Writer and director Jo Min-Ho got his start as a graduate of the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA), and working as part of the production team for directors Kim Young-bin and Lee Min-yong, with whom he co-scripted A Hot Roof (개같은 날의 오후, 1995). He caught attention with his 2002 debut Jungle Juice (<정글쥬스), a tale of ice cream and drugs, before following it up in 2006 with Les Formidables (강적). Both films were about people trying to get out from underneath the wrong side of the tracks, and his most recent film to date depicts a group of Koreans who manage to get about as far removed as possible from their lot in life.
A group of eight people across South Korea are selected as contestants in a brand new Survivor-style reality show to be shot in the Australian outback. The nature of the contest remains mysterious, but the prize is 10,000,000,000 Korean Won (which converts roughly to $1,000,000 USD). The lucrative prize and the chance for a trip Down Under buoys the diverse group on their voyage to the Western Australian desert, but things turn dark when one of the contestants turns up dead. The group soon realises that the stakes are much higher than a million dollars, and that the mysterious Director (Park Hee-Soon) knows all...
There have already been a number of films dedicated to the hypocrisy of "reality" television, highlighting the voyeuristic apathy that viewers have in watching televised acts of real violence. Where Series 7 created its own highly realistic mockumentary-style satire of reality TV, and the Brits parodied their own obsession with Big Brother by throwing zombies into the mix (Dead Set), Jo Min-ho's A Million (10억 or 10 eok, 2009) is purely played as a taut thriller. It doesn't take long for us, and the contestants, to realise that something is rotten in the state of Denmark (or more accurately, Western Australia), but it is a foregone conclusion that the deal is just too good to be true. The real tension lies in the human drama, and the extremes that people will go to stay alive.
Realism and accuracy are not necessarily important to the functionality of A Million. If it is to be believed, Australia is filled with places that border oceans, deserts and jungles in the one spot, and cheetahs (yes, cheetahs) are just some of the wild animals that can grab you at any time. However, with the exception of the odd gratuitous shot of a kangaroo bounding across the dunes (no doubt included for the thrill of the domestic Korean audience), A Million is a story that could be set in almost any place, and with the exception of the ubiquitous cameras and YouTube streaming, it could be any time as well. The film has a great ability to draw audiences into the middle of its world, much as the Director draws in his contestants, and leave them stranded and wondering where to go next. Characters die off at a rate of knots, and the deaths and hook-ups that happen along the way seem almost arbitrary: but that's life, isn't it?
Shows like Survivor and their reality brethren continue to push our voyeuristic tendencies, especially the ones that contain 'soft violence' (akin to 'soft porn' in a way) of well-padded battling teams fighting for some arbitrary goal. The continued desire for humans to achieve their 15 minutes in the spotlight or simply win more things to add to our steady consumer existences continues to overlook the obvious: for someone to win, others must miss out on something. While A Million never tries to plumb the depths of the philosophical implications of reality programming, it will undoubtedly make you think twice before you put your hand up to go to a remote island and compete for cash money.
A Million may not be the vicious indictment of reality television that some of its predecessors have been, but it is not really meant to be either. Although using the format as an excuse to put this group of people in the same place, it becomes a serious (and often bloody) exploration of human behaviour. The landlocked island scenario provides us with a microcosm of the entire human civilisation - a serious Gilligan's Island if you will.
NB: This review originally appeared on DVD Bits. It has been replicated here as part of the Korean Blogathon 2011.
Richard is a Marketing Assistant for KOFFIA and the KOFFIA Blog Editor. He can be contacted via email on firstname.lastname@example.org