Kaiju Shakedown: Aachi & Ssipak
In a world where energy has run dry, in a country where the government robs its citizens of hope with drugs and pornography, in a land where freedom is a four letter word, there is one hero who knows what he needs to spark the revolution: your poo. A vertiginous slide down a swirling toilet bowl of bad taste, Aachi & Ssipak (06) is a deliriously detailed X-rated animated sci-fi epic eight years in the making that has repulsed movie critics and delighted audiences at film festivals around the world.
Aachi & Ssipak
“Exceedingly grotesque . . . increasingly nasty,” says Richard Kuipers of Variety! “Even mature and physically fit viewers for whom etiquette and courtesy are important values need to think twice before seeing the movie,” says the daily Chosun Ilbo in Korea. And The Korean Times observes with some trepidation: “Human feces are important in the story…”
Not since the anti-authoritarian head trips of Ralph Bakshi has a movie done so much so quickly: within the first reel it’s dispensed more ultraviolence than a thousand action films, annihilated the boundaries of good taste, and violated the copyright on so many precious corporate properties so gleefully that they might never recover.
If Michael Bay and John Waters were forced to make a baby, it would grow up to direct Aachi & Ssipak—a title that pairs the Korean word for “butt” and a Korean profanity. In the story’s vision of the future, feces has become the world's power source and the government has implanted ID chips in the anuses of its citizens that rewards them with an addictive, hallucinogenic laxative called a “juicy bar” every time they have a “sincere” bowel movement. Aachi, who looks like Little Orphan Annie after 10 years of crystal meth addiction, and Ssipak, a romantic, hairless gumby, team up with a porn star named Beauty whose mutant butt earns her dozens of juicy bars whenever she drops a load. But the Diaper Gang—constipated killer Smurfs with AK-47s who are addicted to laxatives—and a death-dealing government cyborg want to wipe them out before they can live large.
Mega-action scenes so hyper-detailed they take your breath away unfold in this flick, which might feature some of the best action filmmaking ever to grace an animated movie. Other films are parodied nonstop, and even the movie itself blacks out from bad taste every 10 minutes, returning to consciousness with another scene already in progress. It all ends with a mushroom cloud, a tidal wave of shit, one character’s cheerful promise to drain another’s bowels dry, and a mad scientist making a killer sex doll out of cadavers.
Aachi & Ssipak is also cursed. Originally slated for a 2002 release, the production stalled until 2006 after its investors pulled out. Then MTV optioned it for a series, keeping the original movie off the American market, before losing interest and abandoning the project. Last week, hope seemed to be in sight when Mondo Media and Cinedigm released a Blu-ray and DVD of Aachi & Ssipak in the U.S. But no. Although the movie looks better than ever, Mondo Media cut four minutes from the film and replaced the entire soundtrack. The original music has been replaced with what sounds like the dubstep setting on a Casio keyboard, made worse by the fact that while the original film’s action scenes were punctuated with sudden silences, here the electro-score is slathered from one end of the movie to the other with little regard for the intentions of the original filmmakers. The voice acting has been dubbed into English, and while the two leads are perfectly fine, the rest of the cast has been haphazardly directed, with additional dialogue dubbed over formerly silent shots. Without an option to listen to the original soundtrack, or to hear the original Korean-language track with English subtitles, Mondo Media’s disc is a big pile of fail, which is too bad because you get the feeling that their hearts were in the right place.
What makes it even worse is that Aachi & Ssipak is such singular movie. Given the massive costs associated with animation, it’s kind of incredible that this film even exists, and one like it won’t come this way again anytime soon. Director Jo Beom-jin and animation director Gap Kim spent the late Nineties working with two other artists to turn Jo’s Aachi & Ssipak screenplay into a movie, generating concept sketches and rough character designs.
“We started to make test scenes and pilot films even before the script got completed,” Gap Kim told FILM COMMENT. “The project started as Flash animation but we realized that at the time this technology had too many limits, so we eventually switched to a 2-D and 3-D composite as the script progressed.”
They began to bring more staff on board in the early 2000s, recruiting from Chung-ang University, television stations, anywhere they could find artists who wanted to make more ambitious animation. Taking over a two-story building in the Gangnam District in Seoul, 20 members of the production team moved in. Officially, this was their offices, but as Jiyoun Lee-Lodge, the movie’s character designer and one of the only women on the crew said: “We would only go home every couple of days, and the days and nights just slipped by. We had no other life outside. We lived and worked together all the time.”
