South Korean indie provocateur Lee Sang-woo returns with the third and final instalment in his thematic "bad family" trilogy, which follows three grown up brothers, reunited when their pedophile father is released from prison. Inspired by a series of real-life news stories and told with an unflinchingly honest eye, I Am Trash is guaranteed to upset and provoke in equal measure.
Sang-woo (director Lee), oldest of three brothers, works as a road sweeper in present day Seoul. We first see him being harassed on the street by a couple of youths, but this proves to be the least of the man's problems. Back home, brother Sang-tae (Yang Myung-hun) seems to do little more than masturbate furiously and await the imminent release of their father. Meanwhile, baby brother Sang-gu (Park Hyung-bin), currently doing his compulsory military service, is seen sexually abusing a fellow recruit in a cheap hotel room.
After serving his sentence for raping a schoolgirl, "Dad" (Kwon Bum-taek) is released from prison, but immediately reveals he is far from rehabilitated. Within minutes he is sniffing schoolgirls in the bus queue and upon arriving home, begins pontificating to Sang-tae that any woman over the age of 10 is past her prime. But Dad may not get the chance to reoffend, as Yongsuk (Cho Young-suk), father of his last victim, is lying in wait, blade in hand, determined to have his revenge.
Lee Sang-woo sets up an incredibly charged scenario, rife with conflicting relationships, unsympathetic players and vile behaviour. Audiences will struggle to find a sympathetic soul anywhere in I Am Trash, as even Sang-woo - who has taken over maternal duties at home after the ominous unspoken disappearance of their mother - has his dark side and character flaws. It should also not go unnoticed that the only female characters in the film are almost formless victims, or absent entirely.
As if the set-up wasn't compelling enough, Sang-woo wastes no time in unleashing his characters on the community once again. Dad is determined to relieve his sexual tension, and inspire Sang-tae to do the same. Before that they will deface and molest mannequins, and even treat food and alcohol with a sadistic, abusive attitude that makes the skin crawl. Once they do hit the streets, things quickly get rape-y and bloody.
The performances are uniformly excellent, fluctuating wildly from almost catatonic understatement to flamboyant histrionics as the frustrations of their situation dictate. Particular kudos must be given to Kwon Bum-taek, whose despicable portrayal of the violent, misogynistic, utterly reprehensible patriarch surely ranks as one of cinema's absolute worst father figures.
Many of the incidents portrayed in I Am Trash are torn from the headlines of recent Korean news - including the rape of a drunk woman on the subway and the suicide of a young army recruit - and compounded into the chaotic world of a single highly dysfunctional family. Shooting on location with hidden cameras and no formal permission, Lee's film also includes a number of impromptu real-world interactions with members of the public totally unaware they are on camera.
The result is an incredibly unsettling drama guaranteed to upset every conceivable audience demographic at some point during its runtime. With numerous sequences of nudity, abuse, rape, bullying and generally reprehensible behaviour, I Am Trash could easily be labelled exploitative, but in fact taps into the repressed, overly-patriarchal psyche of modern South Korean society in such a way that the events depicted are all too believable.
Every bit as provocative and confrontational as Lee's earlier films Mother is a Whore and Father is a Dog, I Am Trash plays as a last-gasp scream into the abyss from an artist desperate to escape a society that refuses to recognise anything other than alpha male bullshit - and the Korean cinematic landscape is all the better for it.
Full Disclosure: ScreenAnarchy contributor Pierce Conran is a credited producer on I AM TRASH and absolutely did not hold a gun to my head while I wrote this review.
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