Dir: Juhn Jaihong Korea, 2007. 88mins
Beautiful, whose original title in Korean is the mellifluous 'Arumbdabda', is often confused and sometimes, especially near the end, even downright silly, but it's never wholly without interest. Its first-time 30-year-old director, Juhn Jaihong, is a protege of Kim Ki-duk, the prodigiously productive and internationally-known Korean director. In fact, Kim Ki-duk is variously listed in press materials as being the screenwriter of the film or as merely being responsible for the 'idea' behind it.
This tale of a gorgeous woman who is victimized by her own beauty is the kind of high-concept, exotic, and easy-to-digest 'art' film that should do well on the festival scene, and even in DVD and ancillary markets, but whose theatrical possibilities are less robust.
The startlingly beautiful Eunyoung (Cha) can't keep men from instinctively flocking around her. Even her best friend's boyfriend is so smitten that, after becoming completely obsessed, he rapes her so as to 'make his mark' on her, a chilling notion. A policeman assigned to her case also falls for her, to the point of basically quitting his job so that he can follow her around like a puppy-dog, 'protecting' her.
For a while, Eunyoung tries unsuccessfully to eliminate her beauty by eating everything in sight, followed by a regime of bulimia and anorexia. (This film may hold the cinematic record for number of vomiting scenes.) Next she tries the slutty bar girl look, which gets her into even more trouble. Toward the close of the film what has heretofore been treated (probably inadvertently) for laughs ends tragically in a hail of bullets.
Eunyoung's beauty is the hinge around which everything else in the film turns. Even in the middle of the credits we see her face suddenly pop up in close-up for no other reason than to make viewers 'ooh and aah' over her, like all the male characters in the film. In fact, close-ups predominate throughout the film as though to suggest that facial beauty is in fact the most important thing about a person.
Thematically speaking, the film purports to be the illustration of an ancient saying a fat girl tells Eunyoung, to the effect that 'beauty is destiny'. It's also almost a textbook illustration of the influential film theory, derived from feminism, that all cinema is set up for the delectation of the male spectator, or, as the jargon has it, for the male gaze.
Yet there's a way that the material is presented that might raise legitimate suspicions. The film carefully offers us someone to dislike, a slovenly, overtly sexist police officer who tells Eunyoung that she was also at least partly responsible for her rape by being so beautiful and dressing provocatively. The effect of this clearly dislikable character however, is to present the other obsessed male characters (the rapist, the nice policeman) as somehow innocent, even noble, because their desire for her is so overwhelming that it simply can't be controlled.
The rapist at one point shouts at her: 'Your beauty raped me!' Needless to say, this theory is quite a distance from the gentle, desire-denying Buddhism that Kim Ki-duk offered up in his best-known film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring.
This story of beautiful women and lovelorn cops bears more than a passing resemblance to Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express, but falls far short of its subtle nuance.
Kim Ki-duk Film
Sponge Entertainment (Seoul)
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