It’s interesting that the first foreign-language film I see at the VIFF is an animated film. The Korean film Beauty Water is definitely something else.
The film begins in a production studio for a television network. It starts with a conversation between the actors and actresses and conflict arises. In the background is Yaeji, the make-up artist. She’s overweight and has average looks. She doesn’t get involved in any arguments. She’s just there listening in. The actors and actresses then come to her when they get their make-up done. Even if the prima donna actress berates her looks, she carries on as if nothing is happening. After work, she goes home to live with her parents. The parents have always been there for Yaeji from her days pursuing ballet as a child to her present career.
One day the producers of an advertising show think Yaeji is perfect for an advertising campaign. It’s to do about a cooking gadget. In that advertisement, they will show Yaeji eating. She agrees, but she is completely embarrassed when she later learns of all the mocking internet memes on social media. Embarrassed to tears with her body, she decides to fix things for her. She saw an ad for a product called Beauty Water. You wash your face in the water for 20 minutes and you peel away the old skin for a new beautiful face. But it’s not simply peeling away the skin. It’s peeling away the thick excessive flesh.
Yaeji orders a bottle and uses it on her face. The result leaves Yaeji happy that she’s now beautiful, but it’s not enough. She wants enough Beauty Water to change her whole body. She begs to her parents for financial assistance, but would be the equivalent of four months of their income. Yaeji begs to them, believing she’ll be nothing without that Water. They agree and the bottles of Beauty Water come in time to change her whole body.
The end result is both a face and a body of a beauty perfect to get noticed by television producers and the rich and famous. She rushes out and buys expensive stylish clothes from Seoul’s Gangnam District. She attends a party for the rich and famous over in Gangnam. She wins the notice of a production company of Jihoon. She also wins the attraction of a certain handsome man she noticed at the party.
However she is insecure. She’s afraid the effects of the Beauty Water won’t last. She also still has images of her past self she wants to forget, but reappear out of nowhere. With the money she made in her new modelling career, she’s able to afford more Water and soaks in a bath of it. Unfortunately, the phone dies before the alarm is to go off at the 20-minute mark and the Water goes deeper into her flesh leaving her almost depleted. She begs to her parents for them to give her some of their flesh. They agree by bathing in the water and giving their removed flesh to Yaeji.
Despite her new flesh, Yaeji’s body looks hideous. Nevertheless she still plans to meet up with the man she met. She tries to hide the effects from the man while she’s over at his place. She even goes to a woman who helps her return the form of her body, or at least make it human-like. However when she returns back to his place, she makes a shocking discovery. She sees identifications of other women. Did they also use the water? Did he kill them? She tries to escape him, but it’s of no avail. She learns the awful truth of him. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say she’s still alive in a way you won’t expect.
This film is a film that’s a good example of the common style of Korean animation. Most of you may already familiar with the style of anime from Japan and a lot of the grim and even bizarre stories and images it showcases. Korean animation is also similar in its way of showcasing bizarre and grotesque imagery and bizarre storylines. This film is good in showcasing the bizarre style of Korean animation that could just rival anime. However it’s not just for shock and gore. It has a story to say.
The main message of the story is to show the nations obsession with beauty and youth and how it’s actually quite damaging. If you’ve noticed in the last twenty years, South Korea has emerged in the world’s eyes with its entertainment industry being seen as a force to be reckoned with. We already have K-pop phenomenons like BTS, 2ne1 and BigBang. All of them are young with picture-perfect looks, clothes and bodies. The television and film industry in South Korea is also obsessed with youthful beauty.
You can tell director Cho Kyung-hun has something to say about this film. South Korean society in recent decades as it has worked to become a world power has become a nation that values beauty, wealth and prestige. There’s a lot of plastic surgery young women in South Korea undergo. There’s also news of many women in South Korea having eating disorders. This film has even been advertised with a tagline: “In a society as obsessed with physical appearance as modern South Korea, ugliness is a fate worse than death.” I think that’s the point Cho is trying to make. He’s trying to show how damaging the obsession with physical beauty is in Korea, but doing it with the bizarre style that is Korean animation. Very rarely is there a film that tries to both freak you out and get you thinking.
The story itself is creative. It aims to get one thinking while at the same time aiming for the thrills and shocks. Already the first shock is near the beginning when you see this Beauty Water make one not simply peel off skin but flesh! That’s what the Water does and that’s why Yaeji uses it on her whole body, even though it’s intended for just the face. It’s hard to notice a flaw in the story. I admit I don’t understand Asian animation styles. There are times I wonder if it did get the message across or did it rely too much on the shock imagery.
