Gabriel Ponniah, Editor In Chief
ATX Screen Scene
There’s something going on in Korea.
For the last few decades, the US has slowly integrated Asian fare into its media diet. Japanese anime has nearly outgrown its status as fringe-interest among American audiences, and the otaku of the States surely now rival Japan’s in number. South Korea, meanwhile, has contributed the well-documented Korean Wave phenomenon. The global popularity of Korean media—K-pop, K-dramas, Korean cinema—has increased significantly since the 1990s. From “Gangnam Style” to BTS, from Parasite to Squid Game, the force of the K Wave is felt even at the highest echelons of western culture. Enter: PotenDogs.
This project comes to AniFab by way of director Dahl Lee, whose past such credits stretch back over 20 years. Lee is clearly adept in the short episodic space, having created literally hundreds of bite-sized episodes across a handful of shows. Even PotenDogs, submitted as a 134 minute feature, is described on the project’s website as 36 episodes at 7 minutes apiece. Understanding the project’s origins proves helpful in evaluating where it succeeds as well as where it falls short.
PotenDogs builds a vibrant fantasy world grounded in contemporary struggles. In combining elements of Planet of the Apes and Black Panther, the filmmakers introduce us to our articulate canine heroes, Podognet, as well as their resentful counterparts, Goldfang. The former work towards peace between dogs and humans, while the latter takes the ‘Killmonger’ approach, vowing revenge for centuries of mistreatment, even keeping humans as animals in a role-reversal reminiscent of the 1968 sci-fi classic.
Years of experience yield a polish that outshines most of its festival competitors, as the fluid animation, sprawling cast of characters, and sizable runtime make for a fully realized product. Years of Korean citizenship, too, contribute heavily to PotenDogs’ themes. The marginalization of dogs in Korean culture is the primary subject of the project’s scrutiny, but classism—the bread and butter of favorite son Bong Joon-ho—receives a similar treatment. Whether allegorically between the human and canine characters, or directly in the disparity between humans of differing backgrounds, the poisons of pronounced economic stratification seep into the minds of South Korean artists and American audiences alike.
The context of PotenDogs’ production, however, goes both ways. The same animated serial experience that creates its workmanlike sheen works against the project as a film. It’s ambition is epic, but at times it tends to overreach. For example, the musical component, while well executed in individual moments, feels out of place for a story like this, leading to some awkward diegetic confusion. An overreliance on defecation humor seems in bad taste—no matter the intended audience. Pacing and structural issues rear their heads. The stakes have a television sense about them and fail to escalate at a rate required of an engaging three-act story. While on the micro scale, the animators have a clear knack for character, building subtext through mannerisms and action as well as detail-oriented set-piece design, on the macro, the movie feels its length. At more than two hours, it was the longest film to screen at AniFab.
But these certainly didn’t dissuade festival-goers nor the AniFab jury, as PotenDogs received honors for Outstanding Achievement in Animation, as well as Direction in Animation for Dahl Lee. Lee’s acceptance speech, which he recorded ahead of time to be played at the awards ceremony, was among the emotional highlights of the festival experience. He used his time to detail the struggle he and his fellow filmmakers have faced in distributing PotenDogs, citing the alleged anti-human messaging as the grounds on which the South Korean government has sought to stifle their film. The speech resonantes with the dark side of the Korean Wave—a state mandated cultural machine which subjects artists to draconian restrictions and carefully culls the Korean image from a wider base of content, selecting only that which serves the state interest and discarding the rest. Something’s going on in Korea, but it’s in the West where that something might proliferate.