At last year’s LKFF the surprise success was the animation Green Days – which for me was the first Korean animation really to stand comparison with Japan’s Studio Ghibli. This year the story may well be the same, with another animation from a director making his first full-length feature.
In a country where animation screenings are dominated by US and Japanese productions – to the extent that it’s difficult to get financing for home-grown features, Oh Sung-yoon’s Leafie, A hen into the wild (마당을 나온 암탉) has been making box office history in Korea by exceeding the box office takings of both US and Japanese features. It has also been shown widely in China – at one point at 3,000 separate screens – and is now on its way to Russia, Turkey and Italy.
Leafie is certainly on a par with Green Days1 both for its story-telling and artwork. Where it scores higher than Green Days is in the quality of the voice acting. As I watched the film I was conscious that the voices were more characterful and distinctive than those in your average animation, and as the closing credits rolled the reason for this was clear: top of the billing are Moon So-ri as Leafie the Hen (how does one pitch such a part?) and Choi Min-sik as Wanderer the Guardian Duck. This is the first time a Korean animation has featured such big name stars, and the result is well worth it. The only shame is that when the film is exported all that work will likely be wasted as the voices will be dubbed into the local language by jobbing actors. Certainly the Chinese release was dubbed.
The storyline is based on a pre-teen novel, and follows the adventures of a hen who manages to escape from the battery egg-laying shed. As the story starts, you are tempted to try to draw analogies where maybe none exist. As Leafie fails to be accepted in the farmyard she longed to join, one is drawn to think of refugees who have escaped from the regimented, oppressive society in the North only to find it impossible to adjust to life in the South. But trying to read such messages into the story is soon put aside as we follow Leafie into the wilds of the forest and the everglades.
The entertaining cast of characters includes a friendly fast-talking estate agent (a beaver) and a threatening, ever-hungry one-eyed weasel. If one were looking for morals in the story, it’s all about motherly love and the importance of accepting differences. And when revenge is such a familiar motif in Korean cinema which could so easily have been played out in Leafie, it’s refreshing to have sacrifice as a more prominent resolution.
Leafie herself is an ever-optimistic, always outgoing character who is instantly appealing, as is the film itself. It deserves to do well.
Leafie is an adaptation of the novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Hwang Sun-mi. (LKL review here)
- Also known as Dinosaur and I, 소중한 날의 꿈, dir Han Hye-jin and An Jae-hoon, 2010