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South Korean action film Fabricated City is perfect for Inception fans

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And maybe it’s all a dream?

Courtesy of Cj Entertainment

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. The following review comes from the New York Asian Film Festival.

Fabricated City, directed by South Korea’s Park Kwang-Hyun, opens with a scene within a scene, a fabrication inside a reality. That reality comes crashing down just as quickly as viewers acclimate to it, revealing a third fabrication. By the end, the situation has gotten even more complicated, raising the question: which reality was true to begin with? Fabricated City is perfect for fans of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. In the same way, it leaves viewers guessing — but perhaps slightly less confused. Maybe it’s actually all a dream. Maybe it’s all been fabricated.

What’s the genre?

Weird, Inception-y, action-packed thriller with a side of heartfelt friendship and redemption.

What’s it about?

The film opens with a superhero-blockbuster-worthy bang, as the camera flits through a dazzling car chase and a wild shoot-out, giving glimpses of protagonist Kwon Yoo (Ji Chang-wook) and his loyal followers, who wear masks and leather outfits, and have oddball names like “Mr. Hairy.” Kwon chooses to sacrifice himself in the crossfire, saving Mr. Hairy by eating a mouthful of bullets. That opening scene feels a little hollow, as it’s unclear what these guys are fighting for, or why anyone should care. Kwon seems to have died from his wounds, even though the film hasn’t neared the 10-minute mark yet.

Then the film jumps back to Kwon’s real life as a lonely kid in an internet cafe, as he says goodbye to his virtual friends and logs off the game he was playing. A few baffling scenes later, however, Kwon Yoo has been framed for rape and murder, and consequently stripped of every asset he has. He loses his home, contact with his single mother, his basic human dignity, and, of course, his games and the friends he’s made through gaming. This is definitely not where the plot initially seemed to be headed.

Kwon Yoo begins to approach the remains of what’s left of his life with desperation. When he’s thrown into solitary for the umpteenth time after bearing the brunt of gang bullying, he attempts suicide by biting his own wrists. But just when he’s about to give up, a sliver of hope shines through his dreams, and he decides to fight his circumstances. This time, though, the stakes are clearly defined.

What’s it really about?

Alienation, gaming culture in South Korea, the flaws of the criminal justice system, girl power, slapstick gangster comedy, and perseverance against the odds.

Is it good?

It just might be the sleeper hit of the last five years. The story blends action and personal loss into a constant stream of stimuli. And when the angst in the prison scenes dies out, comedy trickles in. In one scene, a black couple gives Kwon Yoo a ride after he fixes their car, and their loving bickering is enough of a distraction for Kwon to escape the cops’ notice. Their pantomiming when Kwon doesn’t signify he can speak English is hilarious, and they even give him their “shit car” as thanks for being a great passenger. In another scene, the film’s villain throws a funny, ironic hissy fit when Kwon hangs up on him: “These damn millennials! So rude! Can’t communicate with these damn millennials!” These scenes liven up Fabricated City’s tragic undertone, ensuring that the film is a healthy hybrid of all popcorn-popping genres.

One running theme in the film suggests that Kwon is an outcast, and that for many reasons, he’s not a full member of society. He’s unemployed and addicted to video games. He has few real-life friends. How can he overcome his impossible circumstances? With the unique combination of his taekwondo prowess and his online followers, Kwon slowly turns the tables, making Fabricated City a satisfying underdog story.

Fabricated City is a more relatable action thriller than most, as it doesn’t rely on fantastical elements or wacky gadgets. Instead, it turns scandalous news subjects like murder and rape into blockbuster material, delivering entertaining twist after twist. It’s a good example of making one character’s inner stakes matter for the entire world depicted, and it moves at a pace that’s comfortable, yet still riveting.

What should it be rated?

It would be PG-13, given the lack of nudity, but one character’s swearing and multiple scenes of intense, cringe-worthy gore bring this film into R-rated territory.

How can I actually watch it?

In the US, it’s currently available on Blu-ray only.