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Original Title:

South Korea 2008


Jeon Jae-hong

Cha Soo-yeon
Lee Cheon-hee
Choi Myeong-su
Kim Min-soo
Lee Min
Bae Yong-geun
Lee Chang-min
Jo Seok-hyeon

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Story: Kim Eun-yeong (Cha Soo-yeon) is beautiful. Not only do people repeatedly mistake her for an actress out on the street, she also has countless admirers. But her beauty is also her curse. Nobody seems in the least bit interested in her personality. And because nobody sees past her looks, she remains single.
One day one of her most persistent suitors breaks into her apartment and rapes her. He turns himself into the police shortly after but it's too late - the experience was too traumatic, for his actions to be able to relieve any of Eun-yeong's pain. Her beauty has only brought her misery, so she decides to get fat. However, she soon discovers that bulimia is the fastest way to her goal of becoming ugly.
The policeman Eun-cheol (Lee Cheon-hee), who also handled her case, can't stand to watch Eun-yeong destroy herself and is always at the right place at the right time to save her. But soon even the policeman has succumbed to a strange obsession and starts following Eun-yeong's every step...

Review: In some respects "Beautiful" is a Kim Ki-duk film and in other ways it definitely is not. First-time director Jeon Jae-hong was in charge of directing even though Kim Ki-duk wrote the script and produced this picture. His name pops up just about everywhere in the credits and still the film seems filtered in a way - by Jeon. Some things are strangely absent from "Beautiful", for instance the visual symbols so typical for a Kim Ki-duk film. And the few symbols introduced turn into problems for the film. This is, of course, not a first for Kim's work. For "Beautiful" takes place in an artificial world. The characters are never lifelike, but are instead intended to portray distorted extremes of our reality. The director did this in order to better incorporate his ideas on screen but for the audience, this approach seems to put more distance between it and the characters. We are never able to identify with the characters and their actions merely coax us into rolling our eyes. The result: frustration...

"Beautiful" addresses a theme also already present in "Time"; the obsession with beauty in Korea. Eun-yeong is a woman blessed with natural beauty that becomes her downfall. She is approached by people all day and scores of men want to go out with her. And that brings us to men. When Eun-yeong falls victim to a dizzy spell in the middle of the street, a ream of men suddenly show up to help her and start arguing who gets to take her to the hospital. Even the doctor is attracted to Eun-yeong in an unnatural way. There isn't a man NOT interested in Eun-yeong and the most unbelievable part is: every one of them tries to get close to her in the most straightforward manner possible. Whatever happened to the average guy who is so insecure when he happens upon a gorgeous woman that he needs to muster up his courage before he's even able to speak to her? He doesn't seem to be present in the parallel universe that is "Beautiful". In this place, the wish to own something one can never have evolves into an obsession that is destined to destroy the object that was coveted in the first place.

Object is exactly the right word for Eun-yeong, for she and generally all the women in this film are portrayed as objects. Kim Ki-duk has been suspected of adding a misogynist element to his work more than once before, but this time the critics might just have a field day. Here we even have violence against women. But we still can't be sure who gets off worst in the end, men or women?
Is it possible to dive into a world in which all of the characters, without a single exception, are totally sick? No, we wouldn't be able to take a film like Jeon Jae-hong's/Kim's film, one that incorporates so many different diseased characters at one time, that seriously.
Policemen who sympathize with rapists? Friends that you've known for over 10 years just leaving you sitting alone in your own puke? At some point it just all reaches a point where it becomes absurd. Besides, Cha Soo-yeon may be pretty, but she isn't all that convincing as the angelic, otherworldly beauty the director would like to illustrate.

The methods by which Eun-yeong tries to disfigure herself are also quite absurd. She frantically struggles to get fat only to eventually turn to bulimia. Is there no easier way to do the job? A knife for instance? What about letting a surgeon have his way with a scalpel the other way around for once, headed towards disfigurement instead of beauty? Just going bald might even prove miraculous! But maybe Eun-yeong's delusions deserve to be criticized least, her actions are after all the result of her trauma after being raped and as such might still be a logical plot line.
But what about the policeman Eun-cheol? What defines his character besides the everpresent obsession? Nothing. The complete flatness of the characters in "Beautiful" is tragic and the complexity of the plot never comes across to the viewer. Eun-yeong and Eun-cheol's relationship especially could have become something fascinating.

Beauty can lead to obsession but also to alienation. It remains a mystery, however, why the audience has to experience this firsthand while watching the film - I'm sure it wasn't intentioned by it's creator's. Is it really that difficult to create an opening for the audience to interact with difficult themes and abnormal characters? Just one figure to identify with would be enough. Someone with positive and negative traits. Not just a symbol or a 3-D model of a negative emotion that creates an invisible wall between the film and the audience. We come to feel that Kim has frustrated us once too often on the same count. But maybe Kim Ki-duk realized he was running around in circles himself and that's why he let someone else direct his new screenplay. "Beautiful" is definitely an art-house production but many critics seem to overlook the fact that this label isn't an instant guarantee for quality. Jeon's picture is frustrating, cold, estranged and isn't able to convey its message because of this. The interesting ideas and appealing piano soundtrack aren't enough to hide this fact. "Beautiful" is altogether disappointing.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)

Translated by: R.S.
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