This is not Walt Disney’s Cinderella. In fact, even The Brothers Grimm got nothing on director Man-dae Bong’s tale of beauty and revenge. You can check your notions of fairy godmothers and glass slippers at the door before you put this disc into your unsuspecting DVD player. The Korean writing and directing team of Bong and Kwang-soo Son (BLOODY BEACH) has whittled down the core of the classic fairy tale (which is said to have it roots in Chinese folklore) to that of a tale of transformation.
At the center of the story the filmmakers have melded the Korean archetype of Ul-jjang (The Perfect Face) into the standard Asian ghost story mold as a group of twenty-something women, who have decided to go under the knife, awaken to discover that an otherworldly spirit also covets their perfect beauty. The glue that holds this loose interpretation together, centers on a dutiful daughter—Hyoon-su (Sin Se-kyeong) and her Plastic Surgeon mother—Yoon-hee (Do Ji-won). The victims of this rage are all patients of the mother and friends of the daughter. Both women will play a part in an elaborate and shocking secret. One-by-one, as the group of young women is torn apart, Hyoon-su will begin to uncover just what terrible past events her mother has been hiding all these long years. But will it be too late to save them all from a bloody fate?
CINDERELLA is everything that is brilliant and everything that is difficult with Asian cinema rolled into one. It’s gorgeously shot, in fact, it’s probably the best looking Korean film I’ve ever seen—and in the land of Chan-wook Park that says a lot. The stylized look of the film is luscious, with its deep black and blue tones offset against the warm lighting of the backdrops. It’s a cinematographer’s wet-celluloid-dream. The violence is stark, fierce and altogether brutal. And while the gore isn’t over the top like in a Miike film, it’s painful to watch the crimson streams of blood that flow through the film, richly laid out in shocking splashes of horror. To top it off, the score from composer Jin-yung Hyun is mesmerizing in a beautifully understated way.
At the same time this visual and aural orgy of perfection is playing out across the screen the viewer is utterly lost in the most convoluted plotline ever as we try to discern who, what and why the friends are being killed off. We also have to differentiate characters that have virtually no backstory before they start peeling their own faces off. The supporting cast is almost interchangeable and since they are never fully fleshed out, it becomes almost impossible to care who dies or why—it only relieves the viewer that there is one less schoolgirl to keep track of.
The revelation of the film occurs in a flashback that is difficult, at best, to distinguish from current reality—a point that becomes clear once it’s over, thusly causing an additional 10-minutes of total confusion over the exposition that is occurring during the sequence. Once this passes, the film is hurdling toward a finale in which the sanity of the mother is rapidly deteriorating and taking most of the audiences remaining comprehension along with it, as fantasy and reality start to blend together and hallucinations encroach upon her crumbling life. It’s at this stage that Hyoon-su discovers her mother’s awful past and how that historic turn-of-events has suddenly permeated the present with a culture of death. As the film concludes, most of the outstanding questions are answered but, by this time, the breadth of the story arc has simply left the audiences minds utterly exhausted from all the effort.
CINDERELLA is an interesting promise, though I think the title of the film is more a hindrance than it is a help for the overall vision. If nothing else, it certainly sets up expectations that the filmmakers have no intention of fulfilling. The film on its own—putting aside preconceived notions—is only a variation on the standard haunted tales that have pervaded eastern productions since the JU-ON and RINGU made them so fashionable. Still, the scope of the project is impressive and leaves no doubt that the international success of native-son Chan-wook Park has opened the door of World Cinema for a Korean invasion.