2008 CIFF: Beautiful (Arumdabda, 2008)

Director: Juhn Jaihong

2008 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Back in 1996, a delightfully depraved film from South Korea called 301, 302 took on the effects of rape on a survivor and the person who tries to help her. The rape victim holds down a responsible job but succumbs more and more to her anorexia. Her neighbor, a shallow woman who only knows how to interact with her husband through sex and gourmet cooking, ends up losing him. She fills the void by trying to cook the perfect meal to heal her self-starving neighbor. The ending of the film is shocking but somehow appropriate, providing each woman with an outlet for her rage. Significantly, 301, 302 was written by a woman, Lee Suh-Goon.

Unfortunately, first-time director Juhn Jaihong looks every bit the unskilled neophyte. A protégé of Kim Ki-duk, a much-lauded director of the Korean New Wave who provided the story on which Beautiful is based, Juhn shows no subtlety or understanding of the deeper problems of women in Korean society that were explored to such great effect in 301, 302. Beautiful takes the dilemma faced by beautiful young women in a society that disrespects women at a very basic level and turns out a less graphic version of slasher porn. Kim Eun-yeong (Cha Su-yeon), the lovely victim in Beautiful is no match for the gawkers and stalkers she tries unsuccessfully to evade. She is for them and for the makers and audiences of this film an object to be abused, laughed at, blamed, and ultimately destroyed by the obsession of her self-appointed savior.

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We first meet Eun-yeong in a café where she is waiting to meet her friend Mi-yeon (Lee Min). Several school girls notice her, remark on her great beauty, and ask her for her autograph even though she is not an actress or anyone famous. Actually, Eun-yeong doesn’t seem to exist in this film except to be a victim. We don’t see her work or go to school. She has one friend, Mi-yeon, but no boyfriend or, it appears, anyone else in her life, including family. Her beautiful, expensive-looking apartment is devoid of any personal photos; only a couple sketches of a nude woman—presumably Eun-yeong—garnish the décor. Is what she’s about to go through a comment on Eun-yeong’s essential narcissism?

So what does she go through? She’s harassed constantly by men—those she knows, like Mi-yeon’s boyfriend, but more often strangers on the street. Her distant admirers send her bunches of flowers, which she has the doorman of her condominium toss in the trash. She makes the mistake, however, of taking a single lily up with her as a simple decoration. This act encourages her stalker Eun-cheol (Lee Chun-heui) to declare his love by faking his way into her apartment as a meter reader. When she tries to brush him off as she has done with every one of her ardent admirers, he throws her around, slaps her unconscious, and rapes her. Then he takes pictures of her.

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Remorse sends Eun-cheol to the police to confess. The police call Eun-yeong in to the station and ask why she didn’t report the crime. Humiliated and traumatized, she barely speaks. One jackass detective accuses her of leading men on by dressing in short skirts and, well, being so damn pretty. Indeed, her attacker said that she raped him with her beauty. Eun-yeong certainly does seem to have a hypnotic effect on men. Detective Kim (Myeong-soo Choi), a decent police officer who shields her from his partner’s rudeness becomes obsessed with her, too, copying tapes her stalker made of her and jacking off to them. He then abandons his job (an extended vacation, he says) and starts following her around.

Eun-yeong barely notices that he always seems to be around. She’s too busy trying to make herself unattractive. She dresses in long, concealing clothes. Then she gets the idea to gain weight from watching a fat girl she spoke with one day wolf down a large lunch. Eun-yeong’s binges, however, only shock her system, and she ends up in an emergency department with an inflamed stomach and a doctor who tries to feel her up. When she leaves the hospital, she collapses, and, in a somewhat comical scene, is swarmed by men fighting to be the one who takes her home in a taxi. Detective Kim again comes to her rescue. Then she decides to lose weight and look skeletal, but her constant exercise and near fasting causes her to collapse before her body can adjust to a starvation regime. Again, she ends up in the hospital.

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As Eun-yeong grows more and more insane, decides to become a hooker, and vomits almost nonstop, she starts to see her rapist everywhere and nearly stabs a man she sees enter a men’s room. Fortunately, discreet stalker Detective Kim prevents her from striking the man she thought was her attacker. More of this tiresome craziness ensues until the film ends in a bloodbath.

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If it had bothered to take Eun-yeong’s problems seriously—or even made her into a believable character with a real life—Beautiful could have some interesting things to say about women. Beauties are often swarmed by besotted men who scare, more than flatter, them. Rape does make women feel ashamed, complicit in their own attack, and desperate to fade into the background so they won’t be targeted again. Without a proper support network, rape victims do become emotionally unstable. Many young women are not taught self-defense or self-respect, and more importantly, many young men are not taught to respect women. But Beautiful does not wish to explore Eun-yeong’s relationship to her own power as, say, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher or I Spit on Your Grave do. She says repeatedly that she wants to live and that she can’t go on as a victim anymore. But the director and screenwriter would rather let Detective Kim call the shots and force her fate on her like a second, more deadly rape. Eun-yeong’s allure seems more that of a sorceress than a fresh-faced young woman, and we all know what happens to witches.

This film’s pinpoint devotion to the mechanics of obsession is so clumsily handled that it neither illuminates that compulsion nor comments effectively on what it means to be beautiful in a misogynistic society. “Beauty is destiny,” someone says to Eun-yeong. According to this movie, being a beautiful woman means being reduced to a raving crone who is destroyed without any reason or poignancy. This is a huge step backward in Korea’s films about women. Let’s hope this new director finds another direction; he’s completely out of his depth in the feminine world.

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