Jang Eunsik (Im Changjeong), a freshman law student, who, along with the majority of his male friends, have a fixation on the young women on campus. The object of his particular affection is one of the star aerobics students, I Eunhyo (Ha Jiwon), who, like her female friends, has a fixation on campus hottie Ham Sang-uk (Jeong Min). And while the women prepare for their big competition and Jang makes a connection with I, she soon discovers that Ham has an interest in her too, making things complicated for the love/lust-lorn Jang.
What works especially well in this film are the moments of stupid gross out comedy in the film, which mark much of the first half of the film, with embarrassing setups and some really disgusting moments powering some great shock factor. But for all the goofy comedy, even the first half of the film suffers a bit from not really having much of an overall story direction as it largely seems like "stuff happens", frequently robbing the film of any drive and making the moments connecting the funny parts drag. Interestingly enough, once the film actually finds something resembling a story, the comedy gets heavily replaced by melodrama, which isn't well prepared for by the film in terms of character or foreshadowing quickly sinking the fun, which happened to be its only real strength. And it still feels long--which is difficult to do with a film that's less than one hundred minutes.
In terms of tone, writer-director Yun Jegyun finds a correlation with the Farrelly brothers, with most of his characters being pretty exaggerated and the setups drawn for heavy gross-out or raunchiness. In fact, in terms of sex, Sex Is Zero outdoes its American peers with nudity and even a few explicit sex scenes thrown in the mix alongside lots of ogling of women (and a single moment of ogling Ham). It's all done pretty bluntly, but with a rather rubbery comedic undertone cutting against the sexiness of it all a little.
Unfortunately, like his messy script, Yun doesn't quite manage to shape a consistent overall tone to his film and some of the editing and storytelling choices leave lots of unfunny and inconsequential things happening on screen while not motivating well enough his characters' actions, especially in the final dramatic act, taking away from the suspension of disbelief. The actors are pretty game here, ranging from heavily goofy supporting characters creating a bit of a surreal atmosphere, which sometimes feels just a touch too over the top, especially once the tonal shift occurs. Both Im and Ha are adequate as the butt monkey and straight woman, but the dramatic finale is a bit much for their limited characters to carry.
But, like I said, some of the setups and payoffs in the film are genuinely laugh inducing, so Sex Is Zero isn't without its value. These are utterly memorable moments from a film that otherwise has a hard time stitching the good parts together with a solid story, made a bit of a chore to watch by aimless storytelling, tonal inconsistencies and the rather incongruent shift to melodrama. With production values a bit on the rough side, Sex Is Zero simply doesn't seem as well put together by its closest American peer in story, production or character, but manages to at least pull out some funny moments. And that might be enough for those looking for a comedy to enjoy, but the film can be a little tedious for all of its flaws, so I'd only suggest watching this if gross-out jokes are what you're craving. 6/10.
DVD Note: The Panik House DVD is encoded in a lamentable 4:3 letterbox presentation, which is quite disappointing considering that anamorphic widescreen was format of choice for most other region releases of this film. The film itself had a better transfer than I anticipated, but still looks a bit on the rough side. At least the printed materials are pretty good, including an essay book and some modest special features.