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It is difficult from a North American point of view to get a
perspective on just how radical Lies is in its country of origin, South Korea,
which is socially very conservative. Jang Jung Il, the author of the novel on which the
film is based, was found guilty of pornography and served two months' prison time for
writing the book, an unlikely result were the location the United States, where public
condemnation of sexually explicit prose comes almost exclusively from the religious right
and such work is seldom, if ever, prosecuted.
Censorship of films in the U.S. is a more subtle, though very real, problem--more a matter of pulpit-bullying and ratings pressures than law. Lies has found an American distributor, but you can be sure it will not be shown in suburban muliplexes.
By any standard, Lies breaks new ground. It is centered in a passionate and consuming love affair between J, a married 38-year-old sculptor, and Y, an 18-year-old college student. (The difference in their ages is commented upon briefly, but not otherwise addressed.) Y comes to their first tryst a virgin, but this is no seduction--she is determined to lose her virginity with a man of her choice, since both of her sisters experienced their first sex as victims of rape.
The sex is heated, energetic, and uninhibited. In their first meeting, J and Y engage in oral sex and both vaginal and anal intercourse. In subsequent assignations their activities progress from light to ever more intense whippings and even an episode of coprophilia. But director Jang Sun Woo is not indulging in pornography here; there isn't the slightest tone of prurience on screen. While there are shots of frontal nudity of both partners, Jang is remarkably discreet, allowing only the most fleeting glimpses of genitals. There are no "clinical" shots, as they are called in the pornography trade.
What Jang does show is the mesmerizing power of the passion in which this couple are enmeshed. They are obsessed with each other and with their sex to the exclusion of everything else; their meetings are marathons of vigorous physicality. J acknowledges, as the affair progresses, that he is "not working much lately." Y quits college as they spend more and more time in their motel room assignations. Perhaps there's something to be said for sublimation, after all.
Jang also sustains a nonjudgmental stance in portraying the affair, which forces the viewer to examine his/her own responses. While many may find some of the sex portrayed to be distasteful, that is a highly subjective and personal reaction. Jang is not interested in approval or disapproval of particular activities, but rather in the totality of this relationship. The borders between pleasure and pain are indistinct, changeable. He makes clear that the mutual obsession is fraught with a level of neediness, suggesting, for J at least, that it cannot be satisfied. In that there is a profound sadness.
Jang doesn't get trapped into representing the relationship as a purely sexual one; that would have been an oversimplification. They each tell the other, "I love you," -- particularly when the whips start to crackle across flesh. There is also affection here, and tenderness. (A scene of Y gently dressing J's bruises after a whipping evokes a similar scene in Girl on the Bridge, but Leconte's couple have sublimated their sexuality into a knife-throwing act.) And J asks Y to marry him; he would divorce his wife. "If you divorce, I'll leave you!" is Y's heated response.
The two leads in Lies are not professional actors, but their performances, sexually and otherwise, are convincing. Jang uses hand-held cameras, fast motion sequences, and both low angle and extreme close-up shots to effectively convey both the energy of the physical activity and the cramped, almost claustrophobic containment of the rooms where the couple meet. Only the techno soundtrack is jarring and undoes a degree of the effectiveness of this skilled filmmaking.
Jang does break new ground with Lies; no film meant for general distribution has portrayed until now the activities that are here integrated into a thoughtful and complex examination of the byways of human emotion and sexuality.