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In the new Korean animation feature Beauty Water, Kyung Hun Cho signs a gripping and poignant story about the seek for beauty and its aftermath.

We learn that the original Korean  11-episode web comic series “Beauty Water” was also a hit in China as well.  In its feature film version, Beauty Water directed by Kyung-hun Cho (production: SS Animent, Studio Animal) has incorporated this episodic structure (from a script by Han-bin Lee) into a very coherent pattern, which tells the ugly duckling story -with many twists.

Young Yaeji is the conscientious young stylist, whose extra weight causes her problems at the TV network she's working; the main star of the show, Miri, is keen to abuse her, something that would make Yaeji even more irritable than usual. Another public humiliation on TV set will lead her to being the no.1 Instagram person of Korea -for all the wrong reasons.

Yaeji is isolated at home, living with her parents, who are still unable to understand her reactions. A sudden encounter with the "Beauty Water" product (carefully laid out instructions) will lead Yaeji to try her own luck.

The ugly duckling story is a familiar trope in all kinds of storytelling; here it is both played for a sense of twisted romance and a continuous, 84-minute critique of media frenzy and the dictatorship of looks. In Kyung-hun Cho's universe, everything is so exaggerated that it may look faulty -but still rings true. Media executives only care for their best interest, and even elevator men advise Yaeji to lose some weight -cultural preconditions about beauty and the body obviously run across the class spectrum.

Lighting and shadows predominate in the interiors, and dazzling light is king in the computer/mobile screens. Yet the film cleverly starts with a badly broadcast message about "Beauty Water" - beauty is so fragile as to be out of focus in its initial presentation.

Yaeji will get all the beauty help she can get. Wanting to be loved, but still loving herself more than anyone else, she only has eyes for a very handsome young executive -and well-read rich guy, called Kwon Jihoon. In many ways, Beauty Water utilizes the format of the teenager romance to turn it upside down. Without placing itself in the societal margins (as some of the animated features of Yeon Sang-ho will do), Beauty Water is a parable that floats cinematically between the ordinary and the horrific -with one or two (but no more) violent scenes thrown in for good measure.

This is an advantage that extends to its visuals; whenever we have to experience a change from beauty to ugliness and the reverse, we clearly notice. While character design obeys itself the standards of a teenage story, there are scenes which really stand out in terms of visual expressiveness -the bath scenes among those.

The main character itself is no victim either;  she's an isolated person whose need to be loved by giving another person to the world will result in her acting cruelly and unfairly to those most close to her. There are welcoming twists in this plot-driven, clearly gripping thriller, to which you may think you know the answer already -before another turn lands on your feet.

Beauty Water will not ponder on the bitterness of the eternal quest for youth, but shares all its disappointments; it functions as a cumulative net where there's no escape, including its menacing third act. The film itself works as a calculated map for disaster in an accelerated attempt to destroy your dreams by beauty fantasies.

Vassilis Kroustallis

Directed by: Kyung Hun CHO | Production: SS ANIMENT INC., Byungjin JEON, STUDIO ANIMAL
Script: Han-bin Lee | Camera: Seong-cheol Moon | Sound: Dae-sung Hong | Editing: Kyung-hun Cho
Distribution: TRIPLE PICTURES, Kimyung KANG

Beauty Water was selected in the Contrechamps Competition at Annecy Festival 2020. Thanks to SSAniment for the opportunity to watch the film.

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