[K-FILM REVIEWS] 아름답다 (Beautiful)

“Magic Mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”

Let's say it's a particularly rainy day, and you're in the mood for existential silliness. What if Snow White had a beauty complex, tried to eat junk food to escape from the mental jowls of her predicament, and all the seven dwarfs were closet sociopaths waiting for the right moment to rape her? And telling they love her right after in passionate rage, of course. “Ha! It's your beauty that raped me into oblivion, I shouldn't be blamed!” They're just horny fools after all, right? Eun-Young (Cha Su-Yeon) would be ecstatic if beauty really was in the eye of the beholder, but she's denied such pleasure on a daily basis. Annoying schoolgirls stop her by the day, asking her if she's some celebrity, maybe Jeon Ji-Hyun with acting skills and without silly Hollywood prospects, or something. The moment she gets home, she needs to face the mountain of flowers and letters coming her way, as if she was the second coming. Hell, even her best friend's boyfriend feels like a wanderer in the desert every time he looks at her and compares, as if sipping the last few drops of water from his bottle while a truck full of Evian passes by. Life calls her beautiful, but when she closes that door she's just alone, with the pressure that comes from not being considered a person, just a pretty toy, a pair of designer clothes with a few hundreds bones attached to it. And, admittedly, some flesh as well.

But then, the inevitable happens. Apparently, some of the folks who check gas appliances around apartment complexes aren't really there just for that. Not only Eun-Young is brutally raped, she's mentally assaulted by the detective who should be comforting her (“you women even wear skirts in winter now, what do you expect?”), and she needs Eun-Cheol's (Lee Cheon-Hee) help to get to the taxi driving her home safely, before hordes of drooling wolves use the excuse of her poor health to check if it's really a Wonderbra after all. Ah, Eun-Cheol. So not all men are horny sons of heroines from a 70s hostess film, after all. He treats her like a person, it seems. He respects and listens to her. He protects her from the disgusting pigs frolicking around her, following her day and night. Near home, at the park, at the hospital – where a doctor, promptly named Lee Sang-Han (“Strange”), tries to touch where he really shouldn't – just about everywhere. Sometimes you feel as if he's not really there to protect her, that there's something else waiting in the shadows. Maybe she's too beautiful to leave alone....

If you look at the history of Korean Cinema, you can notice something interesting about film debuts. No, it's not the age old mantra which sees first timers debut with a very personal film, to slowly find their footing as the years go on. It's much more systematic. Before the democratization of the country and the “industrialization” of the film business, most directors would grow under a veteran's wings for a few years, in turn giving the same opportunity to younger up and comers when they had established themselves. You could literally draw a genealogy of such relationships, for instance linking Choi In-Gyu in the 30s and 40s to Jung Chang-Hwa, then to his pupil Im Kwon-Taek, and finally the man who grew under Im to become quite a fine director, that Kim Dae-Seung of 혈의 누 (Blood Rain). A little bit of time and you could make dozens of those connections. On the other hand, the post-'96 boom the industry went through was mostly fueled by directors who studied overseas and made a mark through short films, changing in many ways how the industry approached those film debuts.

After all, we probably should thank 2001 이매진 (2001 Imagine) if we have a 지구를 지켜라; bow to the heavens 지리멸렬 (Incoherence) gave us 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder) and 괴물 (The Host); and certainly be glad Ryu Seung-Wan had a break in between eating ramen noodles on Park Chan-Wook's 3인조 (Trio) long enough to dream about the crazy shorts of 죽거나 혹은 나쁘거나 (Die Bad), preparing us for years of goodness from the action kid. Shorts helped fuel those fantastic ten years, but the situation started to change once the market was ready to support a larger number of productions. Newcomers would now get tagged with a “기획영화 (project film),” usually stylish horror flicks with very little love for the genre, directed by young up and comers who couldn't wait to throw all they learned at the screen hoping something would stick. Hell, Won Shin-Yeon even made wigs move by themselves. Still, some of them still do it the old way. Or, interestingly, a mix of the two, just like Jeon Jae-Hong.

