[HanCinema's Film Review] "SAGAL: Snake and Scorpion"
By Panos Kotzathanasis | Published on
Film directors are crazy. We all know it, and they know it too. Most of the time. If anyone ever wanted a proof, "SAGAL: Snake and Scorpion" offers the perfect opportunity.
On a day in the summer of 2020, director Lee Dong-woo got a call from an unknown number, with the man calling asking if he knew the 'dickhead', Park Geon-ho. Lee asked who he was speaking to, and the one on the line replied that he is a loan shark, and would kill Park for not paying back and being cocky. With that call from the loan shark, Lee gets to talk to Park after 6 years, a college film department classmate who wanted to be a filmmaker, but has instead become a loan shark himself, is addicted to gambling, drinking, loves to consume lavish meals and occasionally steals money from his employers, while he is surrounded by a couple of similar-minded "friends". Lee thought that this was material for a great documentary and asked Park to let him follow around, also supposing that his film would help his former classmate overcome his issues.
Geon-ho's personality is filled with pathological obsessions but also an unwavering charisma. He spends his life in a vicious cycle of tricking loan sharks, employers and financiers to loan him money, loaning himself money to others, and spending everything he makes in gambling, eating and drinking. As such, and due to the nature of the documentary, with the director's handheld camera always present recording his everyday life as closely as possible, one would think that this is a mockumentary of sorts. The truth is, however, that reality once more moves beyond any kind of imagination and script-writing, and the shocking everyday life portrayed in "SAGAL: Snake and Scorpion" is actually true.
Moreover, through intertitles appearing throughout the movie, we also learn of the thoughts of the director, who also emerges as a man obsessed, with filming in his case, but also one who eventually realizes the futility of his actions, as his actions, instead of helping as he thought in the beginning, actually harm his " friend ". "I won't make documentaries ever again" he thinks at some point, and this line echoes until the end of the movie. Geon-ho does not seem to care about the filmmaker's thoughts, however, just for getting paid for his role in the movie, money he almost immediately proceeds on spending on a fancy dinner he buys the director, in the apogee of a series of actions that eloquently state that people do not change.
And to go back to what we mentioned in the prologue about the mentality of directors, somewhere in the middle of the documentary, Lee stumbles (and records) the lead protagonist of his previous film, "Self-portrait 2020", a homeless man who suffers from mental issues and has been imprisoned a number of times, once a film director with a film presented at the Venice Film Festival, concluding the "collection" of filmmakers here.
At the same time, and beyond the profile presented, here Lee also shows in detail the life of people surviving outside the legal financial system, in a rather realistic portrayal of the underbelly of Korean society, one that is very rarely portrayed on screen, particularly in documentaries.
Granted, the film is too long at 157 minutes, and the use of shaky handheld camera becomes annoying after a point. If, however, someone ever wanted to shoot a documentary that lasts for 157 minutes and is almost exclusively made of handheld shaky shots, one would find it very difficult to shoot something better than what Lee Dong-woo has, in one of the most unique and entertaining films we have seen lately.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.