[HanCinema's Review] "Vegetarian"
By Panos Kotzathanasis | Published on
Based on the homonymous novel by Han Kang, "Vegetarian" is a disturbing as much as impressive movie that found its way to the "World Cinema Narrative Competition" at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, at a time when something like this was quite a feat for Korean films.
The story follows Yeong-hye, a dutiful Korean wife, who, after watching a dream, decides to become a vegetarian, completely cutting off anything made of meat. This seemingly unwarranted decision breaks her life completely, leaving her husband perplexed and her family worried and enraged. Soon all her relationships start being based on violence, shame and desire and the consequences become dire for everyone. Her sister is the only one who remains by her side no matter what, even asking her husband, video artist Min-ho to keep an eye on her. However, he becomes fascinated with her condition and asks her to pose for him on full body paint, that eventually leads to an erotic journey that seems to combine art with carnal desires.
Lim Woo-seong shoots a film where the tension permeates all of its aspects, at least until it gives its stead to eroticism and art. The scenes that show Young-hye in the hospital, before the story goes back through flashbacks, initiate this approach, the becomes even more palpable when she clashes with her family regarding her stopping of eating meat. If her husband is annoyed and perplexed, her parents are much worse, with her father in particular even resorting to violence, in one of the most impactful scenes in the movie that also functions as a direct accusation towards patriarchy. Even more so, when, through another flashback, the background of the family and the partial reasoning for Young-hye's vegetarianism come to the fore.
Through these interactions, the director makes a number of pointy social comments, mostly revolving around the role of women, particularly regarding what is expected of them in the still male-dominated S. Korean society, and the extremes one has to reach in order to escape them and the consequences such a decision can have. That the people who are supposed to love her unconditionally end up turning against her for a simple change of culinary tendencies, highlights this fact in the most eloquent fashion, as a metaphor of what happens when women try to break their chains. Furthemore, the failure of the family and marriage as institutions is also showcased, both through the protagonist's but also her sister's.
This last element brings us to the second part of the movie, which becomes intensely erotic, changing the whole aesthetics of the movie, both visually and contextually. In that fashion, the comments switch towards human desire and sex, and how they can dictate people's actions, along with the empowerment deriving from the lack of shame, which are presented in all their glory. The way the "sin" is initiated is also very smart in its biblical reference, with Min-ho first approaching his sister-in-law by bringing her fruits. Lastly, death and madness, and the definition people give them also take a large portion of the narrative, in essence concluding the movie in the most impactful way.
The way the erotic element comes to the fore in combination with art is among the most impressive aspects of the movie, at least in visual terms, with the painted bodies, the sex scenes, and the resulting videos being excellently portrayed, with DP Kang Chang-bae's work in that regard being truly astonishing. The way he draws from the evident beauty of Yeong-hye's painted/naked body in particular is exceptional, in a series of sequences that are bound to stay on the viewer's mind, both for their artistic sensualism and their overall artistic value. At the same time, these scenes serve a contextual purpose, highlighting the fact that the protagonist is not a "vegetable" herself, but a woman with desires who is not afraid to act on them. Their placement in the movie also works excellently, with Moon In-dae's editing being excellent both in that regard, but also on the overall leisurely pace and the placement of the various flashbacks and flashforwards.
This review would not be complete without mentioning the outstanding performance of Chae Min-seo as Yeong-hye, who is exceptional in her many transformations and the ways she changes from a dutiful wife, to a "rebel", to a lover and to a victim. The fact that her acting is quite laconic actually adds to its impact, in a performance that carries the movie from beginning to end. Hyun Sung in the role of her brother-in-law and Kim Yeo-jin as her sister portray their inner struggle quite nicely, with the scene they eventually clash being the apogee of their performance.
Lastly, the excellent score by Jeong Yong-jin "coats" the movie excellently, adding to the overall atmosphere in the most fitting way.
"Vegetarian" is a great existential psychoerotic thriller and one of these rare occasions when the movie is more enjoyable than the book.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Available on DVD from YESASIA
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.