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.
NOTE: This review originally published January 27, 2020 has included many edits done on February 17th after watching this film again.
Foreign-language films have a habit of becoming catchy when you least expect it. This year’s hit foreign film comes from South Korea. It’s titled Parasite and done by renowned director Bong Joon-ho and it’s quite a telling story about the classes.
The Kim family have it hard as they live in a basement shack in a rough area of Seoul. Father Ki-Taek had good restaurant opportunities, but they all folded. Mother Chung-sook used to be a good hammer thrower. Son Ki-Woo is trying to get into a good college and their daughter Ki-Jeong is unsure of her future. They struggle with working menial jobs, have to roam near the windows for free Wifi, have a lot of bugs in their place and sometimes have no choice but to watch drunks urinate outside their window.
Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk visits with him before he leaves for college. Min-hyuk has been working as an English tutor for the daughter of a wealthy Park family. Min-hyuk recommends to Ki-woo he take over and even fake university credentials. Min-hyuk trusts Ki-woo way more than those other ‘drunken college boys’ to replace him in the tutoring job. Ki-woo is able to make a successful forgery and he’s hired to be the English tutor to the Park’s daughter Da-Hye. The Kim family hope to get jobs within the Park household. The Parks are hugely admiring about their 7-year-old son’s drawings and are looking for an ‘art tutor.’ Kim Ki-jeong, the daughter, is able to pose as a student from Illinois under the name of Jessica. Ki-jeong is hired and even able to successfully convince the mother something’s psychologically wrong with the son. Now that Ki-jeong is hired, it looks like there aren’t any more positions. Not unless they get the chauffeur and the maid fired. Which is exactly what the Kims do! The limo driver is ordered to drive Ki-jeong close to her block but without him knowing, she takes her panties off and leaves them to get him framed for having sex in the car. It works and the father Kim Ki-taek is hired as the limo driver. Then there’s the maid Moon-gwang. She’s a good servant, who even served the original tenant of the mansion who was the architect. She makes her allergy to peach aware which is perfect! The Kims shave peaches and throw it when she’s around to get her to think she’s come down with tuberculosis. Moon-gwang has to quit and the mother Kim Chung-sook is hired to replace her.
Although all four have jobs in the Park household, they have to disguise they’re not family. That’s not easy as the Park’s son, Park Da-song, notice they all have the same smell. Also all have to make their exact whereabouts secret to them not just so that it’s unknown they live in the same place, but so the Parks don’t know they live in a rutty area. Soon the Parks leave for a camping trip, which they will be using their own car and entrusting Chung-sook as the maid and leaving the others off. As the Parks are away, it’s perfect opportunity for the Kims to have their own party at the place. And they have every reason to. They all made it!
However during their fun on a rainy night, something unexpected happens. They have a visitor at the house. It’s the former maid Moon-gwang. She said she left something important in the bunker. The Kims didn’t know the Parks had a bunker. It’s a bunker a lot of rich people have either to avoid loan sharks or in case nuclear war happens. This bunker was ordered to be built by the first house-owner and something even the Parks don’t know about, but Moon-gwang does. In that hidden room at the bottom of the bunker, Chung-sook discovers Geun-sae, Moon-gwang’s husband, is in it. He has been hiding down there for years to avoid loan sharks over his failed restaurant. When the other Kims discover Moon-gwang and Geun-sae a fight ensues after Moon-gwang threatens to expose their scam. The family and couple use technology to fight for control. However the fight ends when Chung-sook learns the family is coming back sooner than expected because of the heavy rain and they expect ‘ramdon’ with cubed beef. Party’s over, right?
Not quite. The Kims have to hide and Chung-sook kicks Moon-gwang down the stairs for which she receives a fatal head blow. Chung-sook serves the Park family the ramdon after they arrive with the other Kims hiding under the furniture waiting to escape. It’s a long process as the parents sit on the sofa watching Park Da-song play ‘indian’ in his tent out in the rain. The Parks even get sexual on the couch and even talk about the smell of Kim Ki-taek, unknowing that he’s underneath the sofa and hears it all. The three Kims escape the mansion and return back to their home in the rain, only to find it’s almost completely flooded and they’re one of many people from the neighborhood that have to sleep in a makeshift shelter in a gymnasium. The next morning, Ki-woo and Ki-taek have a heart-to-heart talk about life and plans.
