Softly sensuous from afar, but rather flighty on closer acquaintance, “My Beautiful Girl, Mari” is an extremely oblique animated feature that may, in fact, be about very little at all. An unexpected B.O. failure on local release in January, but a Grand Prix winner at the recent Annecy animation fest, this first feature by South Korean animator Lee Seong-gang (“Ashes in the Thicket,” 1998) has a gossamer feel to its color scheme and art that’s very appealing in a world of harder-edged toons. Pic is getting a re-release this summer in South Korea, but its thinness of content is likely to confine it to small screens around the world.
Opening scenes of a seagull flying over Seoul during a snowy day set the visual tone and emphasis on soft, pastel colors. Two old pals, Nam-woo and Jun-ho, meet and reminisce about their childhood together in a small seaside town.
Then 12, Nam-woo (voiced by Lee Byeong-hun) lived with his mother (Bae Jong-ok) and granny (Na Mun-heui), who ran a small restaurant; the bookish, bespectacled Jun-ho (Kong Hyeong-jin), the same age, was his only friend.
Everyday scenes of life in the small port are unremarkable in animation terms, with a realistic look that almost seems traced off movie footage. In rhythm, too, the pic is developed more like a regular film, with short scenes building atmosphere.
While looking for Jun-ho in an abandoned lighthouse one day, Nam-woo and his cat, Yeo, are briefly transported to a strange land where Nam-woo meets Mari, a beautiful girl in white. But the vision disappears as quickly as it came.
The boys later have a longer encounter with Mari and her magical world in which, though she is silent, her caress and embrace spur Nam-woo to confess his inner feelings of loneliness. And Mari remains the boys’ secret — until one night, soon after the authorities start demolishing the lighthouse, a storm threatens the village and the life of a sailor (Ahn Sung-ki) who’s taken a shine to Nam-woo’s mom.
Pic springs to life in the scenes in Mari’s Never-Never Land, a world which is never explained in rational terms — and even features a giant furry dog that acts as her guardian — but is more a state of mind. With its emphasis on whites and various shades of green, and soft, billowing images of nature, it’s like a comfort zone, in which the kids are free to express their suppressed desires and thoughts.
Helmer Lee majored in psychology, which may explain the movie’s obliqueness as well as some of its more fantastic imagery, which almost seems assembled from a shrink’s handbook. In the broadest terms, pic deals with memories and friendship, in particular how people can change over the years and never fully reveal themselves even to those closest to them.
Outside the fantasy sequences, the animation is standard, with foreground character movement quite old-fashioned and not especially smooth. However, like the movie’s ideas, the backgrounds are consistently sophisticated, especially in cloudscapes, flora and water that sometimes recall 20th-century artworks.