The South Korean obsession with beauty, perfection, plastic surgery and poor parental figures is on full display in this somewhat uneven horror film that draws very loosely from the famous fairytale of the same name (and I do mean loosely). Cinderella is a yet another dark look into the South Korean psyche.
The movie deals with a teen girl named Hyeon-su, and several of her friends, all but one who have had plastic surgery performed by Hyeon-su’s talented surgeon mother. The girls who have had the surgery are haunted by a ghost girl in a blue dress who wants her face back.
While this isn’t a terrible film, it’s not a particularly good one either. It probes superficially at some potentially very interesting topics, such as South Korea’s obsession with beauty at all costs, and its fixation on plastic surgery (South Korea is known to have “beauty districts,” which boast streets lined with nothing but plastic surgery clinics). The schoolgirls of the film—minus the tomboyish Sung-eon—long to be made beautiful, but the movie never really delves into why. Perhaps a Korean audience would understand why the girls want plastic surgery without need for much of an explanation, and maybe something is just lost in the “translation,” but the lack of understanding the girls’ obsession with and desire for surgery left me feeling slightly disconnected.
The basic premise was also a little problematic for me and hard to buy into. I found it hard to believe a surgeon—even one as talented as Yoon-hee—would be able to pull off what she pulled off in this movie. Face swaps have been done before in movies—see the Nicolas Cage/John Travolta blockbuster Face/Off—but it seems almost too implausible to be believable. Would the victimized orphan-turned-vengeful-spirit really be able to survive without a face? How come Hyeon-su bears no surgical scars? Also, Yoon-hee’s about face (pun not intended) at the end of the movie, going from desperate mother to mad
scientist surgeon to grieving, guilt-ridden, and penitent, almost caused whiplash rather than sympathy or pity.
Yes, it’s somewhat touching to see Yoon-hee crying and begging her dead “adopted daughter” for forgiveness at the end. Then you remember this woman basically stole an orphan to harvest her face for her disfigured kid, locked the faceless orphan in her basement, and then left her there until she committed suicide as a teenager because Yoon-hee wouldn’t give her a new face or a birthday party of her own. To top it off, Yoon-hee then stored the dead girl’s body in a freezer and planned to cut off her biological daughter’s face (well, it was originally the dead orphan’s face, I suppose) and put it back on the faceless orphan girl.
There are some thing you can’t come back from. This seems like it might be one of them.
It’s also not initially clear how the movie gets its inspiration from the fairytale, until you consider the neglected “adopted” daughter who is forced to live in the basement, and the monstrous mother figure and her spoiled daughter. Beyond that, there aren’t really any similarities.
Overall, Cinderella isn’t a terrible movie and it does touch on some topics relevant to Korean culture, such as the country’s obsession with beauty and plastic surgery, and emotional abandonment, but it could have been done so much better.
Cinderella/신데렐라 was directed by Bong Man-dae and came out in 2006.