The need to improve ourselves is human in nature but what happens when we can do so artificially?
Humans are constantly in a dogged pursuit for beauty. They strive not only for outward beauty but also beauty that creates the perfect human, to be smarter, more athletic, and even kinder. When we can alter our bodies so easily with medical procedures, technological implants and digital enhancements, we have entered into the era of the posthuman and that’s the premise of webtoon creator Oh Seong-dae’s newest Korean horror animation, Beauty Water.
Only he can come up with the concept of a miracle water that helps you literally shed off your imperfections to become beautiful, albeit only on the surface. This animated feature is based on one story from Oh’s thriller anthology, Tales of the Unusual, but there are quite a few differences between the two, such as Yaeji (Moon Nam-sook) receiving a deeper backstory and new characters such as celebrity Miri (Kim Bo-young) and the talent manager (Choi Seung-hoon). Even the roles of certain characters have changed, such as the art student who helped sculpt Yaeji’s face being replaced by Beauty Water surgeon (Jo Hyeon-jeong).
The film starts off with an unsettling video and a crackly voice-over of a woman demonstrating the wondrous effects of Beauty Water. It’s glitchy playback and jump cuts makes the entire image all the more unnerving and gears us up for more horror to come…and that’s where most of the creepy atmosphere built up ends.
We go on to see Yaeji, who is a severely overweight woman working as a makeup artist for the number one actress, Miri. Unfortunately, unlike her gorgeous appearance, Miri is predictably ugly on the inside and lords over her staff with a cruel hand. Her cruel words only serve to further stoke Yaeji’s insecurities about her self-image. And while the talent manager tries to smooth out the situation, a new handsome actor, Ji-hoon (Jang Min-hyuk), enters the scene. He is the first and only person in the entire show to be enthralled by Yaeji, or more specifically her eyes and says the usual spew of kind words to her. He even finds her crying alone later on and gives her a cheer up and confidence boost by allowing specifically her to do his makeup, cliched but cute.
Yaeji woes don’t end there. On her way home, she meets a judgmental convenience store clerk and a sleazy, mean-spirited old security guard who tuts at her plight. These encounters only serve to further break Yaeji’s confidence and the final straw was a circulated footage of her eating being mocked as grotesque online. Despite her meek demeanour when faced with real cruelty, Yaeji, unleashes her pent up anger in the ugliest way possible, by trolling people online. She uses her anonymity as a shield to attack others and it gives us an insight to her propensity for cruelty too. She even ignores her parents and yells at her mother who is ever only concerned for her and will do anything, literally, even sacrificing their own flesh to save her.
Things get weirder when Yaeji receives a text message from an unknown number and a box of Beauty Water right at her house. Frightened but desperate, she uses the water on herself in an attempt to peel away her fats along with her insecurities. We get a more graphic view of the process when Yaeji seeks the Beauty Water surgeon for help. It can also be seen as a ritual for Yaeji to release her baggage alongside her bodily imperfections.
And usually as a trope, all this peeling away at the layers of her imperfections will serve to reveal the person’s true beauty, aligning their inner beauty with that of the outside. Like a butterfly reborn, Yaeji sheds her old self to become the ultimate beauty. Yet, the film subverts our expectations of revealing a complete, confident and beautiful soul to instead making us scrutinise how at the core of it all, Yaeji’s downward spiral is only fueled by her ugly personality. With a scalpel in hands and lots of fletch-sculpting, the film attempts to put the knife deeply into society’s obsession with surface appearances.
Yaeji’s stint as the beauty queen of the film’s world allows us to see the flip side of all things glamorous in society. We see the other side of the media industry through how lecherous the same talent manager from the beginning actually is. We see how the security guard remains antagonistic towards Yaeji ironically via his extra kindness towards her. We see how she scores a date with her crush and now ex-celebrity Ji-hoon, which comes at a price. And ultimately we see how Yaeji continues to mistreat her parents and even commit murder out of rage, in which the death of that character felt unjust.
These are highly interesting plot points we are thrown with; all pockets of commentary on our disturbing society, especially with Korea being known as the place which set a high-bar for beauty and sometimes unrealistic standards allowing for the festering of lookism. All these which could have been further explored. However, the film constantly misses out on the opportunity to delve deeper into them. Instead it gives us choppy scares, which, due to the nature of the crude cut and lack of atmosphere led them to feel tacky.
