A medical experiment goes disastrously awry, transforming one of its human subjects (Lee Kwang-soo) into a mutated half-man half-fish. When he goes to his ex-girlfriend (Park Bo-young) for help, she instead leaks his appearance onto the Internet and sells him out to the pharmaceutical corporation that caused his mutation. While Korea goes fish-man mad, an aspiring journalist (Lee Chun-hee) insinuates himself into the situation to make a secret documentary.
“The Collective Invention” is a 1934 painting by noted artist René Magritte, which depicts a strange creature lying on a beach. It is half-woman, half-fish, however in the opposite order to that of a mermaid: it’s legs are human, but it is a fish from the waist up. Writer/director Kwon Oh-kwang does not just borrow the title for his 2015 Korean film satire; he co-opts Magritte’s imagery too. Miserable slacker Park Gu (Lee Kwang-soo) signs up for a medical trial to gain what seems like easy money, only to be transformed into essentially a fish with arms and legs. Kwon uses this deliberately strange set-up to present a broad and scattershot satire of Korean economics, culture, health care, and news media. It does not hit every target, but it is shooting at so many that the law of averages dictates it scores every now and then. It is an imperfect film, but on the other hand its premise and bizarre protoganist are so off-the-wall that it gains plenty of appeal through sheer absurdism.
While Gu is the focus of the film, the audience’s point-of-view comes via Sang-won (Lee Chun-hee). He wants desperately to be a professional journalist, but has to date not found a viable path into the industry. He finds his way to Gu via Gu’s cynically opportunistic ex-girlfriend Jin (Park Bo-young) and immediately goes about recording Gu’s experiences on video. As the media begin to swarm, Sang-won takes it upon himself to start shielding Gu from harm, placing him in the unfortunate position of protecting him from scrutiny while secretly exploiting him at the same time. Lee Chun-hee plays the role in a very straight and narrow fashion, which makes him more relatable. With more than enough heightened and surreal characters and performances in the film, Lee gives everything a place to be grounded. He smartly pulls his own performance back to anchor everybody else.
With Lee Kwang-soo playing Gu under far too much make-up to act through, the really bold performances come from the supporting cast. Park Bo-young gets in plenty of humour as Jin: a messy combination of untrustworthiness and regret. Jang Gwang is funny as Gu’s ill-tempered father. Lee Byung-joon is a highlight as the eccentric Dr Byun, a medical researcher played as a mad scientist, who becomes more appealing the longer he appears.
When the film hits a stereotype, it can feel a bit of a chore. When it nails a satirical jab at South Korean society, it is much more accomplished and interesting. It does a particularly strong job at skewering the public’s fickle nature: first condemning Dr Byun for turning Gu into a fish, but then condemning Gu for rudely not continuing to cooperate in testing a drug that is potentially worth billions. At 90 minutes, the film avoids straining the audience’s patience – even though its slightly over-long climax does stimulate a little impatience. Ultimately Collective Invention just feels weird. It is worth checking out just to see how strange it gets.