All appears not to be lost. The Parks are having the birthday party for Da-song and the staff are invited. All four Kims can assume their guises again. It’s based on the ‘indian’ theme that Da-song loves. It’s if party with family and friends. Ki-taek is to participate with Park Dong-ik in an ‘indian attack’ skit with the birthday cake and is reminded he’s a paid servant. The party goes well but just as Ki-woo returns to the bunker with the scholar’s rock, he encounters an angry Geun-sae. Geun-sae has had it that he’s been down there for so long and that he just lost his wife because of the Kim’s stupidity and selfishness. Geun-sae wants revenge and Ki-woo is first to get it as Geun-sae uses the scholar’s rock to hit him over the head. Then Geun-sae goes out in the yard where the party is and stabs Ki-jeong in the heart. That provokes a seizure from Da-song which Dong-ik orders Ki-Taek to drive him to the hospital. That leads to even bigger chaos as Chung-sook fatally stabs Geun-sae, but Geun-sae is alive long enough to look Dong-ik in the face and shout ‘respect.’ Angry with it all, Ki-taek stabs Dong-ik and runs away out of everyone’s sight.
The aftermath is that Ki-jeong died and Ki-woo was in a coma for weeks. Ki-woo came out of it, but it left him with a brain injury that causes him to laugh unexpectedly. He and Chung-sook were convicted of fraud and impersonation and Ki-taek is at large missing without a trace. The Park house has been resold to a German family who just arrived. Despite the deaths of Moon-gwang, Geun-sae, Kim Ki-jeong and Park Dong-ik, it sold. Even with new owners, Ki-woo notices a light from the bunker flash on and off. Ki-Taek is alive and hiding in the bunker and flashes a message of Morse Code every day hoping his son will see it. Ki-woo has a message of Morse code for his father he hopes to deliver one day. A message of a hope that they can be a family again and how they can live prosperously in that house, and done fairly.
The interesting thing of this film is that it’s very creative in showing the biases poor people have of rich people and the biases rich people have of poor people, and biases both have of certain peoples in general. For all intents and purposes, the Parks hired the Kims who disguise themselves as unrelated workers. The Parks appear to treat the adult Kims as people, but will also treat them as the hired hands they’re supposed to be, so there has to be a limit. With that, all that happens seems to send a message of the biases. We see it in the Park family as they common talk about the smell of poor people, especially Mr. Kim. It seems like poor people have a smell only the Parks can sense. We also see how the Parks seem to think the smallest instance of something wrong is a big problem and the wife believes whatever the Kim’s tell her! We see it in the Kims how they have the belief that the rich are very naive and all four are ready to take full advantage of it. Even at the ‘Kim party’ and how they talk of money being a solve-all.
The film also shows how both the Kims and the Parks can expose their own weaknesses. We see it at the beginning as the Kims think their only way into a better life or even a life of wealth is to scam their way into wealth. We see how Park Da-song likes to fantasize about being an ‘indian’ and the Park family toys around with Native Americans. We see it at events like the birthday party, we see it during the rainflood, we see how Mr. Park has a framed article from an American magazine where he’s named ‘Nathan Park.’ We sense it in the use of English words and phrases, English names and association with the United States like all these elements suggest something about class structure and importance. Even how when Mrs. Park hires Ki-woo, she wants to give him the name ‘Kevin.’ We even see how despite the Parks neglect Moon-gwang and Geun-sae, Geun says ‘respect’ to him. The rich Parks appear to marginalize, but the Kims and the couple still have regard to them. Even seeing how Ki-taek can’t mourn at his daughter’s urn but mourns at an obituary of Nathan says something.
