My Beautiful Girl Mari

Korean animation is coming into its own. Long seen as the neighbor content to provide secondary help to the Japanese studios, filmmakers from Korea have proven themselves recently to be impressive at the form themselves. Although some try to make a distinction between "anime" and works from other Asian countries, in Japanese, "anime" refers simply to any animated work, not merely shows they've personally produced. Thankfully for us in the West, some anime distributors are picking up a few of the best Korean titles, and My Beautiful Girl Mari is one of them. A beautiful film that transposes mundane reality with fantastical surrealism, Mari is not always coherent, but it's creative and poignant at its core.

Nam-woo is a young boy, perhaps in fifth grade, coming into that scary time when the vestiges of innocence start rapidly being pealed away by the harshness of reality. His widowed mother loves him; his grandmother who lives with them nags him; his mom's boyfriend wants to be buddies with him. But his best friend, Jun-ho, is leaving him, heading off when the summer ends to school in Seoul. And then there's Soog-y, the frustrating girl who confounds and interests them both. Amidst constant change, Nam-woo finds solace in a fantasy world encased in a shiny marble, a world where a strange girl Mari is the only constant. But as one grows up, the world of imagination has to be put away some time...or does it? Book ended by the story of friendship several years past adolescence, Mari is a story about wonder lost and gained.

Technically, My Beautiful Girl Mari is strange and evocative despite some problems that I can only assume are budgetary. Although most of the backgrounds and objects in the world of Mari are animated in standard form, all the characters and creatures lack strong line definition, giving them an otherworldly quality that appears at once both messy and brilliant. Though I missed the detail of some other films, this nevertheless works, particularly in a film that becomes as surrealistic as Mari does. The technical problem comes from its life on a computer. Simply put, in certain sequences, the camera almost stutters across pans as if somehow a download wasn't quite finished buffering. It's not always like this, which makes me think that it was a budgetary constraint or a time issue rather than the lack of decent equipment. When it happens, it drew me out of the movie, which is a bad sign. It's a testament to the film, however, that it pulled me right back in. And the music? It's fantastic. A fully modern orchestrated score that still harkens back to the best soundtracks of the '80s like Macross, it's one worth buying. Even if you don't like the film, you might like the music.

But will you like My Beautiful Girl Mari? Of the recent films I've seen, very few have been this thoughtful or moving (except the transcendent Place Promised In Our Early Days). Few have the courage to be this slowly deliberate, willing to build characters who aren't in and of themselves special or interesting. Still fewer are willing to be so surrealistic and dreamlike that one could debate where the real world starts and the fantasy begins. These components make the film one that's going to leave the viewer excited about the artistry or bored by its art-film pacing and minimalist plot. Unlike many other films that I can rave about, this one has to be qualified by its very nature. For as much as I liked it, it's simply too different to find a large contingent of fans. But those who do will probably find it an incredible experience.

For me personally, I was touched by much of it. In many ways, it evokes Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart, two of Studio Ghibli's best films. It is melancholy without being too sentimental or overt. Besides the sheer beauty of the animation, much of the story feels true. There's not a lot of over-dramatization to be found in the relationships, which are believable and show a great contrast from the marvel of Nam-woo's otherworld. The climax of the film is possibly the only weak point here; though it seems reasonable enough as it happens, it's too dramatically forced, especially in comparison to the rest of the film's flow.

The only other real issue is that Nam-woo's fantasy is so sprawling and undefined that we cannot completely understand what exactly the film is trying to say. Is Nam-woo stuck in a world easier to handle than his own? Is the fantasy world actually real in any sense, or are the projections all in his head? These questions aren't answered in any meaningful way. Yet this is not a Hollywood or even Tokyo film; this is something different entirely, a work more interested in artistic mood, beauty, and emotion than straight coherence. I can't say it always works, but I give it points for effort.

I wish that ADV Films had more to offer on the DVD of this title, which contains nothing except chapter stops and language choices (and the ubiquitous previews). This picture just begs for a director's commentary or at least some discussion of its conceptual thoughts from the staff, but it's not there. However, I will give credit for a very worthy dub; since I don't understand a lick of Korean, I listened to the English 5.1 track. The understated acting was very appropriate to the film...I was quite impressed.

My Beautiful Girl Mari is not for everyone, but it is unique in its artistry and splendor. I'm interested in popping it in the player again to check out what all I missed and to just absorb the sumptuousness of it all. As a movie, it has a few issues, but if the world of Korean animation can continue to put out material of this quality, we have a lot to look forward to.

My Beautiful Girl Mari -- bath scene with brief rear male nudity, rated TV-G -- A-