Typical yarn of an obsessive love that destroys the very object of that love and shot through with a critique of South Korea’s fascination with physical perfection.

Exec produced and from an original story by Kim Ki-duk, “Beautiful” looks every bit like the work of the South Korean maverick, even if helming and screenplay credits go to Juhn Jai-hong, his former assistant director. Typical yarn of an obsessive love that destroys the very object of that love — and shot through with a critique of South Korea’s fascination with physical perfection — film plays like the flipside of Kim’s cosmetic-surgery drama, “Time,” with the heroine this time trying to make herself unattractive to male eyes. Fest career looks warm and niche business in Kim-friendly territories likewise.

With people always asking her if she’s an actress, Kim Eun-yeong (Cha Su-yeon) feels burdened by her natural beauty. Even her best friend, catty Mi-yeon (Lee Min), who’s about to get her second nose job, expresses surprise that Eun-yeong is still single. And Mi-yeon’s b.f., Min-ho (Kim Beom-jun), starts pestering her with flowers and phone calls, asking for a date.

However, Eun-yeong has another, much more secret admirer, Eun-cheol (Lee Chun-heui), who one day breaks into her apartment and rapes her. Claiming he still loves her, he leaves behind his I.D. and phone number, and turns himself into the cops. In an ironic twist at the police station, the traumatized Eun-yeong finds herself practically cast as the guilty party by a lowlife detective (Choi Myeong-su), who practically accuses her of leading Eun-cheol on with her beauty.

At the end of her tether, and inspired by a overweight girl in a park, Eun-yeong tries to rid herself of her “handicap,” first gorging on fatty foods and, after she ends up in hospital (where even a dosctor comes on to her), exercising and starving herself till she passes out. Still desperate to rid herself of the “beautiful” tag, Eunyeong’s behavior turns even more eccentric — all the time watched by a neighborhood cop (Kim Min-su) who has started to fall for her, big time.

Pic is marbled throughout with typical Kim Kim-duk trademarks, all reflecting his interest in the obsessive Korean soul: Eun-yeong looking at herself naked in a mirror, every character in some way possessed by behavioral extremes, and physical beauty seen as a commodity that can be bought, borrowed or sold. Ending, which finally transgresses all social norms, carries a wickedly peverse coda.

Juhn’s direction is perhaps a tad slicker than Kim’s norm, and he has some straightforward fun in the middle going with Eun-yeong’s eating and dieting binges. But there’s the same observational coolness to the pic that informs all of Kim’s work, evoking little sympathy for the central character as the script charts her descent into madness.

The biggest irony of the movie is that Eun-yeong is not actually especially beautiful by contempo South Korean standards, merely pretty. Cha, who debuted in last year’s ghostly romance, “For Eternal Hearts,” as a weird teen, is again well cast as the spacey lead, and other thesps hit the mark within the limitations of their schematic roles.

Technical credits are smooth at all levels.

Beautiful

South Korea

Production

A Kim Ki-duk Film, Sponge Entertainment production, in association with Blue Smile. (International sales: Sponge, Seoul.) Produced by Song Myeong-cheol. Executive producers, Kim Ki-duk, Cho Sung-gyu. Directed by Juhn Jai-hong. Screenplay, Juhn; story, Kim Ki-duk.

Crew

Camera (color), Kim Gi-tae; editors, Juhn, Han Yeong-gyu; music, Noh Hyeong-woo; art director, Lee Byeong-jun; costumes, Ma Yeon-heui; sound (Dolby Digital), Seo Yeong-jun, Im Dae-ji; assistant director, Park Hong-su. Reviewed at CinemaxX Potsdamer Platz 2, Berlin, Jan. 24, 2008. (In Berlin Film Festival — Panorama.) Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Cha Su-yeon, Lee Chun-heui, Choi Myeong-su, Kim Min-su, Lee Min, Kim Beom-jun.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more