Aachi & Ssipak developed a uniquely Korean design sensibility.
“I was fed up with the Japanese style of animation,” Lee-Lodge remembers. “I wanted something that was a hybrid. Not just American or Japanese or European style, but something in between. We went all the way back to looking at how we constructed basic shapes like circles, triangles, squares, and how slight juxtapositions, or ratio changes, made the impression of the shape’s significance change.”
They took their influences from everywhere. “We were pulling all-nighters to make things more awesome,” Lee-Lodge continues. “Watching other animation, watching movies from classic to cult from around the world and discussing them. Looking back, it was a bit too much of a mix-up between work and life, but we were all so dedicated under the belief that we were making something cool. I studied antique toys, anime characters, American comic characters, independent film animation characters, toy books, Hong Kong action figures, antique American toys. It was a breakthrough in my character design. I remember we had stacks and stacks of magazines, mixing and matching.”
Out of all this came not just a distinctly Korean look but some deviously clever conceits. One of the movie’s greatest inventions is the Diaper Gang, a horde of adorable blue creatures who are insanely cute but rabidly violent, and prone to meeting gruesome ends, often with their brains blown out as they cower and sob, begging for their lives in high squeaky voices. Director Jo had noticed that John Woo’s Hong Kong movies contained a steady stream of extras being murdered. The entire production team found it hilarious that these people were seemingly born to run out screaming, wave a gun, and get shot. What if these faceless victims were cute cartoon characters, they wondered? What if they begged for their lives? Thus was born the Diaper Gang, characters who play havoc with audience sympathies while offering a critique of action cinema, and being unbearably cute.
Officially budgeted at 35 billion won (about $3.2 million), the movie was actually pulled off for less than 30 billion. After a few years of intense work, the rough Flash animation was ready to go, the concepts were sketched, Jiyoun had written the bible for the production, and some scenes were animated. Next, they were supposed to swing into full production in early 2002. But then Buddhism happened. Or, rather, the world’s biggest Buddhist video-game action movie happened, tanked, and took down the production company.
“The production should have begun immediately,” Gap Kim remembers, “but our investor suffered great losses over the film Resurrection of the Little Match Girl which triggered a chain reaction that halted all productions that followed including Aachi & Ssipak. Furthermore, our sponsor company was merged into another, bigger company. Production halted for a year.”
The entire team disbanded. “Everyone wished and hoped that it would work,” Lee-Lodge says. “But there was nothing much we could do except say, ‘Let’s keep in touch.’” Then, in 2004, a new round of funding materialized and production started again. But when the long-awaited Aachi & Ssipak was finally released, it bombed, pulling in an audience of 20,000 people, not even enough to break even.
In 2006, a small screening was organized in Los Angeles by friends of the production, and the movie picked up steam again. That was when MTV came on board, but when they abandoned the idea, Aachi & Ssipak was dead again. This time, for good.
It seems cosmically unfair that one of the most unique animated films ever made, a labor of love that beat the odds and reached completion, should be so neglected. But the Aachi & Ssipak experience has always been bittersweet.
“I had more disappointment than satisfaction [with Aachi & Ssipak] for only showing about 60 percent of my ability,” Gap Kim said. “I was involved in the script writing process and did over 50 percent of the storyboards and did the entire layout. Also, I tried to handle as much key animation as possible but only worked on about 50 scenes due to the schedule. It was my first experience on a feature film as an animation director but what made it even more difficult was that I also had to storyboard, direct, do layout, key animation, and art directing all at once. I learned a lot about animation development and production from this experience.”
“I was proud,” Lee-Lodge said. “Those teammates were a great, unique crowd. There were very talented animation directors like Gap and Choong-bok, animators like Seong-gu, and many more. We were friends and family in a sort of nonsense manner.”
The next project for Gap Kim was Mad Monkey, part of which can be seen here. A fantasy film about six supernaturally endowed martial artists, it was going to be a 70- to 90-minute film but only about 20 minutes currently exist and, in Gap Kim’s words, “it needs more investment.”
As for director Jo, he said he didn’t want to talk about Aachi & Ssipak anymore, and declined to comment for this story. “It was a long time ago,” he says.
And so, Aachi & Ssipak may rest in peace, but we’ll always have the Diaper Gang.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
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