With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


 Vegetarian / Chaesikjuuija
Directed by LIM Woo-Seong
South Korea, 2010, 111 minutes
When: Saturday, March 17th @ 5:30PM
Where: Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, NYC
Between 1st and 2nd Avenues
Buy Tickets

Vegetarian is quite simply the best film I've seen since watching Poetry by LEE Chang-dong (another Korean director) last fall. And considering how much I've praised LEE's films, you can appreciate how impressed I was by LIM's film.

The movie begins in a wooded area. Rain is falling as the camera moves forward to reveal a slim woman standing by herself. She is Yeong-hye, and she is soon joined by three figures who have come to retrieve take her back to the hospital from which she's been wandered. The movie switches between flashback scenes depicting how Yeong-hye came to be hospitalized for mental and eating disorders and scenes set at the hospital where she is visited by her older sister.

Yeong-hye (right) is visited in the hospital by her distraught sister

Yeong-hye's problems began because of dreams she had, ones that we only learn about to a degree and over the course of the movie. One night, her husband Gil-soo found her in the kitchen where she was throwing out all the meat in the refrigerator. Things come to the point where she claims she can smell meat her husband has eaten elsewhere through the pores of his skin.

When her husband must go out of town on business, she stays with her sister and brother-in-law and their young son. Min-ho Cho, the brother-in-law, is a video artist with a severe block. Observing Yeong-hye inspires him and he begins to fill his sketchbook with drawings at a furious pace. Eventually he asks her if she'll pose for him, allowing him to paint flowers and plants on her nude body, then videotape her.

Min-ho proposes that Yeong-hey model for him

When she agrees, he asks her to keep this a secret from her sister, his wife. Does he do this because he senses that this isn't a right thing to do, or is it merely a precaution to prevent conventional thinking from keeping him from realizing his artistic vision? Or perhaps a combination of the two?

These are the two threads with which the film weaves its engrossing tale: Yeong-hye's bizarrely intense aversion to meat -- with no attempt to eat a healthy vegetarian diet -- and Min-ho's artistic quest. Or is the latter really a quest for sexual intimacy with his sister-in-law?

Yeong-hye (center) in her brother-in-law's studio, with
another model (left). Note Min-ho's video camera at right.
Based on the novel of the same name by HAN Kang, Vegetarian is a riveting psycho-sexual drama, definitely a film that I will be revisiting more than once. With only one viewing, I can't say definitively that it's a work of cinematic perfection, but if not it's damn close.

ACF Rating: 4 out of 4 stars, highest recommendation.

This screening of Vegetarian is part of Japan Society's Globus Film Series Love Will Tear Us Apart. Full series info here.

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