Even without the theme of the wealth gap, this film is also interesting of how the story is constructed. At first you think the film will follow a basic linear path in therms of telling its story. There are even times in which even after one incident happens out of the ordinary, it appears it will still end in normal fashion. However it doesn’t. What you anticipate might be a good ending actually ends up being something totally bizarre. The first half of the film appears like a massacre is the last thing to expect the film to end with, but you’ll be surprised. One source mentions that it ended that way because Korean movies are known to be big on blood and gore, just like a lot of Japanese movies. However it does make one think whether the film and its scenes were done right or not. Sometimes you think it could have been done better if this was done that way. Then you think if it did, this would have to be left out. In the end, you’re left convinced the film was done the right way. Including the massacre scene when Kim Ki-jeong is killed, but Park Dong-ik cares about his son’s seizure instead. Even the scene where Moon-gwang falls and recieves her fatal concussion seems like the right thing to have. Also the aftermath looking like it ends the film right as a redemption of humanity at the end and actually makes you feel for the surviving Kim family, despite Ki-woo’s message of an against-all-odds hope.
I’ll also this film is a welcome reminder of the rich-poor gap in South Korea. If you remember years back, I saw a film called Nameless Gangster. That film showed the conditions of South Korea in the early 1980’s and the protagonist struggled with a limited wage as a fisherman. That’s why he chose to be an organized crime don. Because he felt it was the only way he could get ahead. The film also showed how things became better for South Korea as democracy was implemented just before the Seoul Olympics. I was left with the impression that life for residents got way better since democracy was introduced. Parasite reminds me it is, but there are still people in South Korea that slip through the cracks. On top of that, the gap of rich and poor is just as present in South Korea as it is in any developed nation.
Top accolades for the film go to director Bong Joon-ho. Bong is actually South Korea’s first director to break into North America. He had a good reputation in South Korea, but he expanded into North American film after people take note of 2009’s Mother. His English-language breakthrough came with 2013’s Snowpiercer and critics were impressed. Even after returning back to Korean films, Bong has still caught a lot of attention with films like Sea Fog (which he was producer) and Okja. This is possibly his best work.
This film is very complex as Bong’s not just simply working with a complex story he co-wrote with Han Jin-won, but even working with a lot of complex styles of scene. Bong got the idea from this story from an actual murder of rich people by their servants. It was 1933 in France and the two servants that killed their master were sisters. Bong does a good job in making a great story sending a message about the division of the classes. The little elements that add to the theme of the rich-poor gap like the ‘poor person smell,’ the use of English when they have something significant to say, the storm which makes the Kim family face the music about what they’re doing, the scholar’s rock which goes from a good-luck object to something Geun-sae attempted to kill Kim Ki-woo with before the massacre, the use of Morse Code, Nathan’s constant talk of crossing-the-line and the talk of plans between Ki-woo and Ki-taek, they all help add to the color of the story and to the theme.
Already there are a lot of videos on YouTube that talk of various elements of the film like the multi-leveled house and how the Kims are always beneath the Parks, the use of sunlight in the Park domain, the ending seen as false hope, and the use of bugs during certain scenes. There are scenes that get you wondering as well. Like the scene where Park Da-hye has sex with Kim Ki-woo. Some could say it’s sending the message the two classes aren’t that far apart. Others could say it’s where the rich like to screw the poor. You be the judge! Also you figured halfway into the film that the scam of the Kims would eventually be uncovered, but I bet you didn’t expect it during a massacre at a child’s birthday party!
The acting from all ten actors involved was excellent to see as they all had something to add and they did it all as one team rather than a single actor standing out. If there was anything close to a standout, it had to be Song Kang-ho as the Mr. Kim. He did an excellent job as playing a man who appears to be the one most caught in the middle. Choi Woo-shik was also good as the hopeful but insecure Kim son who starts it all and ends up the voice of reason at the end. The production design was also very good. It was excellent in showing off the modern rich-poor gap of the three classes very well. The cinematography of Hong Kyung-pyo was also excellent. The music from Jung Jae-il also added to the storytelling too.
