"Sister, did you know? I thought the trees were standing straight, but they're balancing on their hands."
Yeong-hye (Chae Min-seo) lies frail, malnourished and seemingly close to death in a hospital bed as her sister, Ji-hye (Kim Yeo-Jin), tries in vain to feed her. Taken back to an earlier point in time, we learn that Yeong-hye has been having recurring dreams (or, more accurately, nightmares) which have resulted in a growing repulsion for meat, with her finding even its smell disgusting and increasingly unbearable. Though she initially turns to vegetarianism, Yeong-hye eats less and less over time and as her weight plummets Ji-hye's artist husband, Min-ho (Kim Hyun-Sung), tries to help her (and her fragile, fracturing state of mind) by convincing her to be a model for his forthcoming exhibition of body-painted nudes. Inevitably growing ever closer to Yeong-hye as he paints flowers on her naked body, Min-ho's caring feelings for her are soon infused with both lust and need. However, as their liaisons become increasingly sexually charged, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating altogether...
With its story of mental illness, eating disorders, love, sex and betrayal, you can take it as read that Vegetarian is a dark, and at times even bleak, affair. However, first-time director Lim Woo-seong wisely avoids any melodramatic swayings and, by placing Yeong-hye's perspective centre stage for the majority of the film, ensures that proceedings are utterly gripping, rather than simply depressing.
Though Yeong-hye's feelings move from anger to confusion to desperation (and finally acceptance), the one thing she never feels is self-pity. Instead, her yearning for understanding (both from those around her and of herself) underlies almost every scene in which she appears and, combined with the anxieties and heartbreak present being largely confined to supporting characters, the sadder elements of Vegetarian are never over-emphasised or over-played within the poignant narrative.
As a by-product of this desperate need within Yeong-hye, along with her growing mental issues and her family's insistence on trying to force her to be like everyone else for her own good, Vegetarian is often (deliberately) uncomfortable viewing and, with the gradual changes in Yeong-hye's mental state subtly creeping into play over virtually the entirety of the film's running time, the slow pace of the plot will certainly not be to everyone's taste but those who appreciate brooding drama which eats away (so to speak) at the characters, rather than tearing them asunder, will almost undoubtedly find this to be one of the film's many strong points.
While he sub-plot of Min-ho and his exhibition may - in comparison to Yeong-hye's individual narrative arc - initially appear to be ever-so-slightly less vital to proceedings, that is simply because the main's character's story is so overwhelmingly gripping and poignantly moving (added to at every step by Chae Min-Seo's astounding performance) and at the end of the day it must be said that this side-story is just as necessary to the overall story as any of the larger plot elements:
Min-ho is an artist suffering from a complete mental and creative block, causing him to feel that he has no option but to cancel his forthcoming exhibition. However, from almost the very moment that Ji-hye asks him to speak to Yeong-hye about her eating habits (or lack thereof) he, virtually unconsciously, begins to make sketches of a nude female body covered in flowers and since Yeong-hye is clearly his "muse" as well as his inspiration, it soon begins to dawn on him that if he can convince her to model for him he'll be able to help her at the same time as helping himself. The ensuing scenes are both graphic and visually explicit bringing, as they do, a further degree of discomfort (as Yeong-hye continues to lose weight throughout) at the same time as raising an implication as to the ethics of Min-ho's actions, but wisely the question of how much his needs are self-serving as opposed to altruistic is ultimately left to viewers to ponder for themselves.
As the conclusion of Vegetarian steps back to the original focus of Yeong-hye and her psychological battle, no hard and fast answers are ultimately given; no definitive full-stops put in place but by the time the credits roll the title 'Vegetarian' has been utterly redefined.
A dark, and at times even bleak, story of mental illness, eating disorders, love, sex and betrayal, Vegetarian will give those who appreciate brooding drama something to really chew over.
Without question, Vegetarian is Chae Min-Seo’s film from start to finish. Her performance as Yeong-hye is utterly astounding throughout and she, quite simply, owns every scene in which she appears. Chae Min-seo lost 18 lbs (around 8kgs) over a period of 4 weeks prior to shooting in preparation for the role - her being noticeably underweight adding a further level of believability to, and empathy for, her troubled character.
That said, even if she had lost no weight whatsoever, her portrayal of Yeong-hye is so phenomenal that it would have been almost as effective anyway.
The rest of the cast give accomplished performances throughout, but none can hold a candle to Chae Min-seo’s portrayal of this troubled soul and, with the focus of the majority of the film largely centring on Yeong-hye and her disintegrating mental state, there really isn’t the need for their performances to be anything more than supporting cast portrayals.
Roles (Actor - Character):
Chae Min-Seo - Yeong-hye
Kim Hyun-Sung - Min-ho
Kim Yeo-Jin - Ji-hye
Director: Lim Woo-seong
The DVD used for this review is the Korean, Region 3, release from Buzz Pictures which has an anamorphic transfer presented with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The picture is clear throughout and is free of ghosting and image artifacts.
The sound is provided as a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0, both of which are crisp and and clean and compliment the nuances of the soundtrack well.
Excellent subtitles are provided
throughout the main feature but English-speaking viewers should note that, as with many Korean DVD releases, there are no subtitles available on any of the extras.
Actors: Chae Min-Seo, Kim Hyun-Sung, Kim Yeo-Jin
Directors: Lim Woo-seong
Format: Anamorphic, Colour, PAL, Subtitled, Widescreen
Region: Region 3
Number of discs: 1
Classification: 18 (Korean Film Classification)
Studio: Buzz Pictures
Run Time: 113 mins (approx.)
DVD Special Features:
• Dolby Digital Korean 2.0 & 5.1 • English Subtitles • Trailer Gallery