With “Beautiful” having been written and produced by grumpy Korean auteur Kim Ki Duk, known for searing explorations of the darker recesses of the human condition such as “Time” and “Breath”, viewers should have a pretty good idea up front of what they are letting themselves in for. Indeed, although the film was actually directed by someone else, namely first time helmer Jeon Jae Hong, the fact that he has already earned himself the nickname “Little Kim Ki Duk” speaks volumes for its content and themes. Sure enough, the film is a combinative affair that sees Jeon proving himself a worthy protégé by challenging viewers with a disturbing, though bleakly amusing tale of psychological trauma and shocking self-abuse.
The film is centred upon Eun Young (actress Cha Soo Yeon, recently in “For Eternal Hearts”), a gorgeous young woman whose beauty brings her nothing but trouble, usually in the form of unwanted male attention. After one of her many stalkers (played by (Kim Min Soo, also in “Time”) follows her home and subjects her to a brutal sexual assault, he tells the police that it was actually her beauty which raped him. The poor woman’s mind begins to deteriorate, and she blames her looks for her ordeal, deciding to try making herself first fat and then thin. All the while she is watched over by policeman Eun Cheol (Lee Cheon Hee, “Bar Legend”), whose concern and desire to save her from herself slowly degenerates into sexual obsession.
As can probably be gleamed from the above synopsis, “Beautiful” does not exactly make for cheerful viewing, and is reminiscent of Kim at his most acerbic, recalling the likes of “Bad Guy” and “The Isle”. It covers a number of similar themes, offering a twisted social critique of societal obsessions with physical appearances and taking a bleak approach to the modern battle between the sexes. The latter is particularly disturbing, playing upon male attitudes towards women, which here seem to be uniformly misogynistic, with most men either trying ruthlessly to possess her, or as in the case of other policemen, saying that she is to blame for the rape herself. Unsurprisingly, the proceedings are frequently difficult to watch, becoming increasingly uncomfortable from the early scenes of Eun Young being surrounded by hordes of sleazy admirers, through to her horrifying experience at the hands of the creepy rapist, and finally to her mental breakdown and attempts to alter her body. The film is sexually charged without being graphic, though it does feature several bursts of bloody violence as it spirals out of control towards the inevitable tragic ending.
Cha Soo Yeon turns in an amazingly brave performance as the tortured protagonist, managing to add real emotional depth to a role which is frequently wordless, and undoubtedly being deserving of some kind of award for the sheer number of vomit scenes she has to retch her way through. The film is clever in that whilst Jeon encourages sympathy for Eun Young, presenting her as a vulnerable woman badly in need of assistance, at the same time he implicates the viewer in her suffering. The film has an unsettling air of voyeurism throughout, keeping Eun Young at a distance, and making it clear through her constant fear of being watched that the viewer is perhaps not so different from the other characters who spy on her and who derive enjoyment from her torments. As a result, the proceedings have a certain aggressive intelligence, forcing the viewer to evaluate their own role, and, even more disturbingly, to identify not so much with Eun Young herself as with the increasingly crazed Eun Cheol.
Thankfully, the film stops short of all out nihilism and cruelty thanks to a certain streak of pitch-black humour. Whilst there is nothing in the way of overt comedy, it is difficult not to laugh at some of the scenes where Eun Young switches from stuffing herself full of food to trying to make herself sick. Through this, Jeon and Kim are able to work in some effective social criticism, although of course, the events which follow make the viewer feel all the more guilty and culpable.
Although this is unlikely to make “Beautiful” any more palatable for more sensitive viewers, or indeed anyone seeking a more traditional slice of drama, it does give it a certain sense of maturity. A brilliantly subversive and darkly intelligence piece, it combines the best of Kim Ki Duk’s early and latter periods, being both incredibly grim and somewhat abstract, and is a must see for any fans of his work. Whether Jeon will develop a cinematic voice of his own in the future remains to be seen, but for the moment he certainly stands as an interesting director, and one whose vision sits quite comfortably with that of his mentor.
Juhn Jaihong (director) / Juhn Jaihong, Ki-duk Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Su-yeon Cha … Eun-young
Myeong-soo Choi … Detective Kim
Cheon-hee Lee … Eun-chul