Actress Cha Soo-yeon in a scene from director Juhn Jai-hong's film ``Beautiful''
By Lee Hyo-won
While aesthetic standards vary over time, the desire for beauty and the power of its allure remain unchanged. Countless tales and myths across cultures speak about it, and director Juhn Jai-hong continues this tradition in his feature film debut, ``Beautiful.'' He explores the dark side of this age-old human obsession in a haunting tale about how a woman's enrapturing beauty results in her downfall.
Currently showing at the 58th Berlin International Film Festival's out of competition section, ``Beautiful'' is based on an original story by distinguished director/producer Kim Ki-duk. The film reads like a stark fairytale for adults that is deeply rooted in reality. It takes flight with human desires and fantasies but keeps its feet on the ground with social messages.
The film is ridden with criticism of how rape victims are undermined and offers a disturbing glimpse into eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia nervosa. But it remains highly allegorical; characters are figurative symbols of human values and conditions.
Eun-yeong is a beautiful young woman, but like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, her looks are more of a hindrance than a blessing. Men stalk her and women are jealous.
She is both ordinary woman/goddess, femme fatale/fairytale princess, but above all, a personification of beauty. This is heightened by the fact that actress Cha Soo-yeon (``For Eternal Hearts,'' 2007), while very pretty, doesn't exactly conform to contemporary standards of beauty in contemporary Korean society.
Then there is the beauty's antithesis, a girl friend that painfully struggles by getting a second nose job and expensive haircuts.
But all in all, Eun-yeong leads a relatively content life and values her charms ― until one of her stalkers rapes her. ``I did it because you are so beautiful,'' he tells her. ``But you're worse ― you've raped my heart.'' Traumatized, Eun-yeong curses her looks, and tries to destroy them.
Determined to become obese, she starts overeating, but when that fails, she decides to become unattractively thin. So instead of eating ``cocktails'' with chunks of butter and ice cream with a dash of mayonnaise, she takes diet pills, forces herself to vomit and jogs until she faints.
When her beauty starts fading, however, Eun-yeong is alarmed and tries to reclaim it with gaudy make-up and tastelessly revealing clothes. Nightmares of the rape continue to haunt her, and she spirals deeper into a state of instability and resorts to more destructive behavior.
But our protagonist isn't alone. Eun-cheol, a police officer, has been by her side all along. However, what had been sympathy becomes obsessive love, and Eun-cheol meets a tragic end as he, too, submits to his lustful desires.
He is marked by a complex mix of aggressiveness and passivity ― somewhat reminiscent of Song Kang-ho's character in Lee Chang-dong's ``Secret Sunshine.'' He's a good-hearted guy with kind intentions, but the difference lies in the fact that he is ``bewitched'' by Eun-yeong's beauty, and becomes an extension of Eun-yeong's rapist.
Like the rapist, Eun-cheol walks the fine line between love and lust, and good and evil, and illustrates the loss of innocence. Up-and-coming actor Lee Chun-hee (``A Good Lawyer's Wife,'' 2003) gives a fresh interpretation of a parasitic stalker/guardian.
``Beautiful'' makes a point about the sometime grotesque lust for beauty. Also, the film slaps you in the face with it, leaving you dumbfounded by the horrors of sexual violence while ruminating the elusive nature of beauty ― how it cannot be possessed or abandoned.