A review of 'Vegetarian,' a dark and disturbing Korean drama from Sundance
A demented character drama puts me off my feed
There are few things that drive me as nitpick crazy as a film that plays a film festival that has a terrible IMDb page and no press notes. I'll still be able to tell you what I thought of the film, obviously, but I won't be able to talk about the characters or the actors by name. This is a Korean film by a first-time director, and not a main entry in the festival, so it looks like it's basically flying under the radar.
No matter. It's easy enough to say that it's a smart adult character drama that carries an unexpected erotic charge amidst a barrage of profound sorrow that seems to be woven into the fabric of the film. It's not as easy to describe why, but I'll give it a shot.
When the film starts, it's a dark and angry family drama in which Yeong-hye (Chae Min-seo), the younger of a pair of adult sisters, has a terrible dream that results in her decision to stop eating meat. More than that, though, she grows almost phobic of it. She can't have it in the house, and she can't have any milk or eggs in the house, either. After a while, she can't even stand the smell of her husband (Kim Young-jae) if he's eaten meat during the day. She rejects it to a degree that seems mentally unhinged, like the mere thought of it is too much for her to bear. Basically, it starts off like a distinctly Korean riff on the Todd Haynes film "Safe."
But the film isn't that easy to categorize, and before long, it takes a crazy left turn and becomes "Tattoo," the Bruce Dern/Maud Adams film. I can honestly say that's the last movie I would ever have expected to reference in writing my Sundance reviews this year. And even that description only gives you a bare bones idea of how the thing actually plays.
Director Lim Woo-seong has an exceptional sense of composition and mood, even if he doesn't have that firm a handle on narrative. When he tries to creep you out, he's very good at it, and when the film's focus shifts from creeping you out to erotic obsession, he turns out to be very good at turning you on, too. Sang-min (Park Sang-yeon), who is married to Yeong-hye's older sister (Kim Yeo-jin), is an artist, adrift, and it's been a while since he's had the courage to show his work to anyone. Nothing has inspired him, and he's not sure he's ever going to create again. When Young-hye starts falling apart, though, he's suddenly interested, drawn to something in her collapse. He's attracted to her as art first, but realizes that's not enough, that he actually has to have her. He talks her into letting him paint stylized flower patterns on her nude body so he can videotape her. Then he adds a male model to the tape, painting him as well, so he can see them together, so he can see the places where the patterns meet. Finally, he has to turn himself into a canvass, joining her, and joining with her. Both of them are healed in some way by this liason, and even though there are several taboos broken, they don't seem to feel like they're doing anything wrong. There's an innocence, a naivete to the way they come together, and what happens has to happen for both of them, even if it torches every other relationship in their lives.
Eventually the film does circle back around to her dislike of meat and the way it affects her family, and it earns its title in a way I didn't see coming. You could accurately argue that this is really two films, both executed well but never successfully married. Here's hoping Lim Woo-seong makes more films, as he seems to be a genuine talent, if a little unpolished at this point.
And here's hoping at his next festival he hires a goddamn publicist.
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