Kyun-dong YeoJi-ho OhJi-hyeon Lee
La Belle
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Kyun-dong Yeo
Writer: Kyun-dong Yeo, Sang-woo Lee
Keywords: boobs
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Actor: Ji-ho Oh, Ji-hyeon Lee
Format: 93 minutes
Website category: Asian
Review date: 2 February 2012
It's a minimalist Korean art film with only two actors in it. There's quite a lot of nudity. However the important thing to know about it is that it's beautiful, languid and mildly hypnotic.
Ji-ho Oh is a writer who's so buttoned-up and restrained that you could believe him a serial killer. He lives alone in his apartment and never reacts to anything. However the first thing that happens to him is a beautiful girl (Ji-hyeon Lee) inviting herself into his life and bed. We don't know where she comes from or what their background is together. She just moves in without fuss and ten minutes of screen time later, they're a couple. This in itself is unusual. Movies normally focus on what this film jumps straight over, i.e. the getting-together. "Will they, won't they?" That kind of thing. Here there's none of that. Instead it's all about studying the relationship, as they have a couple's conversations and inhabit each other's space in a manner both relaxed and intimate. It feels at once closely observed, a bit dull and pointless and really rather lovely.
That's not to say that there's nothing to explore, mind you. Neither Ji-ho Oh nor the audience understand the mercurial Ji-hyeon Lee, who leads the relationship and yet is openly in love with another man. The film reminds me of Hideaki Anno's Ritual the same year, except with more nudity and less actual madness. Lee seems to be coming at love from some strange angles and going through a journey of denial regarding the very concept.
Ji-ho Oh is compelling too, though. He's like a beautiful Frankenstein's monster, with a default mode of "silently observing", and we're nearly at the end before he's learned to let go and be himself. He can't do relationship discussions, for instance. She'll ask him potentially dangerous questions and he can't find better answers than "it turns me on" or "I like your body". He's not a pig. He's honestly trying to answer. He just hasn't found his wavelength yet, either to understand her or himself.
He also can't handle pain or jealousy. It's as if he can't process it and he's too autistically head-governed to let himself act on impulse, so he does nothing. He even scared me in that scene where he silently screams like a vampire in sunlight and then does... again, nothing.
This was the first film of both Oh and Lee, who've since gone on to acting careers that are occasional in Lee's case and decent enough in Oh's. Both are also truly beautiful, with enough nudity from Oh as well as Lee that I found myself wondering at one point if the director was gay. I think Oh was a model before this and I'm sure Lee must have been too. They have flawless bodies, which the director shoots as if he's making classical art. As for their acting, I liked them both. I think they really find something together and bring alive material that could easily have looked drab and dull. I've seen criticism of Oh, but I'm not sure if the critics aren't confusing the performance with the character. Lee's work though is obviously a tour de force and you'd have to be mad to find fault with her.
Oh, by the way, I lied. There aren't only two actors in the film, although that statement's 99% true. They're not locked in a hermetic bubble or anything. They'll go out and meet people in shops, for instance, while in addition there's the man Lee's in love with. We see him once or twice, or hear him on the telephone.
As for the sex... well, if nothing else it's remarkable for being perhaps the main single avenue of Oh's character development. Whatever one might or might not otherwise say or do, you can't lie with your dick. He evolves. We see his character journey. He surprises us, being rough and then gentle. In the end he even learns how to be silly.
This film is going to bore the arse off a lot of people, but I thought it was a fascinating study of a relationship that to me felt strange but very real. I don't understand why it does what it does at the end, but... well, Korean. Besides, I'm not convinced we're meant to take it as literally true anyway. Everything about it is elegant, including the piano accompaniment. Even the nudity never gets old. It's never banal or gratuitous, instead always maintaining its beauty. I think I admire it. Incidentally it's based on a novel, whose author is also the film's director.
"Then they should die."