Wonderful Days (South Korea, 2003)
Director: Moon-Saeng Kim
Producer: Kay Hwang & Kyeong-Hag Lee
Screenplay: Jun-Young Park & Moon-Saeng Kim
Production Company: Tinhouse
Running Time: 90 minutes

Wonderful Days is an animated science fiction/fantasy film that was the brainchild of prolific TV commercial animator Moon-Saeng Kim. This ambitious project, five years in the making and funded by Samsung and the Korean Ministry of Culture & Tourism, was intended to break Korean animated features into the international market. Wonderful Days uses a unique mixture of animation techniques: traditional cel animation for the characters, 3D CGI for vehicles and other objects, and 1/10-scale models and matte paintings for buildings and scenery. The juxtaposition of two-dimensional characters and a three-dimensional (almost photorealistic) world looks strange at first, but the animators have dovetailed the two together so smoothly that the viewer quickly accepts it. (The technology involved is a little bit more sophisticated than that old Paddington Bear programme...)

The year is 2142 AD. Over a century ago, the world was devastated by the Energy Wars, a conflict over the control of the Earth's dwindling resources. Extreme levels of pollution have blocked out the sun and raised the sea level. On Sisil Island in the South Pacific, scientists have built a self-contained city called Ecoban that grows and sustains itself by absorbing pollutants from the air and water, like a giant plant. Unfortunately, Ecoban is not large enough to house all of the refugees that have travelled to the island seeking sanctuary, so a large shanty-town called Marr (built from grounded ships) has sprung up on the outskirts of Ecoban. The people of Ecoban hold the Marrians in thrall, making them work in the oilfields to continue to generate enough pollutants to power their luxurious city.

During a festival, a mysterious masked man infiltrates the core of Ecoban and compromises the main computer. The interloper is chased down by Jay, one of the city's elite law enforcers. When Jay unmasks the man she is shocked to see that this 'enemy of Ecoban' is her childhood sweetheart, Shua, who disappeared from the city many years before and was presumed dead. Shua escapes, and Jay struggles to decide whether she should remain loyal to Ecoban, or risk everything for her friend. In Shua's long absence, another of the Ecoban agents (Simon) has fallen in love with Jay, and picks up his childhood feud with Shua where they left off, completing the love triangle.

Much of the action takes place outside of Ecoban, in the ramshackle city of Marr. Here we are introduced to Shua's allies: Dr. Noah, a banished scientist who knows how Ecoban can be destroyed; the 'Hot Dog' resistance gang, a group of rebels trying to spark an uprising against the oppressors; Woody, an impulsive orphan boy who Shua has taken under his wing; and Karen, a young blind girl. Shua is building a glider that he hopes will one day take him and Woody to the fabled island of Gibraltar. He also promised to Jay that one day the sky would be blue again. These long-term plans are jeopardised by the fact that Ecoban's defenders are now actively trying to track him down and crush the resistance.

Wonderful Days is stuffed with eye candy but unfortunately suffers from a very undernourished script. Very little is shown or refered to outside of the narrow scope of the main storyline. Supporting characters are very sketchily defined, with their place in the world, their motives, and their relevance to the story sometimes far from obvious. It's not always clear who the movie is aimed at. There are moments of gentle comedy, and a few jarringly violent scenes. The film drifts along seemingly without trying to alienate anyone or to develop any idea too thoroughly. In its defence, the pacing of the film is well handled, and there is always something visually interesting going on, ranging from hyperkinetic action scenes to graceful tracking shots of the evocatively lit and painstakingly detailed scenery. The music complements the visuals well - the melancholy R.E.M.-lite song that Shua plays on his antique gramophone being particularly memorable.

I saw Wonderful Days not really knowing what to expect. I suppose I would have to go along with the prevailing critical view that in terms of plot and characterisation it leaves a lot to be desired. However fans of innovative animation who are fed up with a constant diet of Pixar candy floss and/or shoestring-budget episodic animé could do a lot worse than investigate further. Hopefully Korean animators will continue to target international audiences, as Wonderful Days makes it clear that the country harbours a formidable pool of homegrown talent.


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