Movies · Reviews

Foreign Objects: Sex Is Zero (South Korea)

By  · Published on July 1st, 2009

Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…

South Korea!

The teen sex comedy, much like the western, is pretty much considered an invention of Hollywood cinema. Other countries have made movies about teen sex to be sure, but few of them have featured the mix of rampant copulation, bodily fluids, and incredibly crass humor that America has made their own. Films like American Pie, Van Wilder, and Sex Drive are typical examples, and while they vary in quality they all succeed in hitting the main points required for the genre… laughs, naked chicks, and at least one incredibly gross scene involving sexual residue. These movies probably owe their origin to 1982’s Porky’s which basically created the template for all the rest to follow. The main difference of course being that teen sex films from the eighties never quite reached the gross and disgusting lows of their modern day descendants. Much like they did with the Western last year (the epic and excellent The Good The Bad The Weird, review here), South Korea has made moves on America’s love of fornicating teenagers, physical comedy, and baby batter. Their first foray into the genre was the very risky, but ultimately very successful financially, Sex Is Zero.

The movie opens to the sounds of “We Got the Beat” by The Go-Go’s as we’re introduced to the guys and the girls. The guys are engaged in a display of stupidity as they drink bowls filled with spit, cigarettes, and all kinds of foulness. The girls are in the middle of an aerobics class that requires a lot of jiggling, stretching, and bending over. Just a normal day on any college campus, and it gives you a fair idea of what to expect from both sides of the gender coin here… stupid guys, sexy girls, and all of them looking to score. In the middle of all this is Eun-shik (Yim Chang-jeong) who’s new to college and older than the rest due to a few years of service in the military. He’s quickly identified as the main protagonist of the film (think Jason Biggs’ character from American Pie), but it doesn’t mean he’s any smarter than the rest of the guys. Given the chance, he’ll still eat a fried sperm sandwich. (Yes, you read that right.) Eun-shik falls for the very attractive Eun-hyo (Ha Ji-won), but she has eyes for the school’s bad boy Sang-ok who’s already dating campus bitch Ji-won. As Eun-shik works hard to win the girl of his dreams he also hangs out with his socially inept friends, practices with the concentration team (?), and makes an ass of himself again an again. The rest of the gang have some less painful adventures involving infidelity, French kissing immediately following vomiting, a couple thugs, the fire department, karaoke, and lots and lots of masturbation.

The first hour of Sex Is Zero is an almost perfect example of the genre and could easily be remade into an American film with only cosmetic changes. Much of the comedy is laugh out loud funny, some very cute girls show some very sexy skin, there are some incredibly gross gags… and then the film-makers seem to remember that they’re Korean. But before we get to what exactly that means let’s give a bit more focus on the comedy. Eun-shik is at times a very sympathetic figure and at other times a complete shmuck who deserves all that he gets. And he gets a lot… the above-mentioned sperm sandwich gag comes about after two of his friends realize they’re out of food and one states that semen is almost identical to egg whites. His professor told him they’re almost identical animal proteins which of course leads to him jerking off into a skillet to fry up some breakfast. Eun-shik’s genitals fair even worse than his taste buds resulting in multiple visits to the hospital where the doctors debate the merits of amputating his junk if his balls don’t return to normal size. There are also sex gags aplenty involving incorrect holes, inappropriate behavior, blow-up dolls, and more. The movie also has a definite exaggerated side as well with characters jumping out windows and getting hit in the head with hammers. It’s definitely not high-brow comedy but for fans of this kind of film Sex Is Zero feels very American and quite funny. Until the final half hour…

If you’ve seen even a handful of Korean comedies you know that they’re not exactly masters of the art of comedic subtlety. (The excellent My Wife Is A Gangster is a perfect example.) The film suddenly enters much more serious territory with the arrival of an unplanned pregnancy and more. Sex here leads to places unseen in our teen comedies since the days of The Last American Virgin and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and while it may be a more responsible presentation of the old bump and grind it really doesn’t fit smoothly with all that came before. It’s no exaggeration to say that the final thirty minutes passes without a single funny bit, gag, or scene, replaced instead with heavy drama and an oddly sweet montage set to the sounds of Bread’s song “If.” (As in “If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can’t I paint you…”) It’s a difficult and possibly damaging shift and the movie never manages to return to the humorous and light-hearted feel it had previously.

The change in tone combined with an out-of-left-field sports competition finale will probably throw most viewers off more than they can handle. I’m familiar with Korean films, and it was almost too jarring for me. It’d be a shame to pass on the film though as there really is quite a bit here to admire starting with the actors themselves. Chang-jeong does a fantastic job playing the sweet but stupid Eun-shik, and he makes his pains (both physical and emotional) feel real for the viewer. Ji-won manages a similarly fine balance between the laughter and the tears. The others in the cast are never tested as dramatically as these two, but many of them give very funny performances built on sharp expressions, timing, and generally over-the-top antics. If you can stomach humor of this type then I’d definitely recommend the film for a rental at least. Just be prepared for the laughs to stop and the teary eyes to start. And don’t be surprised if those teary eyes belong to you…

Grade: B

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.