Dir: Aubrey Lam. China. 2014. 85mins

The Truth About Beauty

Mainland beauty Bai Baihe makes a likeable, if rather implausible, lead in Aubrey Lam’s cosmetic surgery rom-com, but her endearing central performance can only obscure some of the thematic inconsistencies in a muddled, though occasionally funny screenplay.

The Truth About Beauty remains an endearing and good-natured watch, thanks in large part to Bai Baihe’s versatile performance.

Ronald Cheng adds to the star appeal of this lightweight but enjoyable affair, although the film’s confused message about how far women should go to succeed in the workplace may hinder the film from enjoying significant cross-cultural appeal.

In present day Beijing, in a job market flooded by millions of over-educated fresh graduates each year, plain-faced Guo Jing (Bai Baihe) struggles to get noticed by potential employers. When her superficial boyfriend dumps her, she invests her scholarship cash in plastic surgery in the hope of securing a job.

Her procedures pay off, landing her a prized position at a top Korean firm, where she attracts the attentions of womanising boss Raymond (Ronald Cheng). However, Jing quickly develops a cosmetic surgery addiction, as the pressures of promotion and the fear of being discovered by her peers, compound her self-doubt and insecurities. Before long she has had her eyes, nose, chin and breasts augmented, until she is almost unrecognisable.

Produced by Peter Chan and written and directed by his regular scribe Aubrey Lam, The Truth About Beauty attempts to tap into the same demographic that made the Tiny Times films so successful, with its portrayal of a young village girl making good in the big city. Lam highlights the stark contrasts between a luxurious new Beijing (itself subject to an extensive ongoing facelift), now equipped with cutting edge technologies and designer brand fashions, against the homespun truths and backward-thinking population of the countryside when Jing heads home post-op to a decidedly mixed reception. 

In a cultural climate where cosmetic surgery is becoming increasingly accepted - and even required - for young women to succeed in a competitive male-dominated workplace, Lam’s intentions seem to be in the right place. Jing’s growing obsession with changing the way she looks is portrayed as neurotic and slightly ridiculous, but then Lam portrays the fruits of Jing’s labours as arguably worth going under the knife for. Rather than promoting a message of acceptance and inner beauty, the film almost goes so far as to laugh off Jing’s surgical exploits as inevitable obstacles between her, success and happiness.

However, despite the script’s inability to commit to either side of the argument, The Truth About Beauty remains an endearing and good-natured watch, thanks in large part to Bai Baihe’s versatile performance. Jing makes the well-worn journey from ugly duckling to elegant swan with consummate grace, though Bai’s beauty is evident to viewers right from the get-go. The actress nevertheless displays a keen understanding for physical comedy and nuanced restraint, creating empathy for Jing even as we disagree with her actions.

Clearly an opportunity was missed to make a more pointed criticism of the plastic surgery industry and the pressures on single professional women in Asia today, but as a comedic odyssey following one woman’s efforts to prevail against the odds, the film works. That said, Ronald Cheng’s love interest remains sorely under-developed, meaning that Jing’s romantic success always proves a secondary goal, while little issue is made of Jing’s best friend (Zhang Yao), who disappears even deeper down the rabbit hole of cosmetic self-improvement.

Lam keeps the tone light and the pace brisk, employing bursts of animation, fluid camerawork and a chirpy score, ironically ensuring the film maintains an attractive surface to distract from its notable lack of depth or social commentary. This may prove a stumbling block for more demanding international crowds, but the film should raise a smile with local audiences drawn by its star appeal and hot-button content.

Production companies: We Pictures, China Film Media Asia Audio Video Distribution Co., Edko Films

International sales: WE Distribution, sales@wedistribution.com

Producers: Peter Chan Ho Sun, Jiang Defu

Executive Producers: Peter Lam, Alan Zhang Lun, Bill Kong

Screenplay: Aubrey Lam 

Cinematography: Jake Pollock

Editor: Derek Hui

Production Designer: Zhong Cheng

Music: Alan Wong, Janet Yung

Main Cast: Bai Baihe, Ronald Cheng, Zhang Yao, Guo Jing Fei