Sunday, June 5, 2011

Vegetarian (2010)

Since the announcement of the 2011 New York Asian Film Festival’s lineup, New York City film fans are waiting anxiously for its arrival. No need to hold your breath in anticipation of chances to see unique Asian films in the theater; the Korean Cultural Service continues to bring biweekly screenings of Korean movies to the Tribeca Cinemas for free. This Tuesday, their series of independent films continues with a screening of Vegetarian (reviewed below).

The movie Vegetarian takes a somewhat rare (medium rare?)
look at the problem of mental illness in Korea. It offers up a sharp skewering of several aspects of Korean society, from the questionable endurance of the traditional family to the ethical treatment of those that do not conform to conventional values. Watching the film is a not always entertaining, but often raw and unsettling experience. (don’t worry, I promise no more food puns for the rest of the review)
The film called to mind a recent Japanese film shown at the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival that focused on societal and healthcare related issues, Dear Doctor, not so much because the issues dealt with or even the styles of the two films were all that similar. Rather, despite being somewhat lacking in their ability to engage the audience throughout the movie, they both bring to mind truly thought provoking matters that linger in the viewer’s mind long after the films are over.
The story starts out with the main character attempting to escape from some sort of secluded treatment facility, in what looks like a possible new age cultish brainwashing scenario. As events that lead up to that point unfold, we see that it is more about a protruding nail of nonconformity being hammered down by a mainstream society unwilling to accept it. The proverbial nail takes the form of Yeong-hye, a young housewife who suddenly suffers a violent repulsion to meat. Either in spite of or because of the intensely negative reaction of her family (particularly the males), Yeong-hye takes on more extreme symptoms, like not being able to stand the presence of any animal-related products, and a growing desire to take on a more plantlike state of existence. Everything about her family life is typical at first glance. Some dark aspects lurk under the surface, though, and give some possible insight into her worsening, unusual condition.
The issue that this film had me wrestling with the most pertains to the right of the state to forcefully intervene on behalf of individuals considered incapable of independently living their lives. In some very discomfortingly portrayed sequences, the individual in question is not only rendered incapacitated by the institution charged with caring for her, but physically brutalized in the name of conforming her to society’s norms.
To say the film’s position on the issue is complicated would be an understatement, and I wonder how much of it is intentional and how much is due to a not entirely cohesive vision on the part of the director. I for one cannot clearly say. It would be easier to take the side of the put upon individual if her persecution was more pronounced and her mental state more lucid. Instead there are many views of her listless, emaciated form leading one to question whether outside forces should leave her to live her life or if they are justified in assuming control.
One troubling aspect of the film, which actually takes up the long middle section of the story, is a relationship that develops between Yeong-hye and her brother-in-law and artist, Min-ho, after her mental state and relationship with her family reach a critical point. It lingers way too long in arty-erotic territory that is far too predictable to warrant its lengthy stay. Then, just like that, the interlude ends leaving me wondering if the time would’ve been better spent delving into the particulars of Yeong-hye’s state of mind.
This part of the story seems as though it could have been told independently of the main one. I could easily imagine it fitting in with one of Kim Ki Duk’s minimalistic films about individuals estranged from society forming intricate unions. Only in his hands, the situation would have come across as less talky and with more interesting uses of visual symbolism.
While I didn’t care for this aspect of the film, I must acknowledge that it leads to even more pondering about the bigger issues at hand. I mentioned earlier how it is the male figures that seem most damaging to the protagonist’s psyche, and Min-ho is perhaps no exception. He can be viewed as manipulative, taking advantage of Yeong-hye’s mental state to satiate his own lust without considering the consequences, and then all but vanishing without a trace. Whether he is meant to be seen as a force of tumult or a source of liberation for Yeong-hye is a mystery whose answer lies only in the filmmaker’s hands. It will no doubt receive different interpretations by different viewers.
Truly the decision to hold this screening puts the ‘cultural’ in Korean Cultural Services. It raises a lot of questions about Korean society as a whole. One must wonder if Yeong Hye’s initial offending qualities would truly be met with such bitter resistance, considering how usual environments are where vegetarianism and veganism are catered to in the chicest of supermarkets and restaurants. While the abundance of films emanating from its shores suggests a worldly and progressive society, there is perhaps a presence of very strong traditionalism, and along with that, an undercurrent of intolerance.
Despite not being the most smooth cinematic ride, the facts that this film calls to mind the work of an esteemed director like Kim Ki-duk and will certainly bring up thought provoking debate over serious issues makes it well worth a look, especially if you are interested in different perspectives on the treatment of mental illness.

And you can take that look this Tuesday, for FREE, at the Tribeca Cinemas! You can find more information at the Korean Cultural Service website.

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