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Burning Stage (YANG Sunwoo, 2009)

Reviewed by Darcy PAQUET

The use of advanced photographic technology can sometimes open up entire new worlds to us. The inspiration for the CGI animated short Burning Stage was a television program that captured water droplets sizzling on a hot plate. Through high-speed photography and macro lenses, the program captured images of water droplets that resembled ballet dancers moving in rhythm across a stage. Yang Sun-Woo, who at the time was working as an animation director and researcher at the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI), decided to make use of ETRI’s newly developed fluid simulation system to create an imaginative and playful depiction of this phenomenon, blended with images and music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Director Yang doesn’t let us in on the joke at first. The image we see is a fusion of fantastic and realistic elements, with a giant moon and billowy clouds in the background and occasional flakes of falling snow. In the foreground is a smooth, ordinary looking surface, difficult to identify because we are so close to it. Across this surface dances a number of translucent blobs, which we recognize as animated water droplets because of the little splashes they make, and the way they sometimes combine together into bigger drops.

Soon, drama develops. Two larger droplets emerge out of the crowd, recognizably male and female, with small crowns on their heads. They dance a duet with the camera sweeping around them, and draw close in a tender embrace, only to be thrown apart by the arrival of a plump, watery Von Rothbart with an army of smaller, dark colored droplets. It’s only the barest narrative outlines of Swan Lake, but the film stages a show of watery pyrotechnics as antagonist and protagonist battle each other to the death. Death comes in an unexpected manner, however: Odette is pulled to the edge of the stage/surface and then falls into a fiery inferno below. Siegfried collapses in grief and literally burns up before our eyes. Rothbart
looks greatly amused, until suddenly he too is burned into steam by the hot surface below.

It’s only then that we are pulled back to view events on a human scale. A curiously drawn young child (Yang would further develop this character in his later shorts A Crack in Time and IKOKI-LOST) sits in a rocking chair in front of a burning circular stove. We now understand what the surface was, but what was the source of the water? In an unexpected shift in tone that is typical of Yang’s filmography, the child leans forward and spits onto the stove. New droplets appear. It’s an unending source of entertainment, conjured up at will.

Darcy PAQUET is the founder of the website and the author of New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves (2009, Wallflower Press). A former correspondent for Variety and a contributor to the film magazine Cine21, he currently works as a consultant for the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy and the San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain. He also recently appeared as a supporting actor in Im Sang-soo's The Taste of Money (2012). A native of Massachusetts, Darcy has been living in Seoul since 1997.

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