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Original Title:

South Korea 2009

Drama, Thriller

Lim Woo-seong

Chae Min-seo
Park Sang-yeon
Kim Yeo-jin
Kim Hyun-sung
Yoon Ji-hye
Kim Yeong-jae

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Story: Bad dreams cause the young woman Yeong-hye (Chae Min-seo) to remove all meat from her apartment. She doesn't just become a vegetarian, she even can't stand the smell of meat on her husband Gil-soo (Kim Young-jae) anymore. Her family is worried and her father even tries to force her to eat meat again. But this only leads to a suicide attempt of hers. Yeong-hye seems to be completely removed from reality and in need of a therapy. When her husband leaves her and she sits alone in her apartment her sister Ji-hye (Kim Yeo-jin) starts to worry a lot about her and asks her husband Sang-min (Park Sang-yeon) to look after her every now and then. Sang-min is an artist and asks Yeong-hye a favor. He needs a model on whose naked body he can paint some flowers. Yeong-hye agrees and the painting on her body at first even seems to have a therapeutic effect. However, Sang-min feels attracted a lot by his wife's sister and he is only one step away from making a big mistake.

Review: This dark drama dives into the mind of a mentally instable individual in a very disturbing way and does so thanks to a dense atmosphere, taking us on a journey into the abyss of loneliness and other-worldliness. "Vegetarian" ist a psychological drama that enchants you with its pictures and a mood you really seldomly get to see elsewhere. It is a dark spell put on the viewer, which can also make a certain depressiveness linger on in the viewer even after the credits roll. Because of that this movie is certainly only for a distinguished audience, but those who are able to completely take in the mood of the film will be rewarded with an extraordinary drama that may leave some questions unanswered but also gives you the feeling to finally see something different and new.

The story of the film is based on Han Kang's novel of the same name and revolves around a woman's sudden averseness of meat. But what really lies behind this change? What dreams make Yeong-hye become a vegetarian? Is this actually just a symptom of a mental illness? Latter one seems to be the case. However, in many other respects the story leaves us without an answer. Director Lim Woo-seong shows in his debut work that vegetarians are seemingly only accepted in Korean society when they are monks. But eventually the movie doesn't center around Yeong-hye's eating habits but her constant sinking into a swamp of apathy and loneliness which trigger remains unknown.

Yeong-hye's marriage doesn't really seem to be a fulfilled one, yet it also proves to be difficult to be more accurate about this as we don't get to see the young woman as a normal individual before. Has she always been that way? Is her mental confusion a process that already started in her childhood days? A flashback into her past, in which her violent father kills his dog because he bit Yeong-hye, gives us some material to work with. But it still remains difficult for the viewer to put together a whole picture with the little information he gets. Nonetheless, the enigmatic nature of this character and the film as well even force us to demonstrate our willingness for interpretation.

Actress Chae Min-seo ("Scary Hair") seems to have lost some extra pounds for her role and because of this she looks alarmingly skinny. She masters her role outstandingly well in the respect that she never really seems to be present. Her mind often roams another world which only she is able to see. Yeong-hye's apathy inspires the artist Sang-min who eventually paints flowers on the naked body of the woman. Here the director's good eye for aesthetics proves to be an asset. After that there are also some revealing sex scenes that also don't come without certain aesthetics. Sang-min himself is an artist and therefore mentally burdened as well. Yeong-hye has a certain force of attraction on him and her mental state seems to be contagious in a sense. The things he does are mistakes and he knows it even before putting them into action. One scene in which he bursts out in tears on his steering wheel is proof of that.

The extremely dense and dark atmosphere is captured by the sharp and mostly claustrophobic pictures. Oftentimes they even drive all the air out of you, that's just how claustrophobic they are, and still there are also some beautiful pictures like those when Sang-min paints the flowers on Yeong-hye's body. Jeong Yong-jin's piano-heavy soundtrack even the more underlines the feeling of being lost in a grim dream. Yeong-hye's feet touch the floor of this world less by the minute and she more and more disappears into another one. The ending remains open as expected but if you have made it to that point, as "Vegetarian" has a generally slow pacing, you will not find that to be a problem. As with Kim In-shik's "Hypnotized" this is an unusual and hypnotizing psychological drama that may cause depression and therefore should only be watched with care.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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