Trans begins with a low-angle shot of an open window. It is the view from the classroom desk where Minyoung (Hwang Jeong-in) is currently slumped asleep, and a portal to a wider world beyond the schoolgirl’s confinement to her own adolescent problems. Minyoung does feel trapped. She wakes in a daze to watch two of the class hoodlums (Park Jin-soo, Lee Choong-bae) harassing new boy Nochul (Kim Tae-young) about his artificial arm, and she is perhaps relieved that their aggressive attention has been diverted from her – but then a scream draws the whole class to the window to see, sprawled over a tree trunk opposite, the burnt corpse of Minyoung’s chief tormentor, Taeyong (Lee Yurin).
Bullied and bulimic, Minyoung is considered a suspect in this bizarre murder by the investigating police officer (Bae Yoon-beom). Yet flashbacks will reveal that as Minyoung watches a TV show on brain implants (“What we’ve seen in movies is about to happen in real life”, comments a reporter), and wrestles with how her Christian faith can accommodate the Problem of Evil, she first meets – or perhaps conjures – Itae (Poon Kyung-ho). Itae is a fellow pupil with an electrode implanted in his chest and a plan to manipulate the human brain and to create the first transhuman. He zeroes in on Nochul, whose survival of three lightning strikes shows his special tolerance of electrical surges, for an experiment involving Tesla coils that is designed to bring about a technological singularity and an end to the world as we know it. Itae is a raving psychopath with a messiah complex – an archetypal ‘mad scientist’ in a teenaged body, with a Frankenstein-like fixation on harnessing electricity to create new life – yet there are signs that his experiment has already taken place, and that it is too late for Minyoung, as she loops through its parameters and variations in her head, to do anything which will stop it, or to prevent Taeyong’s death.
The title of writer/director Do Naeri’s feature debut refers chiefly to the transhumanism that Itae longs to accomplish – a transcendence of selfhood through an electrified alteration of the mind onto the next step in evolution. Nonetheless, as storylines repeat and identities, even sexes, merge, one might eventually discern in the word Trans a reference to gender dysphoria, or more broadly to the inchoate, emergent forms that teenagers adopt in their rites of passage to adulthood. The plot here gradually acquires elements of time travel and teleportation, parallel universes, body swaps and meshes of mind and machine (and even cites the Philadelphia Experiment as a model), in what is a dizzying amalgam of brain-bending sci-fi concepts – although there is about as much actual science at play here as in Sogo Ishii’s in many ways similar Electric Dragon 80.000 V (2001). This is the kind of story – ‘anomalous and arbitrary’, to borrow a phrase used repeatedly by Itae – that might be imagined to come straight from the brain of one of its immature characters. Which is, of course, very possibly exactly what is transpiring here.
No matter that Itae’s obnoxious exposition comes across as the rantings of a mad man. No matter that we never understand where Itae gets all his equipment or even what exactly it does. No matter that the plot itself is increasingly irrational and impenetrable. Perhaps no matter even that its Groundhog Day-style circularity starts both to fragment and pall towards the end, and that the CGI is cheap and cheesy. What is important here is that we are witnessing one young woman trying to comprehend a world that is unraveling around her, in what might be regarded either as an insider’s view of apocalyptic change, or just a teenager’s confused perspective on the metamorphosisis of her own developing mind. It might even be that we are being made privy to Minyoung’s conflicted fantasies of revenge and her daydreams of adolescent empowerment, as she nods in and out of sleep at her desk in class (a recurring scene in the film). After all, it is dreams that destabilise identity, collapse spatiotemporal norms and offer an open window not just to the world, but to the mind…
© Anton Bitel