Republic of Korea 1999

Reviewed by Tony Rayns


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

When her classmate Woori starts doting on the work of the sculptor J, smalltown high-school girl Y impulsively phones the artist in Seoul and finds herself proposing a blind date. They rendezvous in Andong, and the 18-year-old willingly and voluptuously surrenders her virginity to the 38-year-old man in a 'love motel'. They begin a series of sexual assignations. On their second day Y allows J to whip her during foreplay. Soon, strenuous beatings and whippings form a large part of their love-play.

J spends three months in Paris where his wife G studies art. While he is away, Y enters college to read Statistics. The liaison resumes when J returns, but when Y cries during a beating J invites her to beat him instead. This sets the pattern for their future lovemaking. Still living at home, Y grows irritated by her brother's interference in her life. J is invited back to Paris to lecture, but returns to Korea early.

Y's brother discovers the affair and sets fire to J's house. Y joins J on a cross-country odyssey, hiding in hotels and living on savings and borrowed money. One day Y carves "My love" on J's inner thigh. But when Y learns that her brother has died in a road crash (she earlier sabotaged his motorbike), she abruptly announces she will go home and resume her college courses. The abandoned J is devastated.

Some time later J is living with G in Paris when he gets a call from Y: she is in CdG airport, en route to Brazil. He drops everything to join her and finds she's travelling with nothing but her old school uniform and the pole from a garden hoe to administer a beating. Later, J reflects forlornly that he never saw Y again and recalls that when G asked about his inner-thigh 'tattoo' he began to tell her lies.


Jang Sun-Woo's deliciously witty film deals with the polarities which underlie all relationships: honesty and dishonesty, trust and distrust, bravery and cowardice. But since Jang explores these issues in the main through sex and fladge scenes, early reactions to the film have followed the pattern set when Oshima premiered In the Realm of the Senses 25 years ago; little discussion has risen above the level of asking whether or not it's boring to watch naked people beating each other and having sex - or asking whether or not the film is a turn-on. Some viewers may well find Lies erotic (after all, some viewers find Laurel and Hardy films titillating), but that really isn't the point.

Lies was intended by its producer Shin Chul as a deliberate challenge to Korean censorship; the novel (Jang Jung-Il's fourth) was banned, recalled and pulped less than a month after it was published in 1996, and the author subsequently had to serve two months in jail as a "pornographer". Jang Sun-Woo had already filmed an adaptation of Jang Jung-Il's second novel (To You, From Me/Neo-ege Narul Bonenda, 1994, an acid satire of social climbing, creativity and plagiarism in the Korean literary scene) and was initially reluctant to tackle another for fear of repeating himself. Talked into making the film, Jang approached it as a voyage of discovery. Working with two remarkably brave non-actors, both of whom volunteered for the project after reading the script, he took it as a quasi-documentary about an evolving 'outlaw' relationship which happens to involve whips, birch twigs, ropes and poles. Visibly unfaked, the fladge scenes are more a record of the actors' inventiveness and fortitude than prurient celebrations of sado-masochism. Their DIY qualities couldn't be further from the sleek fetishism and scrotum-nailing of Barbet Schroeder's Maîtresse.

J and Y's retreat into their own sexual fantasies has a real transgressive force in a Confucian work-ethic society such as Korea, underlined by the scenes in which marginal characters (hear-no-evil taxi drivers, morally flexible motel managers, fellow passengers on trains and subways) react to the couple's frank and overt interest in sex. In one of the few loaded lines of dialogue, Y remarks that she doesn't want to sign a public petition because she doesn't want to be just one of a million: "I'd rather live in a society which respects individuality."

But the thrust of the story is more psychological than social. J (whose backstory closely resembles author Jang Jung-Il's biography) throws himself into an illicit, adulterous relationship in which he feels increasingly comfortable with the 'passive' role - but is nonetheless poleaxed by the discovery that his love object can deliver the 'sadistic' coup de grace by dispensing with his services. J speaks most of the film's intermittent voiceovers, oscillating between first- and third-person references to himself and once even citing the novel in which he is a character ("According to the book this happened in Taegu, but it could have been any large city..."). Insofar as this overgrown adolescent travels a trajectory, it's towards the Buñuel-like realisation that 'lies' are all but indissoluble from the lineaments of gratified desire.

For Jang Sun-Woo, though, 'lies' are also synonymous with 'fiction'. He roots the film in documentary, using clips from audition tapes to introduce the two lead actors in the opening minutes and in one early scene pulling back from the action to show the crew intervening to stop an improvised fight scene which has gone a little too far. These strategies mesh with Kim Woo-Hyung's deliberately informal, handheld cinematography to give the entire film a non-fiction undercurrent.

At the same time, he uses every playful device at hand to italicise the film's storytelling functions, from quirky voiceovers and chapter headings to slow-motion and bleached-out images. His own trajectory (already amply suggested by his earlier films, from the neorealist Lovers of Woomuk-Baemi/Woomuk-Baemi ui Sarang, 1989, to the Buddhist myth rethought as social critique which is Hwa-om-kyung, 1993) is towards lies which tell credible truths. This splendid film confirms him as one of contemporary cinema's most persuasive liars.


Jang Sun-Woo
Shin Chul
Jang Sun-Woo
Based on the novel Tell Me a Lie by Jang Jung-Il
Director of Photography
Kim Woo-Hyung
Park Gok-Ji
Art Director
Kim Myeong-Kyeong
Dal Palan
Production Companies
Presented by Shincine Communications production in association with Korea Films
Executive Producers
Park Keon-Seop
Kim Moo-Ryung
Line Producer
Kim Jung-Soo
Paris Unit Production Co-ordinators
Lydia Oneto
Marie-Hélène Choi
Assistant Directors
In Jin-Mee
Shin Dong-Whan
Cho Keun-Shik
Kim Woo-Jae
Park Kyung-Mook
Digital Video Artist
Kim Yong-Gyun
Park Shin-Yeon
Jang Jin
Song Mi-Sook
Director of Sound
Lee Young-Kil
Sound Mixer
Kim Suk-Won
Sound Effects
Kim Chang-Sup
Lee Suk-Min
Paris Unit SM Consultant
Pascal Benbrik
Lee Sang-Hyun
Kim Tae-Yeon
Jeon Hye-Jin
Choi Hyun-Joo
G, J's wife
Han Gwan-Taek
Y's brother
Kwon Hyuk-Poong
J's senior
Jung Myung-Keum
senior's wife
Shin Min-Soo
young J
Cho Young-Sun
J's father
Ahn Mi-Kyung
noodle shop owner
Yeom Kum-Ja
short rib shop owner
Choi Boo-Ho
motel owner
Goh Hye-Won
motel owner's wife
Kwak Chul-Jin
Lee Jin-Ho
taxi drivers
Jun Jae-Sup
Yim Mi-Ran
noodle shop customers
not submitted
Alliance Releasing (UK)
9,990 feet
111 minutes
Dolby SR
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011