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.
I’m not too familiar about the Korean movie industry. However The Running Actress does offer some interesting insights.
The film is divided into three acts. Act 1 consists of Moon going on a hike with two friends. Then they soon run into producer Won Dong-yeon and two of his colleagues. Later all six of them go on a dinner together. However the dinner is discomforting to Moon as all they focus on is her looks and having her work in their film for free. She’s unhappy about it and on the way home, she has the manager stop the car and she runs out!
Act 2 is all about the discomforts of fame, especially past fame. She has to deal with past images of her in the limelight. She also has to deal with the fact she hasn’t had a role in so long, and the first role to come in recent times is for her to play the mother of an adult child. At her age? She tries to get a loan, but is turned down. She tries to use a sick estranged in-lay for assistance, but it comes to no avail. Home life with her husband and small child is no escape from all the pressures. At the end of it all, she is back in the car with her manager and again demands he stop the car. She runs out screaming again!
Act 3 is at a wake for a director she worked with during her young-and-famous days. She doesn’t plan to stay there long because she wasn’t on good terms with the director. However noticing the small size of the wake — just her, his wife and son — she stays there longer. She even starts up a conversation with an old acting acquaintance. Then a younger actress who the director has last worked with comes in and mourns out loud. She later joins in a conversation with all and it turns ugly as the director’s widow has a lot of wrath towards her. The film ends with Moon and the young actress walking together in friendly conversation.
The funniest thing about this film is that it makes the Korean film industry so bitingly close to that of Hollywood. I may not be very familiar with the Korean film industry or how it operates, but this film is a reminder that judging an actress by age isn’t simply a Hollywood-only thing. I can see that happening in Korea especially since we have this whole K-Pop phenomenon. Young singers handpicked mostly for their youthful looks and then trained for four years as an act together to top the charts. I can easily see how the Korean film industry can be very youth or young-adult oriented. I don’t know what types of movies they shell out in Korea but I can see it happening.
In the meantime there’s Moon So-Ri. She had it big for so many years and then she lost it. She’s so starved for money, she has to rely on an estranged ailing in-law for help to get it. Her slate of film roles dry up because of her ‘yesterday’s news’ status, and her only chance is playing a mother of a young adult. Interesting that Hollywood wouldn’t be the only film industry to be as judgmental as that in terms of an actress’ age.
At the same time, it not only tackles the dark side of the entertainment profession in a humorous way. It also pokes fun at the emotional reactions of those involved too. Moon herself has her moments where she just can’t hold it in and just lets it out. Even at the funeral for Director Lee, there are the over-the-top emotional reactions from those as well. It really shows how interesting the people in entertainment are like.
The star of the film is Moon So-ri. She wrote it, directed it and stars lead in it. In actuality, this film was actually three short films Moon did as she was completing an MFA program at Chung-Ang University. I think she did a smart thing by putting the three together and creating a feature-length movie. It’s humorous and smart. It draws on some of Moon’s own experiences, but also includes some fictionalizations too. She does a very good effort as a whole here. The supporting players also do a good job in their own acting here. She even has her own real-life husband Jang Joon-hwan play himself in the film. It’s also interesting real-life producer Won Dong-yeon agree to be in it. I think he probably agrees with the message.
The Running Actress is a humorous look at a reality of the stupidity of the entertainment industry. It’s also a humorous look at the emotional attitudes of the artists involved. Moon So-ri does a good job of showing a stupidity in a humorous way.