What if Finding Nemo was made for an adult audience?
That’s basically the premise of Swimming to Sea (or Padak in Korea) and in many ways, it’s also a satire of Disney films – with a cute, childlike character; a sympathetic antagonist; a slick villainous type character, and multiple musical numbers.
Thankfully, this movie also avoids many of the pitfalls of adult Disney-inspired satirical media – which are often reliant on sex jokes and profanity. This movie is dark, gritty, and just sad. Plus, the musical numbers make you feel like you’re on a drug trip. They’re something that cannot be described – only experienced.
This South Korean film follows a wild Mackerel who ends up in a tank at a sushi restaurant. The other fish in her tank all come from farms and spend their days playing dead to avoid getting eaten by the human customers. Their only sustenance comes from other ill or dead fish that the owner drops into their tank – and as a way of staving off starvation, the winner of the tank’s nightly “riddle” (more of a trivia question) gets to nip the tail of another. The riddle is given by Old Master Flatfish – who claims to be from the ocean.
The Mackerel’s first escape from the tank fails and earns her the nickname Padak Padak or “Flappy” in English. During her time in the tank, she manages to bond with a fish nicknamed Spotty – who is young and naive. He is the only one inspired by Padak Padak’s stories and wants to see the ocean.
Things, unsurprisingly, don’t go very well.
The film packs a lot into its short 78-minute runtime. Though it wasn’t intended to be so – this movie is probably one of the best ways to convert somebody to vegetarianism. Or at least turn them off of sushi for a good long while. (Thank goodness that my favorite type of sushi is veggie rolls.)
Surrealism and Realistic Animation
If you thought Pixar films aimed for accuracy – then you need see this. This movie makes the fish look actually realistic. Not just cartoony fish – but fish. You know aside from the fact that they talk…they’re pretty life-like.
Everything we see is mostly from the fishs’ perspective, so the humans are animated differently so they look monstrous and frightening. We see close-ups of them chefs preparing the fish and of people consuming the fish – and it’s all shown with an aura of horror. We see them getting cut up, chopped, fried, boiled – etc. It’s absolutely frightening.
And these are real sushi preparation techniques in the film. We see even better how the fish view these in the dream sequences – the humans have knives for hands and are tall, thin, and creepy looking.
It’s a weird, sad, realistic look at the way the fish are kept – most are shoved into tanks where there’s not enough room, like gumballs in a machine. They can’t move and can barely breathe. There are no plants or gravel or any kind of stimulation. They don’t get food often.
And Tank #3 where Padak is kept, is not much better than the others. There are fewer fish – but all different species are in there. But that means they’re more likely to get eaten. I guess also maybe they’re the premium fish and more expensive than those packed in like sardines.
I suppose it doesn’t really matter in the end. It’s a sad life – they may as well be dead already. They’re living in hell either way.
WTF Musical Numbers
The most horrifying scenes are definitely the musical numbers. But in a good way. Going in I didn’t expect this to have musical numbers, but I wasn’t disappointed by the fact it was. Each one has a different art style – all in 2D animation, a shift from the CGI style of “real life.”I thought this was a really good idea- especially since each song is from the perspective of a different character, so we really got to explore their psyche.
The creepiest and saddest is the first song – “Nightmare,” where Padak is drawn as simply as possible, believing everything that had happened to her was a nightmare.
The twinkling, lullaby-like music only adds to the sadness of the number. She’s just swimming around – so happy as a voice happily sings about how lucky she is that she’s okay.
Then it gets unusual….changing to a kind of paper cutout stop motion style type of animation while keeping the same light tune with creepy lyrics and then keeps changing throughout the piece.
One of the most inventive and saddest moments of this song is where simply drawn human figures who have a knife for a hand on one side, stand in a line methodically cutting up fish. Together their counters and bodies make up the teeth of a giant, dead-looking zombie fish. I had to watch the scene several times in order to really take it in.
There are only about three musical numbers in the entire movie – all of which are quite good. I think it’s a little odd that they chose to put musical numbers into this film in the first place, part of me wants to say it was making fun of how Disney movies always have musical numbers –but in truth, I don’t think that explains it.
It’s an obvious artistic choice, and I think the film is all the better and more interesting for it.
The Poor Fish
In Finding Nemo, the fish are kept in a nice tank -clean, with lots to do, presumably plenty of food, and without a fear that any day could be their last. While Nemo needs to escape Darla – all of the other fish, Gil aside, are pretty happy and content. They care for Nemo and immediately accept him into their pack, awed by the fact he’s from the ocean.
In this movie, however, being from the ocean affords Padak no special privileges and it’s every fish for themselves. We see her struggle with this idea and it lends a lot of sympathy to her character. The fact that she willingly sacrifices her one chance at freedom because Spotty gets blocked shows just how different she is from the rest.
There’s some strong characterization in this short film. The thing that stands out the most about our protagonist is her refusal to eat the other fish.
Dying fish are food in Tank #3 – and Padak seems apprehensive about it, even though presumably she had no issue eating in the ocean. It’s an interesting choice for the wild fish not to give into nature while the other farm fish, happily engage in eating whoever gets tossed in. But Padak eventually gives in.
When she gets dumped into the decorative, clean pet fish tank – full of clownfish – she eats all except one in a disturbing and ravenous rampage. At that point, she isn’t even thinking.
Most of the time the tank mates are just acting like animals when they eat…because that’s what they are. They don’t have a choice and they know it – so they eat what they can get. Even if it’s sometimes each other.
But nipping somebody’s tail or mauling a dead stranger is different than eating your dying friend.
When Spotty fails to rally the snow crabs, his dying destroyed body is thrown back into the tank. Only the eel eats him, while the rest are unsure of what to do. They don’t want to eat their friend – and it’s this moment that allows the other tank members to become fully realized characters.
And it gives Master Flatfish, the push he needs to start redeeming himself. And poor Padak goes crazy with grief when that happens, blaming Flatfish for it. This movie makes you feel bad for these fish, who are just trying to delay the inevitable.
The film doesn’t milk this moment, and it’s horrifying to watch. You haven’t been expecting that Spotty will die, nor are you expecting his carcass to be dumped back into the tank.
And the restaurant owner and patrons don’t get punished by the fish or karma.
The movie doesn’t present what they’re doing as inherently wrong. It doesn’t present any grand questions and it certainly doesn’t give any solutions. It’s basically, what would it be like being at a sushi restaurant if you were a fish.
They don’t totally understand what’s going on or why. They don’t even totally understand the true horror of the fate that could await them. And we as humans, don’t know why we’re here or anything about life, except we’re fated to die one day.
Master Flatfish is horrified when he’s put on the counter to be chopped up and he just sees what’s happening to all the other fish. Somehow he manages to escape to the ocean. Poor Padak’s fate is shown in full gory detail. She’s still alive – albeit barely – when she’s served to a customer, ikizukuri style. The rest of the fish are left to their fate.
There’s no rhyme or reason as to who gets eaten and who doesn’t. Just like in real life, it doesn’t always make sense as to who lives and dies each day. It’s unfair and that’s that.
Though it’s a depressing message, it’s still presented well in the film I think certain points and aspects could have been expanded on, and I wish we got to see a little bit more about what Padak’s life in the ocean was like. But overall, it’s a very interesting watch.
And that’s the scoop.
Year of release: 2012
Length: 78 minutes
Director/Writer: Dae-Hee Lee
Voice Actors: Hyen-jee Kim, Young-jun Si, Young-mi Ahn, Kyeng-soo Hyen, Ho-san Lee