Reviewed by Carousel Calvo
Published in Ricepaper 18.1, Summer 2013.
Capitalism, materialism, and the quest for perfection are the subjects to Lee Sang-Woo’s feature film, Barbie. Lee explores Korea’s fascination with anything and everything western. In particular, he questions how families become fragmented and relationships fractured due to their own materialistic obsession. Moreover, Lee also shines a light on western exploitation by examining how westerners typify Koreans (or Asians) through their own subjective standards.
Lee’s Barbie follows a young girl Soon-young (Kim Sae-Ron) who acts as her family’s breadwinner, taking care of both her mentally handicapped father and her sickly younger sister Song-Ja (Kim Sae-Ra). Song-Ja is obsessed with everything American, seeing the country as a glamorous paradise. She diligently practices her English conversation skills while also perfecting how to pout, smile, and add make-up to her young pale face. Soon-young’s sleazy uncle Mang Taek (Lee Cheon-Hee) schemes to sell Soon-young to a wealthy American, Steve, who has arrived in Korea with his daughter Barbie to finalize the adoption. Soon-young, however, does not want to abandon her family, and would rather stay to take care of her father. Meanwhile Soon-young’s sister Song-Ja, having found out that her sister is going to be adopted by the Americans, plans to replace her. Although Lee hints at a sinister reason for why the American wants to adopt a healthy Korean child, when the audience finally finds out what it is, the twist occurs with a sense of inevitability not shock, as if to confront his audience of its own culpability in the tragedy.
The film relies much of its strength from its two very young actors. Kim Sae-Ron, from The Man from Nowhere fame, portrays Soon- young with maturity without strip- ping her character of its naivety and sweetness. Her real-life sister Kim Ah-Ron plays her delusional sickly younger sister Soon-Ja. Earl Jack- son plays a more generic portrayal of ethnocentric westerner in Steve, as if he was taken from a caricature of every westerner who dislikes anything Asian. This is unfortunate since his hatred for anything Korean undercuts any possible emotional conflict when the audience finally figures out his motivations in adopting a Korean child.
Overall, the film explores taboo subjects with an unflinching eye, but it does without exploiting its subject matter. Lee sets these disparate characters in a shabby and backwards seaside town away from the glaring lights of Seoul. Through these young characters, Lee examines Korean society’s adoration with Western consumerism and its profoundly destructive consequences.