We are given insight to her constantly deteriorating inner psyche, yet pulled out of it just as quickly. Dipped into tacked on snippets of her memories as a failed ballerina, we are careened off just as soon, leaving us reeling from the jump in events.
Yaeji’s actions are sometimes so unwarranted that it made it hard to root for her. We see her doing things such as repeatedly demanding things from her parents and spending money thoughtlessly. She judges her potential dates like how she was judged for being overweight in the past. Yaeji’s behaviour only serves to further alienate us from any empathy we have for the character and thus lose our sustained interest in the plot. The more the film tries to push for Yaeji’s psychological breakdown, the more its weakness of the story starts to show in its attempts to squeeze in jumpscares.
Most humorously is when she was led (willingly) into a house screaming of danger with obvious signs of something uncanny going on. Yet she breezes past all of them and only freaks out when she discovers hidden stores of Beauty Water in that house. Her unbelievable obliviousness, coupled with the choppy animation made the climatic horror scene seem slightly absurd. Which is interestingly and unintentionally cemented by the thick, almost clown-like makeup sported by her mother and her in the nightmare sequence.
Overall the animation felt like it would have worked better as a webtoon due to its pacing. The pace was so jerkily fast that we barely have the time to comprehend one event before it moves on to another. This also leads to the collapse of the horror scenes as there was no build up to the scare. There were no longer lingering shots but instead rough edits tha rendered jump scares ineffective. The accompanying music was also too hyper at points, killing the eeriness of the scenes.
Themes and scenes which could have been further explored felt glossed over. The film plays on many cliches too. We see the handsome guy who praises the “ugly” girl being revealed as one bearing ulterior motives, we see the beautiful but cruel, the lecherous old man, and many other tropes. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
In fact, we have so much mediation and remediation ongoing today that it is inevitable that some tropes are recycled. Plus a plot that is criticising society can all the more leverage onto caricatures and well-worn tropes to further push the unravelling of the hypocrisy of society’s double standards. But this is only effective if they are recycled for good use. Like Yaeji’s body pieced together with the flesh of others, the plot is haphazardly meshed together forming more of a chimeric being which parts that work more out of than in tandem with one another.
It is commendable that the movie and director Cho Kyung-hun attempted to tackle this subgenre of body-horror in the face of a world obsessed over beauty standards. It is something that is not widely explored yet in mainstream media and more creators could take a leaf out of Cho’s book to address these disturbing issues of highly mediatised society. The film itself is an adventurous venture away from Korea’s usual style of animation.
Beauty Water reveals to us how laughable humans are with their centuries old obsession with the outward appearance. It also brings a mirror to society’s obsession with inner beauty, the pressure that people, even those who are beautiful have to undergo to behave a certain way, be nice; in order to be moulded into society’s expectations. That being “good hearted” makes you a better person is also a failing of human nature. We should instead be good for goodness sake and not to parade yourself above others.
Humanness is the struggle and the strive. To be human is to be imperfect, maybe it’s time we embrace the fact that we don’t have to attain perfection in order to be happy lest we become the abject creature we try so hard to cast aside.
In a time whereby we can exist both virtually and physically, people more than ever strive to preserve their unique self-identity while attempting to mutate their bodies into something perfect. That we are touched by a constant desire to adapt to neet society’ standards is suffocating. The film casts a mirror on society’s unrealistic beauty standards that unveils a deeper and more disturbing psychological condition. The human struggle for perfection.
We caught Beauty Water at The Projector, an indie film space in Singapore serving up a chic lineup of films from all over the world and of all genres; and a scrumptiously curated blend of food and drinks at their Intermission Bar. Spooky season may almost be over but the theatre will still be running a few Halloweenie films for you to enjoy past the season! They even have ongoing film festivals such as the French Film Festival. Do head over to their website to find out more about their exciting lineups.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
With Beauty Water, we see a literal tearing at the flesh around the characters and the societal structures that demand perfection. The film attempts to raise the issue of how, as the number of beauty chasers proliferate our society, we are made to rethink just what defines beauty and what being a perfect human really entails.
Story - 7.3/10
Direction - 7.3/10
Characterisation - 7.5/10
Geek Satisfaction - 7.5/10