Parasite begins in normal fashion, leads to a comedic middle, leads to the conclusion in bizarre fashion, and ends on a somber note. It does seem like an odd construction of a film, but Bong makes it work. Plus he has a lot to tell about the gap between rich and poor. It’s a gap we see all too well in our own lives.
At first I was not interested in seeing Lucy. What got me seeing it was all the talk so many people who’ve seen it have said about it. I thought I’d check it out myself.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, it’s about a young woman who goes by the name of Lucy caught in a crime heist by surprise thanks to her shady and no-longer-living boyfriend. She then becomes a drug mule for a set of mind drugs that expands the brain’s use at one time from the alleged normal 10% to as much as 100%. This sets her up with getting even with her crime bosses, connecting with the other drug mules involved and making sense with the human race thanks to a college professor and her own mind’s supernatural ability to travel through time. Sound confusing? Well, you be the judge after you see the movie.
The funny thing about the movie is the whole plot of trying to make a connection between brain use at one time to the evolution of humanity coinciding with a criminal act. It’s a movie that tries to be humorous as in the case of Lucy telling her roommate of her health condition as well as action-filled in the story of as well as try and provoke thought about the human race and people’s ability to think. This is a complicated mix to try and create a good script that can entertain moviegoers.
One thing about the film is that it doesn’t make complete sense. Yes it’s a complicated story and yes there are parts that try to make it make sense over time. In fact the movie looked very ambitious at the beginning and appeared like it would deliver something to think about as the plot unraveled. However there are many times in which I wonder if it could have been organized out better or even played out better. Like those parts where Lucy connects with the ape-like human from eons ago made me question its purpose and whether it really worked or not. This is one case when I leave the movie theatre thinking of what scenes could have been done better and how. I will give credit to the effort by director/writer Luc Besson given to make such a movie that includes an intriguing story. In fact I found the best thing about the movie is the fact we never know Lucy’s real name. But all the elements included in this story don’t blend together well as a whole. I felt it to be uneven and confusing at times.
The movie did have a lot of positive qualities. The best thing about it had to be the acting. I can’t complain about that. Scarlet Johansson and Morgan Freeman were good in their roles. They knew how to work their roles well otherwise the movie would have come across as completely ridiculous. They also knew how to keep our intrigue to the unfolding events. Choi Min-Sik and Amr Waked also acted well enough to keep the story intriguing and intact. The movies’ special effects were also excellent, and for not even $40 million. The score to the film by Eric Serra also fit the story well.
One thing I have to say about Lucy is that it was actually successful in getting people to talk about the movie’s topics. From the 10% brain-use hypothesis to the belief of evolution, that got a lot of people thinking, despite how disjointed the movie seemed. In fact I myself went to see it after two people I knew mentioned they saw it and gave their comments of what they thought of it. I find it interesting. That’s all I will say. It also paid off at the box office too. It’s still in theatres but it has made almost $125 million in North America and $378 million worldwide. I think the topic of the plot paid off in getting people to come. One feat it has achieved is this is Besson’s highest-grossing film to date.
Lucy is an ambitious science fiction movie that tries to make us think while keeping us fixated on the story and the action along the way. However it’s not all that together of a movie. Attention-grabbing, thought-provoking, but not really together.
Nameless Gangster looks like South Korea’s attempt to try and make a gangster movie. The one thing is it does a very good job at making one. This film is more than what one bargained for.
Choi Ik Hyun doesn’t seem like the type to become a gangster. He’s a customs officer in Busan who was pilfering goods and taking bribes along with colleagues at the most. On top of it, he gets drunk very often and comes off as both clumsy and idiotic after a lot of drinking. That all changes when he comes across 10kg of heroin in the warehouse. He and a friend approach a gangster, Choi Hyung-bae, to sell it to Japan’s yakuza that he’s tied to. He also learns that Hyung-bae is from the same family tree.
