Imagine a beautifully animated fairy tale world that takes its visual inspiration from the steppes of Mongolia. From there, take the basic tropes in fairy tales and rearrange them somewhat. Villagers are nomadic by necessity to escape the harshness of winter, which takes on the physical form of a witch. Incapable of creation, the witch takes advantage of a disaster to claim possession of a lost child. She maintains power over this child less through her ice magic and more through emotional manipulation.
These are the essential elements of "Kai - Animation", a lovely little film with excellent emotional sentiment. Consider the main characters, both of whom have been permanently altered simply by having had the life experience of being a brother and sister. Even as these two are inevitably separated by the story, we see one move into a protector role while the other develops crippling insecurities, all as a result of how their life experiences have been in reaction to this trauma.
Yet for all this there's a surprising bit of joy in the proceedings. Take the comic relief squirrel and magical blob thing. These are both inherently silly, pointless characters, yet even in dark moments they often cheer the mascots on general principle. The ice witch's entire motivating life philosophy is that the world is an inherently miserable and cruel place.
But "Kai - Animation" does not harp on this point or go into unnecessary specifics, as director Lee Seong-gang is sensible enough to understand that the main advantage of using standard archetypes is that their motivations do not require excessive explanation. This is a welcome change from his previous work. "My Beautiful Girl, Mari" and "Yobi, The Five Tailed Fox" may have looked fantastic, but both practically required flowcharts to make any sense of the story.
By contrast, there are no weird, exciting visuals in "Kai - Animation" that exist for the sole purpose of being weird and exciting. To the contrary, it's impressive how well everything comes together. From ice effects to water effects, to tree climbing to yak riding and especially into the fights, which are more about survival than victory. The tension is always so perfectly telegraphed precisely because the story has such a simple trajectory. This makes it that much easier to enjoy the strengths in the flow of the animation.
This very simplicity is probably the main drawback in "Kai - Animation". It's pretty easy to pick and choose various elements from other animated films that were "ripped off". But that much is nonsense- fairy tale style stories inherently rip each other off because as genres go, fairy tales don't have that much variation. What matters is the sentiment. Does a story reference classical fairy tale elements for the sake of cheap self-referential jokes, or does it do so to tell an engaging story that appeals to the universal shared experiences in human existence? "Kai- Animation" is most definitely an example of the latter case, and is very much worth watching.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Kai - Animation""
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