A Korean adoption drama that heads to a very bleak place indeed…
Writer-director Lee Sang-woo, who caused quite a stir on the Korean indie scene with his hard-hitting features Mother is a Whore and Father is a Dog, returned in 2012 with Barbie, another scathing look at modern society. Although the film was a step up on terms of production values and budget, it certainly didn’t see Lee softening his approach any, boldly venturing once again into dark and taboo territory. Another acclaimed hit on the festival circuit for the director, including being the first Korean film to bring home a prize from the Giffoni International Film Festival in Italy, the film stars top child actress Kim Sae-ron (The Man From Nowhere), along with her own real-life younger sister Kim Ah-ron (Perfect Number) and actor Lee Chun-hee (Beautiful).
Kim Sae-ron and Kim Ah-ron play sisters Soon-young and Soon-ja, living in a small, rundown seaside town with their mentally disabled father, trying to make ends meet. One day, their sleazy uncle Mang-taek (Lee Chun-hee) turns up with an American man called Steve (Earl Jackson) and his young daughter Barbie (Cat Tebow), saying that he has sold Soon-young to them to take back to the US for adoption. Soon-young doesn’t want to go, preferring to stay and look after her father, though Soon-ja is desperate to live in America, picturing it as a rich and glamorous paradise. While Steve initially rejects Soon-ja due to her poor health, after Barbie and Soon-young become friends he starts to change his mind. However, it’s clear that the man has something unpleasant in mind, and that he and Mang-taek are hiding a dark secret.
For anyone who has seen Lee Sang-woo’s earlier works, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that Barbie is a film that goes to some very dark and depressing places indeed. Without wishing to spoil what is essentially a third act twist, albeit one which most viewers will have seen coming, it’s safe to say that the film saw Lee continuing to be a scathing social critic of modern Korean society, here attacking the materialism and consumerism which have come to dominate, along with the country’s relationship with the US. The film presents a very bleak world view indeed, without showing much hope at all, and its final shots are likely to stick in the mind for quite some time.
At the same time though, what gives Barbie its power is precisely the fact that it never wallows or overdoes the grimness, Lee going for a far more balanced and less over the top approach than Korean agitator Kim Ki-duk, who he has frequently been compared to. The film is never exploitative, with no graphic content or any attempt to shock – indeed, for most of its running time it plays out like an everyday domestic drama about strained family relationships, with only the odd ominous hint as to where it is going. Lee delivers the gut punch precisely through as a result of the film’s believability, and as such it’s crucial that he maintains this throughout. As with his other films, the power here comes from his darkly humanistic approach, and even at the end there’s a sense of empathy, the viewer being only too aware of why things have turned out the way they have, and left wondering how they would react in the same situation or who really is to blame.
The film isn’t without its flaws, however, mainly in terms of its acting, Earl Jackson generally failing to convince as Steve with an oddly wooden performance and very awkward delivery of what to be fair is at times some pretty clumsily written dialogue. His obvious hatred for Korea comes up far too often, and the tension as to what his motivations are is undermined by the fact that from his first appearance he comes across as unlikeable and sinister – while ultimately this might be part of the point and the film’s moral challenge, it is likely to jar somewhat with western viewers. Thankfully, the rest of the acting is very good indeed, with Kim Sae-ron in particular on very impressive form, showing great promise for such a young actress. Amusingly, Lee himself puts in an appearance – as an unpleasant pervert, naturally.
Though it’s not exactly fun viewing, Barbie is another excellent, hard-hitting and uncompromising piece of indie cinema from Lee Sang-woo. Luring in viewers through its earlier scenes of family drama before turning harsh and distressing, it’s an unforgettable and accomplished film that really deserves to be more widely seen than it was on its original release and festival run.