Soon the two would become partners in crime and they would form their own organized crime syndicate. Soon Choi’s power grows to owning night clubs and one of Busan’s first class hotels. He also faces power struggles from close associates, people within his gang and even among rivals. Some of it has to do with his feisty personality and his habit for getting drunk easily. Other times it’s because of the conflict of who’s really in power. As Choi’s power grows, politics are changing in South Korea. The dictatorship which allowed Choi to prosper in his criminal activity is now making way to democracy with the election of President Roh Tae-woo just before the Seoul Olympics. Just two years after the election, the government proposes a crackdown on organized crime. Choi knows his days are numbered. He knows the connections to prosecutors that helped some of his men get off charges in the past won’t work anymore. The story ends with the predictable as the movie begins with a prosecutor announcing the arrest of Choi in 1990 but it ends on a different and on a note one wouldn’t expect from a gangster movie.
The film’s script is good for that it’s able to mix humor with organized crime the same way Pulp Fiction and Fargo does. However the film is just as smart as it is in its story too. The film’s script is very detailed in how it’s able to take into account the situation in Busan and the rest of South Korea during that time. It takes into good account the situation of crime in Busan in the 80’s during the time South Korea was still under a dictatorship. Yeah, just because South Korea wasn’t under the tight grip the communist North was under as was well-to-do doesn’t mean the people of South Korea were completely free at the time. It also highlights the changes in South Korea as the decade progress from the student protests, to the Seoul Olympics to the election of President Roh Tae-Woo to Roh’s crackdown on organized crime and corruption. This is a part of history few outside South Korea know about. It’s as much of an eye-opener as it is entertaining.
The movie not only shows South Korea’s changing political climate at the time but how it impacted Choi and why he made his choice to organized crime. South Korea was under a dictatorship to the move to democracy to the crackdown on organized crime. While South Korea was still under a dictatorship Choi’s income as a customs officer wasn’t good. Organized crime seemed his way out at the time. He chose it and reaped the lucrative rewards as well as the star status. He also faced threats from outside rivals and rivalry within his own gang. As South Korea made the move to democracy, prosecutors then became the stars of the new Korea and that meant the downfall of Choi. The title Nameless Gangster could be because Choi could be any man in South Korea at that time. The subtitle Rules Of The Time send the message that the movie is as much about the times as it’s about the protagonist.
There were two powerful scenes in the film on that subject. The first was when Choi was having dinner with his children while he knew his arrest would be eventual. He says goodbye to his son as he is about to go to Los Angeles and told him of the importance of learning the English language. Another was when he was at a religious ceremony for his newborn grandchild. It’s the child of his son who’s now a prosecutor. The scene where his grandson grips Choi’s finger is a powerful one of hope. It’s like Choi’s happy that his son and grandson have the better futures that Choi never had the chance for.
Without a doubt, the character of Choi was the top quality of the movie. It’s surprising how a bumbling, clumsy, easy drunk like Choi could ever manage to rise to the top of the organized crime scene in Busan but somehow he does. The movie wasn’t just about Choi and his bumbling meetings or his criminal activities. It was also about Choi the husband and Choi the father. The scenes with his children and grandchild show a different side of Choi and make his character three-dimensional rather than the typical stock character of comedies. Actor Choi Min-shik did a very good job with the role. Scriptwriter and director Yun Jong-bin did an excellent job in writing a script that was as comical as it was smart and bringing it to the screen well. I will admit I was first confused during the movie wondering what the point was in having a clumsy, oafish man as a major organized crime don but it all made sense in the end.
Nameless Gangster has received a lot of buzz. In South Korea, the film was #1 at the box office for three weeks. The film has received many awards and nominations amongst South Korea’s movie awards. Time magazine even described it as: “the Korean mob film Scorsese would be proud of.” Interesting that the Busan-born Yun is almost 32 years-old and he has released two other films that have raised eyebrows, especially in the ways they depict male mannerisms. Already Yun looks like he’s on to a very promising career in directing especially with the success of Nameless Gangster.
Nameless Gangster is more than just an entertaining story of a crime boss. It’s also a statement about South Korea’s politics at the time and about the man caught in between. Definitely a film worth seeing.