A woman unlucky in love and work discovers the perks and perils of cosmetic surgery in Hong Kong helmer-scribe Aubrey Lam’s “The Truth About Beauty,” a Beijing-set romantic comedy that’s occasionally fun as a Pygmalion fantasy, but doesn’t cut deep in its exploration of China’s new vanity culture or age-old sexist double standards. No amount of nipping and tucking could save the screenplay from its tonal inconsistencies, as Lam, either unable or unwilling to resolve the ethical dilemma of whether such surgery is destructive or empowering, throws all her arguments away with an improbable and fatuous ending. The pic has taken in a respectable $11.7 million in China, but is less likely to sit pretty in overseas markets.
Upon graduating with honors from an elite university, Guo Jing (Bai Baihe, “Personal Tailor”) gets hit by a double whammy: Her b.f. (Guo Jingfei) ditches her, describing her as a “car crash scene,” while at job interviews, her plain-Jane appearance renders her “nonexistent.” She joins a “beauty club” for double-eyelid surgery, and instantly lands a job at a Korean global conglomerate.
In her first solo directorial effort since 2007’s “Anna & Anna,” Lam (who co-wrote many of Peter Ho-sun Chan’s hits) maintains a brisk rhythm and orchestrates individual scenes in entertaining fashion. Her gift for sparkling dialogue comes through in Jing’s peppy voiceover, providing a snarky running commentary on Korean corporate culture, which borders on beauty fascism: Staffers must change outfits at least once a day, and the prettiest babes are seated closest to “the center of power,” namely where the CEO can leer at them.
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The stage is set for catfights and makeover matches within the corporate harem, but then the focus shifts to a tepid romance between Jing and Raymond (Ronald Cheng), the senior exec who hired her for her out-of-the-box ideas. Raymond flirts offhandedly with Jing, which is enough to make her swoon — so much so that she rushes out to get a nose job before their first date. But then, Raymond drops a bombshell: He loathes women who’ve had work done. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop Jing in her quest for beauty.
As high concept goes, plastic surgery isn’t easy to pull off: Mika Ninagawa’s “Helter Skelter” made it grist for a gothic tale of body horror, while Kim Yong-hwa’s “200 Pounds Beauty” lets its heroine have her cake and eat it. Lam wavers between these two approaches, lending her story an unpredictable blend of black comedy and straight drama. The film starts out as a frivolous yet sympathetic take on women trapped in a society so materialistic, it puts a price tag on physical appearance the same way it worships brand-name goods.
Yet, in keeping with the aspirational spirit and style-consciousness of China’s smash hits in this genre (“Go Lala Go!,” “Tiny Times”), Lam asserts that women are gutsily shaping their own fates by “upgrading” themselves. Then, as if to placate moralists, Jing’s path to happiness is strewn with surgical glitches. This crippling paradox is borne out by a side strand involving her best friend, Weiwei (Zhang Yao, “So Young”), who suffers from body dysmorphic disorder; it’s a grotesque cautionary tale whose inclusion here defies all reason, achieving neither comic relief nor pathos. The film further cops out by shifting all the blame onto the Koreans, in a monstrous parody of their culture.
Despite the sexual undertones, there’s no spark between the two leads: It remains a mystery why Jing would be so hung up on Raymond, who’s no Brad Pitt, has no personality and even stands her up time and again. That an average Joe like Raymond could smugly play the field is proof of a sexist society that places an unfair premium on women’s looks. The yarn comes close to confronting this double standard, when Jing asks Raymond if he’d have dated her before she got her “alterations”; he says no but tells her to accept her fate “because it’s different for men.” It’s not an enlightened argument, but instead of calling him on it, the film essentially affirms it through a highly improbable reversal.
Bai’s usual ebullience keeps the uneven film afloat, though she might consider varying her ditzy shtick, which hasn’t changed since her 2011 breakout sleeper, “Love Is Not Blind.” Cheng, who made his screen debut in Lam’s “Twelve Nights,” offers a solid, dialed-down perf, but it’s hard to visualize him as a dreamboat after his bravura turn as a boorish gangster in “Vulgaria.”
Craft contributions have all the glossiness you’d expect from a Chan production. Oddly, however, the visual effects for Jing’s surgical improvements are hardly noticeable, whereas the prosthetics for her original looks are glaringly fake.