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Climbing (2020) [London Korean Film Festival 2021]

South Korea’s animation industry has existed for much of its history largely in support of those of other countries. For decades, Korean studios have produced outsourced work from the US and Japan. However, the country does have a domestic scene, creating Korean content for Korean audiences. For a long time, South Korean animators seemed content to imitate the style of other nations, in particular Japan, but more recently, they have begun to develop more of an identity of their own. And with Korean pop culture more visible internationally than ever- thanks to the success of the likes of K-Pop and Squid Game- maybe its time has come. 

Climbing is an independent adult animated feature written and directed by Hye-Mi Kim. The film’s debut screenings were at South Korea’s Bucheon International Animation Festival and Seoul Independent Film Festival in October 2020. Internationally it was selected for the 2021 Annecy International Film Festival in the Contrechamp strand and also screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2021.

The film follows a young woman named Choi Se-Heyon, a professional sports climber in the wake of a car accident. As she trains for the upcoming world championship she faces competition from a younger rival, and begins to be haunted by strange dreams and visions. Then she starts getting text messages that appear to be coming from her own number… and claim to come from another version of herself.

It’s an intriguing premise, and the film immediately earns brownie points for tackling a genre that we don’t see too often in animation. It’s also refreshing to have lead characters who are fully grown adults- when so often even adult animation features young kids or teenagers (particularly in anime).

It also deserves recognition for creating a genuinely disorientating feel. The film frequently cuts between the two different versions of Choi- one continuing her life in the accident, one apparently being cared for by her mother-in-law while she recovers. This results in a dream-like- or more accurately nightmarish- atmosphere. It does have some genuinely creepy moments too.

Unfortunately, that’s about as far as my praise is going to go. Anyone who wants to get into this film has a fairly major hurdle to overcome, and that’s the quality of the animation itself. Some of this is no doubt down to budge limitations. The animation looks pretty cheap, with the doll-like quality that CGI animation can often fall prey to. Sparse, mainly empty sets and few background characters are a sign of cost-saving measures and are forgivable in a lower budget production.


Less easy to ignore are the character designs. The film adopts a variation of the ‘cel-shaded’ technique, with strong black lines used to give the characters a more hand-drawn, 2D-ish effect. This style has been used effectively in previous productions but does not work quite so well here, and the visuals here can only be described as ugly. Lines on Choi’s face and body might be intended to reflect her haunted state, but it has the side effect of also making her look much older than the character is presumed to be. Combined with cartoonishly oversized hands and impossibly thin waists, and the result isn't pretty.

The visual style is very much a deliberate choice, and the filmmakers probably felt it was appropriate for the material. It could be argued that the unnaturalistic movement works in the film's favour by upping the creepy factor. However, you may find that it creates a barrier between you and the film, that makes it harder to connect with. This is in combination with the ‘floaty’ animation style that makes certain moments, particularly any direct interaction or intimate moments between characters, feel awkward and unreal. The less said about the sex scene the better. The animation quality also dampens some of what are supposed to be more dramatic and shocking moments. It’s hard to find flowing blood too scary when it is rendered at such low resolution.

The sense of distance created by the film’s technical deficiencies are sadly not really made up for anywhere else. Choi’s the only character we spend any substantial time with, and even she is not really a well enough developed character for us to be too invested. She’s pretty much an empty vessel- and even at times strays into unlikable.

Nonetheless, this is intriguing enough that it’s worth sticking with to see how it shakes out in the end. There's enough here to say that Hye-Mi Kim will be worth keeping an eye on- it would be interesting to see what he could do with a higher budget and a bigger production.

If you’re able to see past the PS2 level CGI and are a fan of psychological thrillers then you may very well have a much better time with the film than I did. It's true that you won't see many animated films like Climbing any time soon. It's just a shame that for many viewers, the film's shortcomings are too much of a mountain to climb. 


IN A NUTSHELL: An intriguing premise is let down by poor execution.




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*Screener provided by London Korean Film Festival*