A look at his CV and you'll smell the career path of many directors from the mid 90s boom: high school in Manhattan, at the prestigious school formerly known as LaGuardia Arts (which now has a ridiculously long tag I won't bother with); college at Webster, in business administration. Then, from 2004 and his repatriation up to 2007, Jeon shot a total of 14 short films, with 물고기 (Fish) from last year even invited to Venice. But the man didn't just spend time shooting shorts, he worked as assistant director for none other than Kim Ki-Duk, on his 시간 (Time) and 숨 (Breath). You'd think it's hard to pick up anything from a director who works as fast as Kim does (in those two film's case, 17 and 10 shooting days). Except shooting fast and on the cheap, I guess? Yet, a quick look at his debut 아름답다 (Beautiful), and fans of the maverick director turned festival-darling will be pleased. At least some of them.

If you take Kim Ki-Duk's career apart, you can visually draw a rift right around 2003, after the release of 해안선 (The Coast Guard). Up to then, Kim's films were filled with that rugged emotional power and visual panache that made him stand apart, especially with 섬 (The Isle), 수취인 불명 (Address Unknown) and his best work 나쁜 남자 (Bad Guy). They enraged many female critics (a little on the feminist side, but not all of them), with some even stamping a 666 on him and hiding back inside the church of filmmaking with a “proper sociological slant.” Then, things started to change. Some feel his evolution shown right from 봄 여름 가을 겨울... 그리고 봄 (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring) brought a more polished Kim, more confident and subtle in his touch. Some (like, uhh... me) feel he completely lost the raw power of his earlier works, became just another arthouse director, and that most of his newer material smells of Orientalism and is sugarcoated to an annoyingly festival-friendly level. Oh well, c'est la vie. Uh? The issue then, as I hinted at when I introduced the film a few weeks ago, was which Kim Ki-Duk this film would resemble. It's easy to predict fans of Kim's entire career will be pleased with Beautiful anyway, but those who miss the unpolished, uncompromising, straight in your face strength of his earlier works will find something Kim's current product sorely lacks. Fire.

The thematic tone is right about the same: alienated people, a world full of extremes punctuating their situation, and the act of hurting themselves, to portray the kind of emotions they wouldn't be able to convey otherwise. Think of it as a parallel-universe Time meets the evil sister of 미녀는 괴로워 (200 Pounds Beauty), lensed by quasi-Bad Guy cinematic sensibilities. Eun-Young's slow descent into the pits of hell and madness, from her getting raped to hurting herself with food in the hopes of losing the burden of beauty, brings back to the surface themes Kim essayed for most of his early career. The key then would be what Jeon is able to bring to the table which doesn't come straight from Kim Ki-Duk's hands, whether that's his “past life” or not. The original story was written by Kim, and the film shows more or less the same shortcomings of his early work: realism or even verisimilitude are sacrificed to present an extreme world, and more than three-dimensional characters you're getting social figments of a single, albeit strong, message.

But, then again, it also has the same strength, both emotional and visual. It pulls you in, never lets go despite the way too conventional dialogue, the improbable events, and the whole over-the-top feel of it all. Carefully scrutinized it could even feel ridiculous, and some (female) critics already hinted at the offensive, for even remotely attempting to reflect on the connection between raping and love, but in a film that's so much obsessed over unpolished explosions of emotional rage, they seem like fitting flaws, just like Bad Guy or The Isle had shown. What Jeon brings to this film is a much more focused sense of flow, like a fairy tale with horror-like sociological tints. You can see every single frame of the film drives home the central message, but there's very little here that feels unnecessary, unless you're scared by what joking with food can cause (then again, if blood and sex are kosher, this should be as well).

It's one big fireball of energy, which is something that was sorely lacking in recent Korean cinema. And, despite resembling his “master” to a fault, sometimes this pupil felt even better at his own game.

