Director/Screenplay/Producer/Photography/Production Design – Lee Samchil, Inspired by the Book by Franz Kafka. Production Company – 237 Digitalworks.
Lee Samchil (Man), Sin Ajeong (Sister), Lee Suyong (Community Leader)
A man wakes up one morning and discovers that his body has changed into something else and that he can no longer move his legs. He struggles to be able to move to the bathroom or to answer the phone. He believes he has been turned into an insect because he has remained unemployed for twenty years.
This exceedingly strange South Korean film is a loose adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915). The Czech-born Kafka is known for works such as The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), both of which depict protagonists trapped inside vast and inexplicable labyrinths of bureaucracy that frequently operate by processes to which they are never privy. The Metamorphosis was one of the few works that Kafka published during his lifetime. It concerns Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning to find that he has turned into an insect. The story circles around the horror with which others react to this and the problems Gregor’s family members face in trying to support him. One thing that should be noted about The Metamorphosis is that the insect that Gregor is said to transform into in English-language versions is considered is too literal a translation of the original German phrase, which can also simply mean an unclean animal. Kafka intended that the transformation be something ambiguous and even issued instructions to publishers that the form that Gregor transforms into be kept deliberately unclear when it came to illustrating the book.
Franz Kafka has never been an easy author to adapt to film, although there have been some worthy adaptations – notably Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962) and the later British remake The Trial (1993). Of Kafka texts, The Metamorphosis is the one work that presents the greatest difficulty. The main problem is the depiction of the central character’s transformation and how to show it without turning The Metamorphosis into something akin to The Fly (1986) – the story is not a Creature Feature story so much as it is a work of paranoia and intense alienation. The IMDB lists some nine other adaptations, several of these being short films and none of the feature-length versions being particularly well known. (I would love to see the tv movie version Metamorphosis (1987), the filmed version of a stage adaptation starring Tim Roth as Gregor who apparently depicted the insect transformation via physical body movements).
All of these other productions would appear to convey the transformation into insect via the actor’s body language as opposed to any makeup or animatronics, which is congruent with the way that Kafka intended the story to be read. This version takes the same approach but goes even further than that. The film is shot in first-person camera viewpoint by Lee Samchil who also plays the protagonist. The entire film takes place with him in bed and the camera looking down at his feet or at the wall. We get about two partial glimpses of his face as he eats later in the show but the majority of the film consists of the camera pointed at his feet.
This certainly pushes Metamorphosis into wildly experimental territory. To make things even more bizarre, there is no dialogue in the film – the character’s inner monologue is relayed for us via text that appears on the screen. All that there is on the soundtrack is a series of muted thrumming and buzzing sounds. This is a film about as far away as it is possible to get from anything that we associate with standard multiplex fare and with no concessions made to easy viewing. Indeed, some third of the audience at the Vancouver International Film Festival screening walked out.
I contrarily rather liked Metamorphosis. Like most experimental films, it is something you appreciate once but don’t feel an overwhelming desire to add it to your collection of dvd favourites. While not exactly faithful to the Franz Kafka novella (although to be fair only claims to be inspired by it), it replicates a perfectly Kafka-esque state of mind – the sense of intense alienation, social rejection and aloneness. There is something creepy as we watch the unnamed hero trying to move his body, looking at his legs and arms and describing them as something alien – even though we never see anything that looks any different from standard (an equal interpretation of the film might be that everything takes place in the character’s head). At 106 minutes, all the first-person camerawork and alienated sounds on the soundtrack go on far too long – you cannot help but suspect that this would have worked far more succinctly as a short film – but the film definitely achieves something in terms of capturing a disturbed state of mind.
Kafka also framed his version of the story in economic terms where Gregor was the principal breadwinner of the household and the rest of the family were reduced to having to scrabble for jobs and take boarders in to support his incapacity, eventually resulting in his neglect, insignificance and death. It was Kafka scathingly saying that someone’s import in a household only exists in terms of their ability to economically provide. Lee Samchil pushes this to even more of an extreme. For him, the transformation is also about a protagonist who has ceased to become human anymore as a result of his economic marginalism. There is a remarkable scene where he comes to the realisation that this has happened as a punishment because he has lived at home with his family and been unemployed for twenty years. In a haunting line of subtitled dialogue, he pitifully proclaims “I would rather be an insect than live as a freeloading parasite.” Following somewhat the ending of the novella where Kafka had Gregor die because his family could not afford to tend him, Lee Samchil pushes it to even more of an extreme where it would appear (albeit not too clearly) that the protagonist’s sister poisons him off so that she can finally sell the family house.