The Death Vendor

An encounter with a street vendor prompts a young boy to confront his own mortality in this multilayered memento mori from the Tokyo University of the Arts

A line drawing of a child looking worried, staring straight forward, as other children look up. Other images are overlaid in red pencil, of fish hooks, a fish, a cut of meat, and what look like dead grassses.

Film (like all art) has always featured attempts to grapple with mortality, but the topic seems to have been especially front and centre in the last few years. Netflix horror series Midnight Mass, Pendleton Ward's Adventure Time follow-up Midnight Gospel, subtle sci-fi flick After Yang, drag requiem Swan Song and Nicolas Cage vehicle Pig are all vastly different films, but they share an underlying struggle to reckon with loss, death, and acceptance. Something in our collective unconscious seems especially primed for these conversations right now, which probably a healthy impulse, if also a little worrying for what it says about our current moment.

Jinkyu Jeon's student film The Death Vendor is another entry in that list, and brief as it is for taking on a topic as complex as mortality, it takes full advantage of animation's visual versatility to explore the subject. To pick up on something that The Windshield Wiper director Alberto Mielgo said in his Oscar acceptance speech last night, "Animation is an art that includes every single art that you can imagine." Asserting that animation for adults "is a fact" (an obvious truth regardless of how the Academy treats the medium), he went on to ask his audience to call animation "cinema," although we'd take it a step farther. Animation is a medium that has evolved alongside cinema, but with even greater potential for stylistic and artistic innovation, and Jeon's film is a great example.

The film opens on a field of plants drawn in the crisp, fine-lined style of botanical illustrations, lingering briefly on the image before having the plants suddenly wither and dry, revealing the skeleton of a bird. The bird suddenly returns to life, and so do after-images of the plants, before a flash of bright-red anatomical illustrations burst onto the screen, transforming into the sad, wide eyes of a child. The shocked young boy has made the connection between a street vendor selling chicks, and the fate that awaits the young birds. As the camera pans from his face to the birds at his feet, the red pencil imagery returns, highlighting the boy's skeleton underneath his skin. It's an unsettling way to show the force of his realization—that death is in all life, even his own.

Jeon's use of overlapping imagery is an impressively effective way of showing how a new understanding of reality can change how we see the world, and one that shows the power of blending illustration and cinematic editing, but it isn't his only visual trick. It's a film full of memorable shots. One sequence packed with visual echoes is especially impactful: a zoom-in on the boy's eye, with a reflection of buzzards circling his pupil; a shot from the perspective of the chicks, with children and buzzards arranged in a sinister kaleidoscope; an overhead shot with the shadows of the birds and the doomed chicks circling in unison. Through it all, the flashes of red, like an intrusive thought that refuses to go away.

There's no tidy resolution to The Death Vendor. How could there be in a five-minute film about one of humanity's deepest fears? Instead, we're left with ambiguous imagery hinting at the boy's connection to the chick, and more mysteriously, the vendor's feelings about his role in all of this. If it seems difficult to believe that so much complexity could be packed into a first-year student film, keep in mind that Jeon wasn't exactly a newcomer when he started at Tokyo University of the Arts. He'd already earned an animation degree from the Korea National University of Arts and spent three years at Seoul's Studio Shelter before heading to the renowned institution. Even still, the stylistic and thematic leap between his early efforts and this film is undeniable.

THE DEATH VENDOR

dir: Jinkyu Jeon
syn: One day a boy encounters a street vendor who sells chicks.Even the boy knows these birds will die very soon. To his eyes, the man is selling none other than death itself.

1st year work 2019, Tokyo University of the Arts, Graduate School of Film and New Media, Department of Animation

Director:Jinkyu Jeon
Music:Modanqing Zhu

Sound Design:Chihiro Nagashima
Producer:Koji Yamamura

2019