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It’s inevitable that filmmakers around the world would look at the phenomenon of the “American Pie” movies and think, “Eureka! I’ll remake it, only I’ll use gags from my own culture, that way I won’t have to pay re-make rights!” Such is the case with “Sex is Zero”, a Teen Sex Comedy in every sense — except it’s R-rated, which means there are plenty of bare anatomy and sex on display, and even more hinted at. Depending on your response to the “American Pie” movies, you’ll either think “Zero” is funny or disgusting, or just weird.
“Sex is Zero” moves the sexcapades to college, where 28-year old Eun-shik (Chang Jung Lim) pines for Eun-hyo (Ji-won Ha). But their love is not meant to be (mostly because genre convention dictates it) because she only has eyes for the Big Man on Campus. With his pathetic attempts to win her over failing miserably, Eun-shik can only watch as while Eun-hyo falls into the arms of the BMC, only to realize (inevitably) that the BMC is not worth her love. Meanwhile, Eun-shik’s dorm mates are on the make with Eun-hyo’s female friends. Throw in a pair of hapless thieves who keep appearing everywhere (and who masturbates at every opportunity) and we have ourselves a Raunchy Teen Sex Comedy, Korean style.
There’s a lot to like about “Sex is Zero”, and at the same time a number of bewildering things to behold. The bewilderment comes at the cost of the film’s laughs, which almost completely ceases after the hour mark, and returns for the final 5 minutes or so, but by then it’s pretty obvious the film has lost its way. Before its drastic transition into unnecessary Asian Melodrama, a curse so many Asian filmmakers fall prey to, the first hour of “Zero” is played strictly for laughs. The first 30 minutes is the film’s funniest because, in all likelihood, writer/director Je-gyun Yun jammed all the gags he had thought up before writing the screenplay into those moments.
Act Two is a bit more forced, relying on comedy that doesn’t always work. One of the forced comedy bits concerns one of the female friends who throw herself at one of the male friends, oblivious to the fact that he’s gay. The gag doesn’t work, mostly because even a blind man could tell that the guy she’s trying to maneuver into having sex has no interest, even before he, er, locates the wrong orifice. There are other bits that don’t work, but to give it credit, the film does maintain a steady level of comedy for most of the first hour. Which leads us to…
The Third Act. The dreaded Third Act, where all screenplays lose their way, and Asian film directors start getting bored with the genre they’ve been doing for the first hour, and decide to skip over to a completely new genre just for variety’s sake. Such is the case here. The movie’s last 30 minutes concern Eun-hyo, who discovers that she’s pregnant with the BMC’s love child. Of course the BMC doesn’t want anything to do with it. Here, the hapless Eun-shik enters the picture, hoping to win Eun-hyo’s love by standing by her side. And so we’ve effectively switched over from a movie about porn, masturbation, homemade Viagra, and kissing with a mouth full of vomit, to Full-Blown Tearjerker.
Even if you were used to this sort of sudden shift (Je-gyun Yun actually does the same thing in “My Boss, My Hero”), there are issues to take with the movie and its creator. How does one approach a film where a character, after having an abortion, nevertheless dances in competition until she is nearly bleeding to death in the bathroom afterwards? Especially after we’ve seen another character eat a sandwich made up of rat poison and his dorm mate’s semen? The Overwrought Melodramatic Moments gives the film, to be sure, a strange dichotomy. And in a movie where every male character has masturbated at least once, I could have done without the subject of abortion. Talk about a mood killer!
One of the secrets of making a successful Teen Comedy is having a likeable male lead, a pretty female lead, and a big jerk for a villain (after all, he must be really offensive in order for us to fully enjoy his inevitable comeuppance). “Sex is Zero” goes 0 for 3. Male lead Chang Jung Lim (“Beat”) plays his role like he’s 2 blows to the head short of full-blown mental retardation, and female lead Ji-won Ha (“Phone”) is very bland throughout, barely able to keep from looking completely bored. Even the BMC isn’t all that villainous, and in fact the doctors and nurses who perform the abortion on Eun-hyo are much bigger villains, and they only show up for a few minutes.
“Sex is Zero” is not for the faint of heart. Its first 30 minutes is all about grossing out the audience, with the main character being the center of almost every embarrassing gag. Of course most of the gag are obvious and you can see it coming a mile away; for instance, when you see a character masturbate (again with the masturbation!) into a pan, cook it, and then toss it into a sandwich and leave it lying around, is there any doubt that the hapless hero will pick it up and take a big juicy bite with that stupid grin on his face? If anything, the film telegraphs its Big Gags way too soon, so much so that when a character is doing something sexual (usually alone), you’re never surprise when someone walks in on him.
On a final note, I’ve noticed a strange trend in recent South Korean films about teens. In many of them, the male leads seem to show overt signs of mental deficiency. First there was “My Sassy Girl”, then “Volcano High”, and now “Sex is Zero”…
Je-gyun Yun (director) / Je-gyun Yun (screenplay)
CAST: Ji-won Ha …. Eun-hyo Lee
Chang Jung Lim …. Eun-shik Jang
Jae-yeong Jin …. Ji-won Kim
Chae-yeong Yu …. Yoo-mi Han