Friday, September 14, 2018

Review: BEAUTIFUL Explores the Ugly Depths of Desire

By Pierce Conran

Beauty and obsession go under the knife in Juhn Jai-hong’s debut Beautiful (2008), a clinical observation of desire that was both produced by Kim Ki-duk and based on his original story. Lensed with a scopophilic yet detached gaze, it is more than a little reminiscent of the controversial auteur’s body of work.

A beautiful woman goes through life with the eyes of all the men she crosses fixed squarely on her. Flowers at reception, voicemails on her phone, each day her manifold admirers make themselves known, yet she rejects and quickly begins to fear the unwanted attention. One day, she is almost attacked by her friend’s boyfriend, but after an unknown admirer breaks into her apartment and rapes her, her psyche begins to shatter. At first putting on weight and then swiftly trying to lose it, she pushes herself to extremes in order to rid herself of her beautiful curse.

The themes of physical ideals and male voyeurism are pushed to their limits in Beautiful, a work that explores real issues plaguing a consumerist and patriarchal society through a narrative that is more caricatured than realistic. Though it is meant to be taken as a parable, the simplistic nature of the film does undermine its message. Some scenes can be effective but the overall narrative is repetitive and the film’s style lacks individuality.

Juhn, who was Kim’s assistant director before making his feature debut, brings a slightly more polished sheen to what is typical Kim territory in his debut. With some compositional flare and a few more visual tricks, Beautiful is a more comfortable work to ease into. Yet Juhn’s touch lacks the immediacy and grit that marks the auteur's films.

Where Juhn’s film also runs into trouble is its casting. Beautiful’s characters veer close to the silent archetypices that fill Kim’s works, but the actors employed here fail to breathe much life into their roles. Cha Soo-yeon is certainly striking in the lead, though her looks may not suit everyone’s fancy, but her performance is very thin for a main role. Alongside her as the policeman protector/stalker, Lee Chun-hee also makes for a gormless co-star.

The film’s initial focus is on the covetous attitude of men towards women, particularly in Korea, a country where men can be particularly possessive, often grabbing unwilling girls by the arm to drag them into dank karaoke rooms or god knows where else. This thematic drive, presented as a mixture of social observation and outrage, is where Beautiful is at its most successful. It’s a common theme in Korean cinema, particularly in recent indie films, and while it is exaggerated here, it remains potent.

Juhn would work once more with Kim on 2011’s Poongsan, a more unique work, though not without its own faults, but he separated from the famed cineaste for his third film Gifted. While he attempted to mark himself apart with his most recent effort, the themes, and particularly the oblique extremities he explored, immediately called to mind his mentor. The director has produced an interesting body of work to date, but will he ever be able to crawl out from the shadow of his mentor?


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