“Vegetarian”, originally released in 2009, marked the debut of Korean art house director Lim Woo Seong, and like his recent “Scars” was adapted from a short story by writer Han Gang. The film is a dark psycho drama following a young woman, played by actress Chae Min Seo (“The Loner”), whose sudden decision not to eat meat signals the start of a descent into mental and physical decline. An at times surreal and disturbing affair, the film screened to acclaim at a variety of international festivals, including Pusan in 2009 and Sundance in 2010, winning Lim praise as a fascinating new talent in Korean cinema.
Chae Min Seo plays Yeong Hye, an unbalanced housewife whose husband and family are surprised and dismayed when she one day announces that she is becoming a vegetarian. Her behaviour quickly becomes erratic, ridding the house entirely of meat and gradually isolating herself, her unsettled nightly dreams invading her days. Things change when Yeong Hye starts spending time her brother-in-law Min Ho (Kim Hyun Sung, “Puzzle”), a tortured artist type who has hit a creative dry patch and is questioning his life. With her posing for him as a model, the two embark together on a bizarre journey of discovery and transformation.
To make things clear from the start: “Vegetarian” is a resolutely art house film, an odd, ambiguous affair which is quite likely to bemuse or frustrate anyone looking for an average, easy answers film. Director Lim Woo Seong certainly takes what could have been a fairly straightforward psychological character study to some very strange places, mixing themes of identity and spiritualism with gender struggles and even some Cronenberg-style body horror. As with “Scars”, Lim keeps things enigmatic, explaining very little and leaving it up to the viewer to discern reasons behind Yeong He’s metamorphosis, possibly suggesting that it might have been childhood trauma, but shying away from any explicit elaborations. Thankfully, despite its wilful obtuseness, the film is poetic and engaging, with some gorgeous visuals, and open minded viewers used to adventurous cinema should find its lyricism pleasing and stimulating.
The film is unsurprisingly quite dark and disturbing, with some of Yeong He’s dreams and visions being weird and startling, though is never shocking in a gratuitous manner, Lim eschewing anything too exploitative. This having been said, it does feature a fair amount of surprisingly explicit sex, with actress Chae Min Seo appearing fully nude on many occasions and engaging in some graphic couplings. Lim manages to walk a strange line between the erotic and the grotesque, linking the naked human body with flowers, presumably as a means of symbolically underlining Yeong He’s blossoming away from the oppression of her husband and family life. At the same time though the film does not treat this as being necessarily a good thing, with her increasingly unhinged actions making it clear that the film is unlikely to end well (or even end in a coherent, understandable manner).
Chae Min Seo is superb in the lead role, and the film ultimately belongs to her. Having undergone a tough dietary regime in order to reflect her character’s weight loss and growing fragility, she turns in a convincing and powerful performance, giving the film enough of an emotional anchor to prevent it from becoming too abstract. Her ability to generate sympathy for a potentially unfathomable woman is impressive indeed, and though it is might be difficult to relate with what she is going through, it’s hard not to care about her fate. Kim Hyun Sung is similarly on strong form, and the relationship between their characters in the later stages of the film makes for a compelling dynamic, a shifting, charged bond in which is never clear who is really helping or controlling who.
Though “Vegetarian” is not a film for everyone, and to an extent is guilty of arty pretentiousness, it’s a bold, beautifully crafted and highly original effort. Lim Woo Seong is as much a poet as a director, and the challenging film should be enjoyed by brave viewers with a taste for the artistic and outlandish.
Woo-Seong Lim (director) / Woo-Seong Lim (screenplay)
CAST: Min-seo Chae