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.