Clocking in at just over an hour, Crimson Whale is a narratively sparse fable with a unique visual style that lends itself well to its tale of a futuristic apocalypse.
Young, street-smart orphan Ha-jin is adept at navigating the tough streets of 2070 Butan on her own – until the day she’s arrested for petty theft and shipped off to become a child labourer. She’s rescued by a band of mysterious seafaring thieves who need her help to recover priceless crystals from a volcanic island, guarded by a giant crimson whale. Ha-jin is special – she can summon whales, a talent that’s haunted her since childhood, every since it inadvertently caused the death of thousands of whales as well as her mother.
Despite being a futuristic sci-fi adventure, Crimson Whale isn’t a particularly high-concept story, and has more in common with Moby Dick than Mad Max. Character motivations are sparse and ambiguous. The dialogue is occasionally awkward and stilted, but Crimson Whale is so visually impressive that these are moot points – its not a film about plot or dialogue or character, but about a universe itself.
Borrowing from a blend of Japanese anime and absurdest Western cartoons with some occasional grotesque realism, the animation is Crimson Whale‘s strongest asset. A product of the Korean Academy of Film Arts’ Advanced Program, Crimson Whale is clear proof that the Academy’s mandate, to encourage South Korea’s untapped animation potential, is a worthwhile one. First-time director Park Hye-mi asserts herself as a rare and special talent, with a keen eye for merging a wide variety of artistic influences into a style that remains her own.
Every frame is deceptively simplistic, with flat colours and loosely drawn shapes, but imbued with a stunning amount of tiny details that render this world so realistic. Butan in 2070 doesn’t have the slick Hollywood gloss that seems to permeate even the bleakest of post-apocalyptic films. This universe is sad, sparse, and casually ugly, and Ha-jin, alone within it for so long, finds a surrogate family in a ragtag bunch of weirdos as lonely as she is.
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