Though I have long been a fan of the aesthetic merits of Korean cinema, I also realize that there exists a dark side to Korean culture, a pervasive materialism that often favors beauty and perfection above all else. Designer goods and Western trappings have quickly become staples of life for modern urban Koreans. So as Korea has leapt forward in the rush of globalization, what has been lost? Director Lee Sang-woo, with his new feature Barbie, cuts right through the façade as he exposes the dark underbelly of contemporary consumerism.
A young girl (Soon-young) takes care of her sister (Soon-ja) and their mentally-ill grandfather while their mercenary uncle (Mang-tek) hatches a plan to sell her to a wealthy American. The American arrives in town with his daughter but Soon-young doesn't want to abandon her family. The sickly Soon-ja, who plays with her Barbie and wears makeup, desperately wants to take her place. Meanwhile the American is harboring a secret.
Lee Sang-woo takes us on a trip away from Seoul's jungle of department stores and anxiety-inducing ad culture to a small beachside town, far less advanced than the country's bustling metropolis. Through the film's young characters, he examines the false dreams that are built and promoted by aggressive commercial interests and quickly unravels them, revealing their utter hollowness through the actions of an unbecoming foreigner's selfish and destructive consumerism.
First and foremost, the film succeeds on the back of its performances. Kim Sae-ron adds yet another feather to her bow and cements her status as one of the most reliable performers in the industry, despite being only 12 years old (11 during the making of this film). She burst out onto the scene with A Brand New Life (2009), became known to a much wider audience through The Man From Nowhere (2010), and recently impressed cinema-goers with her dual performance in Neighbors. Perhaps her most difficult role to date, her character is very mature and already versed in the ways of the world, yet Kim is able to portray her as wonderfully naïve and sweet at the same time. Her real-life sister Kim Ah-ron, as the deluded younger sister, proves that Sae-ron is not the only talent in their family while Lee Cheon-hee, as the unscrupulous Mang-taek, is a formidable and unsettling presence.
With a much larger budget than he has previously worked with and a more meticulous mise-en-scene, Barbie is evidence that Lee has what it takes to work on a large scale, seemingly without having to tone down his sometimes difficult themes and abrasive style. The film's strong cinematography is both languid and dynamic, it carves locations to suit the narrative while always leaving more than enough space for the protagonists to move around, so that the proceedings never feel too staged.
With Barbie, Lee Sang-woo has taken a big leap up in the production stakes but his fondness for taboo subjects remains unscathed. Getting the most out of its young but extremely talented cast, his new feature tackles some of the most difficult subjects of any film this year, yet never feels forced or in the least bit exploitative. Mature and engaging, Barbie is one of the year's most thought-provoking efforts.