SKY BLUE

Just before the Wachowski brothers flushed the remaining cool out of the sagging skin of The Matrix, they presented one, final, seminal moment of filmic genius. It was the scene where the battered Nebakanezer rose above the clouds to bask, oh so briefly, in the high altitude sunshine of our ruined world. It’s a beautiful, visceral scene – made all the more poignant as a result of Neo’s recent blinding – and yet it also acts as a motif for a bleak opposition of natural beauty versus environmental destruction. An increasingly common sci-fi theme admittedly, but if there’s one recognisable moment in the recent history of fantastical film that could easily encapsulate the creative drives of Wonderful Days, it would have to be this.

      As with The Matrix, the world of this visually impressive Korean anime is a gloomy, dystopian affair perpetually shrouded in cloud. Beneath its steely sky a divided society lives on the brink of collapse. At its heart Ecoban – a metropolis of technocrats living in utopian luxury. Beyond the city’s glowing walls and opulent interiors, however, live the unwashed masses who provide the labour and raw materials to sustain the status quo. In this sense Ecoban is very much the iconic city of many a sci-fi film- an imaginary perfection bought at a price. But a city alone, without a cast to give it life and a sense of scale, is little more than an architectural curiosity. And so, at the heart of Wonderful Days, a love triangle weaves its destructive way between the degradation of the outlands and the clinical corridors of Ecoban.

      On two of the three sides of this trinity sit Cade and Jay – police-like Enforcers cosseted in their cosmopolitan life. On the remaining vector, Shua – ex-childhood friend of the above – and a protagonist sworn to bring the ruling hegemony to its knees. Voiced (in the English speaking version at least) by a gravelly Mark Wordan, Shua is the outsider epitomised. He is taciturn, brooding and has the ability to move freely between the realms of Ecoban and the outlands – also known as The Marr. Working alongside the crippled genius Dr Noah, he treads a precarious path between his secret love for Jay and his motivation to destroy everything she believes in.

      It’s an extremely compelling set-up, made all the more so by the impressive union of CGI and traditional cell animation – imagine sweeping stretches of desolate highway being swallowed by lovingly rendered speeder bikes. But it’s a compulsion that, for the viewer, quickly reveals itself to be transitory and hopelessly shallow.

      Character and plot construction are sketchy at best, and while the film does a good job of setting its stall out early regarding central themes of environmental destruction, love, betrayal and duty, it then strikes an incredibly minimalistic path when interconnecting these elements. There is a sub-plot that revolves around a young boy Shua has taken under his wing. But the intriguing thread of the boy’s involvement with a gang from The Marr soon becomes overshadowed by the gang itself and their, subsequent, involvement in Dr Noah’s scheme.

      Such narrative tactics are indicative of a lack of motivational distinction that runs throughout the piece. You meet these wonderfully realised characters who appear to be loaded with history. Then they talk briefly about what they’re going to do, and then they stop talking and you’re left with this nagging, resurfacing “why” that never seems to get properly resolved.

      No more so does this become evident than with the climactic, slo-mo confrontation between the three central characters. While not wanting to plaster spoilers all over this review, the film’s conclusion does involve a shift towards a sense of grand ineffability – something Japanese anime, with its traditional resistance to easy closure, excels in. Here, regrettably, the fine line between fuelling audience speculation and leaving them baffled, falls heavily into the latter camp. Let’s just say, if you were to get an import version of the film – ensuring, of course, that you weren’t already fluent in Korean – and then remove its subtitles, you’d probably generate a better version of events than the ponderous bullshit eventually proffered here.

      The real malaise of Sky Blue, at the end of the day, is the fact that it’s derivative. As highlighted earlier, themes of environmental collapse and flawed utopias and rebels fighting against tyranny are all extremely well trodden within the genre. The result of choosing to only replicate these themes – rather than reshaping the parameters in some way, shape or form – leads to a pervading sense of ‘been there, seen that done better elsewhere’.

      Let’s not be too callous, though. It is a beautiful film and there are many, many scenes that will strike huge, unsettling resonances within the audience. It’s just that overly ponderous beauty can some times appear… well, dull. So, while not wanting to lump Korean anime in with an earlier western appraisal of Japanese cinema – i.e. that of brilliant imitation at the cost of innovation – Sky Blue does promise great things to come while not quite delivering in itself. A favourable forecast for the future of Korean sci-fi animation then? Let’s just say the outlook is definitely bright.