Synopsis: Soon Young is a young girl who is the head of her family. She lives with her mentally handicapped father, unscrupulous uncle and younger sister Soon Ja who is always ill. Younger sister Soon Ja plays with her Barbie doll everyday and dreams of one day living in the United States.
Meanwhile, Mang Taek (the uncle) comes into contact with an American man interested in adopting a healthy Korean girl. Mang Taek arranges a deal for the American man to adopt Soon Young.
NB: Plot based on a real case that happened in 1980s
Country: South Korea
Genre: Drama, Family
Director: Lee Sang Woo
Casting: Kim Sae Ron, Kim Ah Ron, Lee Chun Hee…
/!\ Don’t read the spoiler if you plan to watch Barbie! it’ll ruin your appreciation of the movie otherwise. I seriously mean it! /!\
This movie belongs to the same genre as Silenced and Pluto on which we already wrote about. An intelligent movie based on real facts and delivering a specific message. The director -Lee Sang Woo- is known as one of Korea’s most controversial moviemaker and it is therefore not surprising to see him as the director of this distressing movie. Distressing but not unpleasant! Sure you necessarily experience uneasiness and sadness along the movie (unlesss you’re a robot) but you’re not confronted to painful shots like in Silenced. It’s not a happy movie but you’re not immersed in a very dark atmosphere like in Pluto. It’s a movie that “breathe”. At least that’s how I felt it.
Barbie is an interesting movie on several level. Let’s talk about its main topic before anything else. We could think that this is before everything else a critic of the adoption system because we see an uncle taking advantages of his brother mental disability to sell his niece to the most offering one (the word “sell” is well and truly used in the movie). But Lee Sang Woo affirmed that he used this topic only to better deliver his other message. His first intention was to show the “human struggle to find the right answer to questions like: what is the right behaviour in living life? and how sorts things out when confronting moral issues” (source). Those questions led us automatically to the characters. Each one of them embody those ones in a different way.
Soon Ja sees America as a dreamland, just like lots of korean did after the war. Lee Sang Woo wrote her character leaning on his own experience. Just like her he thought that America was the only solution to escape his current life and just like her he pronunced the word “I love America, I want America”. She is blinded by the American dream. She becomes deeply jealous of her sister who was chosen in adoption by some Americans and consequently uses any mean to convince those latter to choose her over Soon Young. She lies, she manipulates, she becomes violent (verbally and physically). I was so shocked when I saw her make Steve drink his glass of wine (not give the glass but actually bring it to his lips!) hoping to gain his favour! And how badly she was poisoned by America, wanting to look exactly like Barbie- her role model. Starving herself to be as thin as her, applying loads of make up on her face to be as pretty and wasting money in dresses. She was the stongest and interesting character in this movie in my opinion.
Soon Young wears the pants in the family. She tries to sell some knick-knack here and there just to feed everyone. She doesn’t want to go in America despite how hard her life is. Her dream is quite different from her sister’s one. She just wants to live with her family. She is ‘happy’ with her current life and doesn’t ask for more. Happier than Steve and Barbie who are supposed to embody the American dream. Both girls are deeply loved by their disabled father whereas Steve and Barbie are constantly fighting.
Lee Man Taek is selfish, greedy, odious, violent, wrathful, opportunist…I could keep on like that for a while, just to describe him. He is obsessed by money. He can’t think about anything else and that’s why he accepted to sell his niece to the American even though he knew his true motive (>>>SPOILER– adopt an healthy korean girl and bring her back to America for his other daughter who needs a heart transplant- <<< SPOILER). His greed has no limit. The first thing he does when he receives the money is to buy a car. And when he buys a phone to Soon Ja as a last gift, he can’t help himself to pull a face when this latter asks him to buy 2 phones instead of one. With those kind of behaviour we seriously come to think that he has no moral conscious. But we finally get to see him waver. And that proves that he has finally one. He denies it, shuts it out, but he’s got one. And he is quite tormented by it. He runs away from his responsibility, saying that he did all that for the family “I did it for you, bastard” (Lee Man Taek to his disabled brother). He tries to redeem his behaviour by buying Soon Ja the phone she has wished to have -like I mention before- and he even comes to deny the facts (>>>SPOILER- “I don’t know about medical. You steal heart, she dies?” What?! Is he serious? Don’t need to be a doctor to know the answer! O_O – SPOILER<<<). Hard to like such character but I hated him as much as I found him interesting.
Steve and Barbie embody America. First of all by their name (at least Barbie) then by their behaviour. I know that Steve didn’t want to get too close to Soon Young’s family but we can nonetheless feel the superiority of America over the world through his character (ex: “But Soon young’s father is retarded. he is not really qualified to be a good father. Retarded people shouldn’t have children. They just spread misery around” *cough* ‘scuse me? bullshit). They embody the American dream (anyone can become wealthy with determination, hard work etc in America). We can clearly see it through the shot, displaying their wealth which contrast with Soon Young’s family situation.
The thing is that even after reaching this American dream they are not happier than any other family. They have problems just like everyone even though it’s not of economic nature. Things are not always as they seem.
Every shots is thought as you can see and open to interpretation. I liked when a movie doesn’t only talk through dialogues and characters. When shots have specific signification and give hints to resolve the story. That’s the case here. This movie is rich in analysis either it is through the characters, the making or the writing in general. My brain was unstoppable. Constantly mulling over events, trying to figure everything out. Steve’s behaviour was too weird to be true. Something was fishy under this adoption’s case. Little by little some hints were given. At the end I had finally guessed what was going on way before everything was revealed but I was so horrified by the outcome I had found, that I was only wishing it to be false. Unfortunately for me I was, for once, in the right. The truth is unveiled and you feel like receiving a slap right into your face. Every characters’ behaviours deepened. The ignorance of the girls, the uncle’s choice to ignore everything, the father who knows the truth but is powerless, the coldness of Steve and the inner turmoil of Barbie, become “hard” to watch. It makes us question ourselves. What would we do in that kind of situation? The answer seems obvious but maybe we would think differentely if we were really in their shoes. Finally the only thing I could reproach to this movie is to have made me close to burst into tears but fail to make me actually really shed a tears.
A big thumbs up to all the actors who really impressed me. It wasn’t the first time I was seeing Kim Sae Ron in a movie/drama but as for her sister…she completely mesmerized me by her performance. She has such powerful face and eyes expressions! Both of them will make their place in the acting world easily, I’m sure of it. Lee Chun Hee was also perfect in the role of the bastard and the man who played the disabled father deserves a round of applause. The American actors were not of the same level as the korean ones but weren’t that bad nonetheless. I’ve seen worst in drama! Sure they lack a few emotion but they were still credible in their role.
Note de Dushbadou: 9/10
Note de Whoovy: 8/10
Note finale: 8,5/10