The beauty industry, at last count, was a 532 billion dollar industry. And with Korean skincare and cosmetics trends leading the way for growth in the male sector, one can only imagine how important looking groomed is turning out to be.

Let’s admit it – we are swayed by attractive people. There’s even a psychological term for it – the ‘halo effect’. So it’s not that we’re shallow, it’s science! But we also understand that beauty needs to go beyond being skin deep, and that is the theme Beauty Water explores.

Based on a popular webtoon anthology in Korea, the film brings to fore the extremes in which people are willing to go to attain beauty, and by its proxy, acceptance and success. It’s a tale as old as time, but the results in the film are far from a song. Rendered in stylistic animation, Cho Kong-hun fleshes out the terrifying concepts of the original Tales of the Unusual, and piles on the body horror.

References to Junji Ito’s work is inevitable, even if Beauty Water lacks the Japanese creator’s tender nuances and sexual overtones. But in terms of graphic reveals, the film is just as grotesque and shocking – a credit to the morbid imaginations of toon writer Oh Seong-dae.

Yaeji is an obese make-up artist with a huge chip on her shoulder. She displays a meek countenance when she is bullied by her peers, but hides a rage that is unleashed online as a troll. Rumours spread of a miraculous beauty product and turns out, she receives one in the mail. Even as the truth during the application shocks her, she dives in, eager to shed her old image. The results send her on a spiral, hurtling through obsession, hate and vengeance. It’s not a pretty sight, even if she is.

Lee Han-bin has adapted the screenplay, making significant changes with the lead, some story arcs and the availability of the product. Some of these additions work, like the incredible dual-coloured eyes of Yaeji as a plot trope, or her contrasting behaviour at home. But others, like the leery security guard and minimart cashier, suffer from extreme caricature, and makes the film more insipid than inspired.

Aptly produced in Korea, the world-famous mecca of plastic surgery, the film has its roots in the ‘lookism’ or oe-mo-ji-sang-ju-ui where a strong prejudice is associated with physical appearances. Well-worth exploring, Beauty Water would have been a great platform for delving into the consequences and even impact it has on the people around the afflicted as they pursue beauty. This happens with a backstory towards the end sounding off on the negative pressure and damage to self-esteem for not giving merit to hard work and skill over appearances, but multiple characters and their cliches dampen believability and can all benefit from better development.

We should feel sympathetic to Yaeji, but her sharp tongue and violent outbursts only reinforce the bias. If Beauty Water could have spent more time working on the encounters at home, or throw in a friend or two that can provide tension to the relationships, then maybe we would find the ending more horrific than… a little comical.

But still, this ode to the horrors of obsessive vanity and plastic surgery remains quite an achievement with stellar artwork and a wicked delivery. It’ll be exciting to see future works as the filmmakers and studios mature over time.

A gory fable on the negatives of being obsese with beauty, this animated feature shines in its medium but is a little empty in characterisation.


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