Beauty Water does more than just show an animation style that’s common in Korea. It also has a message to tell about beauty and how a society values it almost dangerously. It conveys the message in a very bizarre style.
Just when I thought I saw all the movies I had to see for this year’s Oscar season, I learned The Great Beauty is around for a limited time. Now it wasn’t a serious Best Picture contender but it is a favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Picture category.
The film begins with Jep Gambardella having his 65th birthday party. Jep started his fame by writing a novel only to turn to writing cultural columns and becoming a top socialite in Rome since. He has been a popular fixture in all of Rome with holding the most expensive and most debaucherous parties on his apartment overlooking the Coliseum. The birthday party he has is well-attended and well-celebrated however Jep feels a sense of unfulfillment. The sense of unfulfillment continues after he meets face-to-face with a performance artist he’s about to pan, only for her to tell him off. It continues even further when he meets up with the man who married his first love from back in the early-70’s. He reveals to Jep she just died and she always loved him.
It’s then Jep decides to take a break from the party scene and retreat into a trip of knowledge. He takes in aspects of life in the many places he goes to: weddings, funerals, magic shows, visiting relics of Ancient Rome and the Renaissance, and even viewing the wreck of the Costa Concordia. He discovers from others about their passions and why it matters to them, even if they don’t become rich and famous from it. He visits artworks and learns from them and their lives. He meets with one friend who does a disappearing act with a giraffe. He witnesses the daughter of a rich friend of his paint out her frustration and anger with an abstract painting on a huge canvas. He meets a man whose father took a picture of him every day of his life and has the pictures plastered around a Roman palace. He even meets a 104 year-old nun who has cared for the sick throughout her life and still holds the same amount of faith.
However life does take some changes along the way. He does come into conflict with some of his rich friends when he questions their lives. He gets involved with friction with his mentally-ill son to the point his son commits suicide. His artistic friend decides to leave Rome after 40 years because the inspiration is no longer there. He never learns about why his first love left him as her husband threw away her memoirs.
The film is a very deep film as it reflects on a man who ‘made it’ and cashed out into the world of socializing and column-writing. It focuses on his reflecting on what could’ve been for him. The constant question from others on why he hasn’t written his second book adds to that lingering feel. The memories of him with his first love adds to the wonder of what could have been. Often when he sees the passions of others–whether it be a rich girl painting out her anger, a friend doing a magic trick, or even an elderly nun making every effort to live out her faith– he gets a sense of why people live out their passions. It’s a common theme in which many people feel once they look back on their lives often with regret and that lingering question of ‘what if.’
Paolo Sorrentino did an excellent job of directing and co-writing this original script with Umberto Contarello. I’m not too familiar with Sorrentino’s works but I know that he has a good resume for a young director. Three of his films have been entered into the Cannes Film Festival and two have been nominated for the Palme d’Or including this one, which lost to Blue Is The Warmest Color. He has even done an English-language film with Sean Penn entitled This Must Be The Place. His next productions as Rio, I Love You which is a continuation of the I Love You series of movies and In The Future which is slated to star Michael Caine.
Toni Servillo did an excellent job playing Jep in all of his dimensions. You could really sense the feelings inside of Jep that Tony embodied excellently. The supporting acting was also excellent, especially from Carlo Verdone as Romano and Sabrina Ferilli as Ramona. There were also great performances of significance and scene stealing from Giovanna Vignola as the secretary with Dwarfism and Giusi Merli as the elderly nun still full of spiritual passion. There were other great qualities to the film including excellent cinematography featuring the best of Rome and all of Italy. Another addition to the film was the mix of music from modern to classical. The classical pieces really stood out as they presented many scenes best and added to the theme of the film.
I have to say The Great Beauty adds to the greatness of Italian film that has been prevalent in past years. I know how Italian film really came to the attention with directors like Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini coming to exposure many decades ago. Italian film seemed to be continuing towards greatness and influence in recent classic films like Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino and Life Is Beautiful. However it took a bit of a back seat in the past ten years as there hasn’t been a film or director in that time that dazzled the world by storm. Paolo Sorrentino and The Great Beauty looks to change that. Many critics have said it resembles many great Italian films of the past. It has won many awards in film festivals and even beat out Blue Is The Warmest Color for wins at the European Film Awards and the Golden Globes. It looks to be a heavy favorite for the Oscar as there doesn’t seem to be any other film to challenge. Even if there was, it would still rank as one of the top films of the year.
The Great Beauty is an excellent cinematic reflection of an aging socialite. Its deep story set against thematic scenes and beautiful cinematography makes it one worth seeing.