VIFF Review: Beauty Water’s message gets lost in a weak narrative

Beauty Water‘s central premise holds so much promise for shining a light on the dangerous popularity for constructive surgery among young women. Especially in the film’s native South Korea, women are increasingly putting themselves through regular procedures to attain a vision of beauty incessantly targeted at them from both local and foreign media representations. The idol business is booming, further increasing the pressure. So it’s a real shame that Beauty Water elevates this idea with some significant body horror, only to throw it away with a weak script and inability to focus on the issues in any depth.

Framing itself as a kind of Faustian warning, Beauty Water follows Yaeji, a media intern whose best days (read: slimmest) are long behind her. Unhappy with just about every aspect of her life, she frequently binges on junk food and alcohol while surfing message boards for hours on end. It doesn’t help that she works for a TV presenter whose beauty is only matched by her awful attitude towards everyone below her status.

Buried in a rut of self-loathing, Yaeji receives a mysterious package of Beauty Water, a product that apparently (through the use of a grainy infomercial that would have most people running for cover) takes the years right off, stripping the layers of wrinkles and fat in a rather literal sense. Yaeji sees it as her only hope, and the true downwards spiral begins.

Unfortunately , it’s just at the delivery of the film’s true premise where the narrative starts to fall apart. The application of Beauty Water becomes a repeated act, each triggered by desperation. It should have the same feel of impending dread as Primer, where every time it feels like everything’s getting worse, but we’re never given the time to dread. The film glosses over the repercussions of each layer, and Yaeji’s characterization moves so fast that we are not able to see the seeds of growing psychosis.

The horror aspect tries to increase in intensity, from glooping skin reactions to visions of horrific skeletal forms waiting in the dim light, but everything is undone by the film’s animation style. The best way I can describe it is computer 3D models flattened with minimal shading to give them the appearance of hand-drawn cells. It’s the same technique used in cut-scenes for Japanese games like Catherine, and in fact often feels like watching one extended cut-scene. The movements are fluid and clean to the point of weightlessness, making the body horror elements less Junji Ito and more Rick & Morty. It all just nullifies the impact of a film that is trying to bring alive the very real horror of body disfiguration.

At least , that was it was trying until the last act. Not content with just superficially exploring the film’s main theme, it is completely jettisoned in favour of a final confrontation with a serial killer with a penchant for body parts. By the time the final scenes roll – the previous apartment scene having again lost any of its intentioned shock through the weak animation and direction – you’re left with a conclusion that has no connection to the rest of the movie. In fact, of the two elements in the film, both would have been improved by not having the other. The end result is that you’re left with a smattering of interesting ideas left in the cold by a film that wasn’t able to capitalize on any of them.

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