In 2002 director Lee Sung-Gang's first animated feature, "Love Fantasy: My Beautiful Girl Mari", was released. Soppy English title notwithstanding this was a surprisingly mature children's story where all the characters behaved realistically, and had a very distinct and abstract look to it.
That look was maybe too distinct for some people. It resembled a well-made Flash-animation rather than something which was supposed to be shown in cinema's. In fact some people tell me this actually IS a Flash-animation.
Be that as it may, it really marked Lee Sung-Gang as someone to watch and if he keeps making movies of that level of quality well...
He just might earn that title of "next Miyazaki" some already are using for him.
For his next animated feature Lee didn't use the Flash-technique: "Yobi, the Five Tailed Fox" has become an exquisite example of traditional animation with some very well-made CG enhancements. Last week it was released on DVD in its home country of South-Korea in a package that is, like the movie itself, handsome but not without its flaws.
Yobi is one of the fabled nine-tailed foxes, magical animals that have a terrible reputation as soul stealing shapechangers which can live to be a thousand years old. However, Yobi is only a hundred, which means she's like a ten-year-old girl and only has five tails yet. Abandoned as a small child, she's been raised by a group of stranded aliens who have been trying for decades to repair their crashed spaceship, hiding away from mankind in an abandoned amusement park. After a failed test flight ends in catastrophy one of the aliens accidentally gets found by students from a "school for dysfunctional children" who keep him as a pet.
Yobi infiltrates the school disguised as a student to find and rescue the alien but she quickly finds out that she really likes being human, making friends with the other students. This creates a complicated situation, because for Yobi to become a human permanently she must first steal the soul of another human that has fallen in love with her, which means killing him. Not that there is a shortage of people starting to love her, including a teacher who falls head-over-heels for Yobi when she disguises herself as a "human mother".
Meanwhile, one mysterious person is hunting her while another mysterious person keeps saving her. And in the forest nearby a portal to the afterlife opens and closes at every full moon...
About the film:
You might be forgiven to start frowning the moment you read "magical animals" and "stranded aliens" in the same sentence, unless it's in an article bashing the genre of SF and fantasy. It's certainly a fairly unique concept to use BOTH in the same story without making the point that one is really a kind of the other. The aliens are clearly technological while Yobi and several other creatures are mythical. Throw in the group of dysfunctional children and the portal to the afterlife and this film looks more convoluted by the minute.
And it is. The aliens seem to come from another movie altogether and their subplot lacks a satisfying resolution. Things like the portal come out of nowhere and might just as well be labelled "Imminent Plot Device". And there are so many plot-points which need to be verbally explained that Yobi asks questions she should have known the answers to a long time ago (having lived with the aliens for a century you might for example think she would have asked about their home planet a bit earlier than the night they plan to leave).
But the central story concerns Yobi and her growing wish to be amongst humans, and this is where the movie shines and succeeds. Yobi is so well written and animated that you never get tired of watching her and she makes the viewer root for her from start to finish. This also goes for some of the other main characters, but as mentioned before some of the various subplots fall flat. Still, with the main story fairly intact this isn't too big an issue and didn't spoil my enjoyment much.
Technically this film is a marvel and looks accomplished enough to go head-to-head with many a Ghibli. The animation makes liberal use of 3D computermodels which have been cell-shaded afterwards, making them look as if handdrawn. This causes some fine effects, like the camera turning around a tree and every single branch and leaf moving independently in correct perspective, but still not looking as if it came from a computer. Stunning stuff and certainly showy, but the film never loses track of the heart that's underneath it. As such it contains two scenes that I really found moving, something no Disney of the last 15 years can boast of.
On to the DVD:
CJ-Entertainment has released "Yobi" as a two disk Special Edition (not that a non-special one exists), and the amaray is housed in a very pretty irridiscent slipcase. There are two different versions, but mine showed the pretty artwork featured at the start of this review. Funny enough both the slipcase and the amaray make mention of the "SPECIAL FESTURES", and indeed none of these feStures are English friendly.
Video looked fine on my 32'' tv, sharp and with vibrant colors. I'd say excellent, but on my computer I noticed something ugly: one out of every 3 or 4 images is "combed", something that is easily noticeable and very distracting. And, I'm led to believe by several sites, totally unnecessary. But like I said, it looked stellar on my tv.
Audio is fine, with the DTS sufficiently loud during the more frantic moments. The English subtitles do contain some spelling errors (just like the packaging!), missing words and bad grammar, but nothing to get too worked up about.
The menu's are easy to use, very English friendly, nicely animated and fit the movie perfectly.
Onto the special features:
Disk 1 has an audio-commentary with director Lee Sung-Gang and crew, but it's not subtitled.
Disk 2 shows the recording sessions, some deleted scenes, some trailers and four galleries which are interesting for a change: general animation, background scenery, 3d-models of most characters and finally the designs of various things.
Faults and all, this movie has had several repeat viewings in my household already. It may not reach the lofty hight of the best Ghibli's, but it certainly holds its own against the likes of, for instance, "The Cat Returns", or anything from studio Gonzo.
Uneven, but still highly recommended. And I can't wait to see what Lee Sung-Gang does next!
You can order "Yobi: the Five Tailed Fox" here:
And order "Love Fantasy: My Beautiful Girl Mari" as well, it's very very cheap:
Todd's earlier news, when it had a different title
The trailer (downloadable WMV):