The reason this film was worth waiting for, at least personally, didn't sit one bit with the little factoid about Kim Ki-Duk. It had to do instead with the cast, or at least the two leads. Cha Su-Yeon and Lee Cheon-Hee are in fact two of the most promising, explosively talented youngsters in the business, although fame is still lagging behind. The career of Lee saw a very slow start, with a past as a model and very little to show for until his turn in the underrated 태풍태양 (The Aggressives). He was surrounded by young talents there, from On Ju-Wan to Cheon Jung-Myung, but the most mature performance was his. It didn't prepare for what was about to come, but it did show there was something promising about this youngster. Then, the last songs of Hanseong started their descent into legend. 한성별곡 正 (Conspiracy in the Court) is not only one of the best sageuk ever made, it turned a dying genre upside down, for once telling something about us today, while showing things from our long gone past.

We will get the chance to sing that masterpiece's praises soon enough, but one of the biggest surprises there was Lee himself. He didn't just do well, he was simply scary in there. The fire in his eyes, the confident delivery that would have sageuk veterans running in shame, the way his charisma penetrated the screen like a sharp blade. It was a sensational, eye opening performance, and for good reason it granted him much more acclaim than he probably expected, despite the low ratings. Lee can't help but play second fiddle here, but it's a tremendously solid performance, highlighting how much he's grown in the last three-four years. Saying second fiddle might sound like a complaint, but not when you're next to a volcano of talent like Cha Su-Yeon acting like this was her last film on earth.

Save for a few supporting roles between 2004 and 2006, the real debut of this 1981-born actress was with last year's lovely 별빛 속으로 (For Eternal Hearts). It's not necessarily the acting (excellent as it may be) that's interesting, but rather the versatility she's shown in just a two year span. She was a sweet, innocent girl in For Eternal Hearts, a decadent femme fatale on the TV noir 개와 늑대의 시간 (Time Between Dog & Wolf) and is something completely different in Beautiful as well. Some critic noted how she's not really what passes on as beautiful nowadays in Korea, but that misses the point. The casting here worked almost to perfection because it's the charisma she projects that does the work.

Eun-Young looks sexy, decadent, scared, tired of living, devious, paranoid, frail and crazy all rolled into one, every single facet as convincing as you can possibly imagine. She's not likely to get any award for her performance here (unless it's a festival) because it's a no name indie flick which barely registered a blip at the box office. But, save for Kim Yoon-Seok in 추격자 (The Chaser), hers is the best performance of the year so far, and promises incredible things for the future. Now she just needs to understand how talented she is, and not waste it all on silly choices. But I'm sure she knows that already, looking at her upcoming projects.

Let's get the warnings out in the open: it's likely to offend some people, it's not exactly realistic or completely logical, and if you can't handle cardboard cutouts moving around two leads to convey a message, this is not the film for you. But, just like Kim's early work, this is an atomic bomb of raw power, with a tremendous central performance and an insane finale (which I won't spoil, but you can imagine). It's not pretty to watch all right, but definitely beautiful.

RATING: 7.5

아름답다 (Beautiful)
Director: 전재홍 (Jeon Jae-Hong)
Screenplay: 전재홍 (Jeon Jae-Hong)
Original Story: 김기덕 (Kim Ki-Duk)
D.P.: 김기태 (Kim Gi-Tae)
Music: 노형우 (No Hyung-Woo)
Produced by: Kim Ki-Duk Film, Sponge
Int'l Sales: Sponge
88 Minutes, 35mm 1.85:1 Color
Release: 2/14/2008
CAST: 차수연 (Cha Su-Yeon), 이천희 (Lee Cheon-Hee)

[Order DVD Here]
16:9 OAR, DD5.1, En/Kr Subs
Extras: Audio Commentary, Short Film "Calling You", Interviews, Deleted Scenes, Berlin Featurette, Poster Shoot, Trailer

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