Film Review: Sex is Zero

   Stewart Lee, comedian and wise-man, identified that twentieth century America was solely responsible for the creation of a number of pioneering forms of art listing, as examples, stand-up comedy alongside "jazz and comic books and the senseless High School massacre". Alongside this, it would be hard to dispute that the young adult sex comedy genre was similarly conceived entirely in the States with the likes of Porky's and American Pie amongst the more prominent of the genre.

   Anyone familiar with Quintette du Hot Club Paris, to pick the most archaic example which springs to mind, will be aware that despite the inherent American nature of these arts, it is not uncommon to see their forms re-appropriated elsewhere. So, to accompany the aforementioned example of French Jazz, a close-to-home illustration would involve noting how the great boundary pushing of Lenny Bruce, or sociological exploration of Richard Pryor, has been replaced by Peter Kay remembering things from the 1980s and Michael McIntyre observing the every day and banal in the British interpretation of stand-up comedy.

   The Korean film industry of the mid-nineties on-wards has often gravitated towards Hollywood for inspiration and, as such, it is hardly a surprise to see the nation too try it's hand at an American-style sex comedy. Sex is Zero, directed by Yoon Je-kyoon (My Boss, My Hero), is the outcome.

   On paper, and for the first hour at least, the movie ticks all the boxes associated with the gross out stylings of American teen sex comedies. There's a gaggle of sex obsessed students huddled around a computer watching porn together, a montage of skimpily dressed ladies partaking in aerobics, Phoebe Cates is brought to mind as the camera gratuitously leers at females in the swimming pool, and Yoon even makes a tip of the hat to Todd Phillips' Road Trip with an early gag recalling Tom Green's role in the film. Like many Korean comedies, the humour in Sex is Zero is less than subtle - framing a movie as an American style sex comedy thus proves perfect synergy. Everything is a breeze, a joke. Until it is not.

   The high energy tale concerns Eun-hyo (Ha Ji-won), a student at Sunjong University who aims to excel at a national aerobics competition. She is one of the few on campus who have dedication to anything other than partying or goofing off - there are infinitely more Van Wilders than there are Tracy Flicks. Like many young ladies, however, distraction comes in the form of male attention - whilst the socially inept, albeit earnest, Eun-shik (Im Chang-jung) clearly cares for her, Eun-hyo finds a superficial attraction to good-looking rich kid Sang-ok (Jung Min) which takes priority. Eun-shik tries everything in his powers to impress Eun-hyo but, as is par for the course, finds himself in an array of embarrassing and awkward situations.

   The title Sex is Zero becomes rather ironic during a sudden third act twist which takes the film away from gross out gags, and the world of inflated testicles, and sees the movie shift into ground most American teen comedies shy away from due to the subject matter being pretty grim. In American Pie, for example, the sex between our teen protagonists is rather meaningless aside from an arbitrary suggestion that having lost their virginity the characters are now "adults" - it's a strange and conservative recurring plot device but, aside from rare films such as All The Real Girls, the emotional and physical consequences of sex are rarely shown. To do so would move the film away from comedic territory. Yoon's movie has no such qualms as a topic not broached in American sex movies since the strangely nuanced Fast Times at Ridgemont Times is tackled in depth for the final third of the running time.

   Whilst it is admirable that a feature aimed towards teens is not afraid to address serious issues, the trouble of Sex is Zero is the manner in which it does so - the violent tonal shift from gross-out goofball laughs at sperm, buckets of puke, and mix-ups over which is the correct orifice towards a weighty subject matter makes Yoon's movie feel like two separate presentations accidentally spliced together rather than an organic narrative. This is equally as true throughout; the episodic script often feels like it lacks focus, direction or discipline.

   The most troubling aspect, however, is how the weighty subject matter is approached with as much subtlety as the comedy which, I'm afraid to say, is zero. After being invited to laugh at one character's brush with death from eating rat poison, Sex is Zero suddenly leaves behind its cartoon nature and asks us to feel moved at the disturbing site of a dying woman suffering from a huge hemorrhage. It's a film which presents itself as a light-hearted comedy but, due to its lack of finesse, is an ultimately deeply upsetting watch. There's a time and a place to discuss the weighty issues of the final act in Sex is Zero but, in a film featuring a sperm sandwich, this is not it. A comedy which will leave the audience drained and depressed.
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