I Haven’t Done Anything screened at the London Korean Film Fest 2023. This is a transcript of my on-stage introduction (plus programme note)
Park Sang-min’s previously co-wrote Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018) with its director Jung Bum-shik. Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum was horror told in the found footage format, where its intradiegetic camerawork, reportage style and other reality effects brought an immediacy and intensity to otherwise hoary old haunted house tropes. Park’s latest – and his directorial debut – is I Haven’t Done Anything, which adopts the presentational mode known as screenlife – a subcategory of found footage where everything seen purports to be different texts, e-mails and video files found, scrolled and switched through on a computer screen. It is a format familiar from Zachary Donohue’s The Den (2013), Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended (2014), Timur Bekmambetov’s Profile (2018), Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching (2018) and Rob Savage’s Host (2020), and as you can probably glean from those titles, screenlife is most closely associated with the horror and thriller genres. So you may be either disappointed or relieved to hear that I Haven’t Done Anything is not in fact a horror film, but rather a funny, ultimately cynical satire, showing the way that the internet is a rabbit hole in which we can all readily, even willingly, lose our grip on reality. This is an exposé of a post-truth virtual world, where users can wear handles as masks, where perceptions can be easily manipulated, and where everyone is desperate for hits and likes – which is to say for attention, inclusion, maybe even income. Here the medium is very much a part of the message.
In the screenlife movie, of course, cinema itself is just another screen – and I Haven’t Done Anything has another reality effect up its sleeve. For it joins a small group of films that get movie stars to play something like themselves, and something like their best-known characters, in rôles that are too big to be mere cameos. Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) did this with John Malkovich, Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here (2010) did this with Joachim Phoenix, and recently Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) did this with Nicolas Cage. Korean cinema has recently got in on this action too. Pil Gam-seong’s 2021 thriller Hostage: Missing Celebrity featured genuine movie megastar Hwang Jung-min playing himself, even as he is abducted for ransom by a gang of vicious criminals and has to become like the heroes he has played on screen to escape the situation alive. In fact that is a typical pattern in these films, where characters who are closely identified by name and backstory with the actors who play them are then placed in fictive scenarios that challenge their embodied claims to veridicality, and show up not just the similarities, but also the differences, between actors and the rõles that they play. These films allow postmodernism to run riot, while repeatedly revealing reality itself to be an artificial construct.
The star of I Haven’t Done Anything is Oh Tae-kyung, a real actor playing himself – although do not worry if you have not heard of him, or if he lacks the big-name recognition of Malkovich, Phoenix, Cage or Hwang, as a YouTube clip near the beginning of the film will succinctly – and only slightly fictively – summarise his career for you. It is rather important that he was typecast early as a child actor, frequently relegated on big or small screen to side character, protagonist’s son or bit part, and then largely excluded from mainstream acting because of his bulging eyes, a symptom of hyperthyroidism. Desperate to reinvent himself, Oh starts a YouTube channel – and given that his best known rôle was playing the school-aged version of protagonist Oh Dae-su in Park Chan-wook’s OldBoy (2003), Oh capitalises on this by refashioning himself for the channel as ‘Lil Dae-su’, for which he dons the antihero’s characteristic goatee, suit and hair, and even reenacts to camera Oh Dae-su’s most iconic scenes: eating dumplings with chopsticks, devouring a live octopus, fighting a gang with a hammer in a corridor (even if the gang is a group of school kids, and the hammer is a toy).
These scenes are funny, but also tinged with tragedy. For the only way that Oh can draw attention to himself and his own channel is to retreat into becoming someone else, in effect stealing a different person’s schtick and thunder – and while Oh Tae-kyung really did play the young Oh Dae-su during a few flashbacks in OldBoy, the rôle will forever be associated instead with Choi Min-sik who, as the adult Oh Dae-su, dominates Park Chan-wook’s film. It would seem to be Oh’s curse always to be playing second fiddle, and to bask in the shadow of someone else’s success.
Once he has enough subscribers, Oh starts broadcasting live, and offering to become his followers’ ‘slave’ and to do whatever they suggest – and this leads to the film’s central premise. For a subscriber known only as Bulldog, whose computer screen it is that we have been watching right from the start, gives Oh an online challenge, offering a substantial monetary reward for its completion. There is a mysterious, mute young man (Kim Jae-heung) who stands every day in Seoul’s Cheonggye Square holding a banner that reads, “I haven’t done anything” – and Oh is tasked with discovering this man’s backstory.
As Oh tries to get to the bottom of who this man is, and what his sign might mean, and finds both himself and the young man becoming viral sensations, Park Sang-min takes us on a wild, twisty journey through the fickleness of fame and the malleability of media. Yet in an online world where people are often famous just for being famous, the phrase “I haven’t done anything” resonates with the emptiness of celebrity – and if Oh is once again destined to take a backseat and to stay on the sidelines, the irony is that Park Sang-min rewards the real Oh Tae-kyung with a bona fide leading rôle that is a total triumph.
Like most online influencers, the character Oh is in equal parts mesmerising and repellent for his shameless stunts and self-publicity. I Haven’t Done Anything may start off as an in-your-face, sometimes irritant portrait of one man’s desperate, relentless pursuit of fame and followers, even if that pursuit entails both his constantly making a constructed, clownish version of himself the not-always-welcome centre of attention, and his willingness to embrace the notoriety that is the inevitable flipside of popularity. Yet in the end everything comes together ingeniously, exposing the user, the viewer and indeed contemporary models of cultural consumption, as the ultimate butt of Oh’s extended pranking and play for publicity online – and irl.
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Programme note: Essentially playing himself, Oh Tae-kyung is a washed-up actor who capitalises on his past role as the younge r version of Choi Min-sik’s protagonist in Park Chan-wook’s OldBoy (2003) to create the online persona ‘Lil Daesu’ for his new YouTube channel ‘Oh!’ where he promises, in his own inimitably schlubby way, to solve subscribers’ problems. When user ‘Bulldog’ offers a monetary reward if Oh can discover the backstory of a mute young man who every day in a public square holds up a placard with the message “I haven’t done anything”, the former thespian turns his channel, and ‘Picketing Man’, into a viral sensation.
Much as Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018), co-written by Park Sang-min, was ‘found footage’, this is ‘screenlife’, confining itself to clips on a computer’s or phone’s screen, with the medium part of the cynically satirical message on the emptiness of celebrity and the malleability of mediated reality.
strap: Park Sang-min’s screenlife satire makes the medium its message on the emptiness of celebrity and the malleability of reality.
© Anton Bitel