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Buried Treasure
My Beautiful Girl Mari

by Justin Sevakis,
I'm often asked by non-anime fans what makes Japanese animation so special, so different from the output of other countries. It's an obvious enough question, but more often than not, I find myself sputtering some canned response about its demographics and its artistic value. It might be the truth, but it doesn't feel like a real answer to the question.

At the same time, other Asian countries are vying hard to share in anime's spotlight and cash in on the genre's success. Of these, Korea's burgeouning industry has made the biggest strides, and with good reason: nearly every Japanese production since the late 80's seems to have had at least a little work done over there. It would seem obvious that in all that time working with Japanese creative staff, Korea could have figured out the secret and produced its own animated works.

Technically, they seem to have it down. A short clip and one would almost mistake many of them for Japanese. ADV, Central Park Media and Manga Video have all experimented with the release of Korean "anime" at some point. My work in licensing of Asian content means that I've had the opportunity to investigate what's being done over there myself. Over the past five years, I've studied every piece of Korean animation I've been able to find, and while I've seen some interesting work (primarily in the 3D field) I'm forced to admit that the country's animated output would look pretty dismal even to the most forgiving animation fan.

By and large, the biggest problem with Korean anime is that almost none of it can deliver a decent story. The vast majority of the country's animated output seems to be either ridiculously juvenile children's shows or equally juvenile 3-minute flash cartoons produced as obvious commercials for excessive lines of character merchandise. In both cases, originality and wit are in desperately short supply. Intelligent storytelling need not apply. ("Wow, look! Photorealistic 3D models of ridiculously simple line-art characters are doing boyband dance moves! Wait, now they're skydiving! Wee-hah!")

On rare occasion, some producer will summon enough money to really blow the lid off the industry with a super-amazing (usually sci-fi) spectacular aimed at teens. These films have no better poster child than the pretty but indescribably lame Sky Blue (AKA Wonderful Days), which was well-animated but played out like every half-baked environmental sci-fi story ever told. It sure seems like no animator in Korea has anything original to say, or any valuable story to tell. Even the occasional drama, like Oseam, is clumsily constructed and shows signs of some truly amateur filmmaking.

I don't understand why this is a problem. Korea consistently produces some of the best live action movies and TV in Asia, and some of its manhwa is quite entertaining. My theory is that these animated productions aren't made so much out of creative need or artistic expression as much as out of a desire to ape the Japanese. In pursuit of their goal to imitate, they've lost sight of what makes anime great: the subtle, artistic touches in even the most crass of anime productions. The dramatic lighting and cinematography, the intelligent editing, and most importantly the writing are what keep us coming back. It has nothing to do with target audience, or even the trademark big eyes. Heck, Mamoru Oshii could make a segment for Sesame Street and I'd want to see it.

Luckily, even countries that treat animation as artless kiddie fodder occasionally come up with something brilliant. Here in the US we're blessed on a regular basis with things like Pixar movies, Avatar, and South Park. And Korea... has "My Beautiful Girl Mari."

My Beautiful Girl Mari

My Beautiful Girl Mari stands alone among Korean animated works in nearly every way possible: it's clearly aimed at an adult art-house market (though there's nothing in it kids shouldn't see, they'd likely be pretty bored), and animated with mostly Illustrator and Flash. It looks nothing like anime, or traditional cel animation in general. And it's also an intensely personal, insightful and touching work.

That this movie is, in fact, something special is obvious from the first minute of film -- a strikingly beautiful fly-by of downtown Seoul as we follow a seagull through a snowstorm. The camera swishes artfully around buildings and above rooftops, we catch little glimpses of life as subtle but seemingly important things happen: a high-rise construction worker falls and is caught by his safety harness, a clown entertains with his yo-yo, a woman wanders an alley with a lost look about her. Finally, the seagull comes to a rest on a tree branch, catching the eye of salaryman Nam-woo, who's on a coffee break.

Nam-woo's mind is preoccupied to the point where he starts to see things -- odd, subtle spurts of magic here and there. Perhaps he's just off in the clouds, he thinks. That night, he's to meet up with his childhood friend Jun-ho, also a salaryman, who just found out that he's been transferred overseas for three years. Jun-ho has found a small charm, a souvenier of a particularly difficult chapter in their pre-adolescence, and he thinks Nam-woo should have it.

Nam-woo and Jun-ho don't see each other much anymore, and when they meet, they have little to discuss other than the small fishing village where they grew up. Nam-woo was raised by his single mother and grandmother, and when we do go back to see that chapter, we recognize it as that difficult time when childhood ends and the world's magic quotient is just starting to drop off. Jun-ho, who's settled into life as the fat kid who can't stand up for himself, gets bullied regularly (by girls, no less). Nam-woo, meanwhile, is a quiet kid who's trying to keep his world together.

His mother's been attracting the attention of a fisherman, who's been stopping by a little too much lately. While the man is attempting to become something of a surrogate father, Nam-woo is resentful, and starts to withdraw. Compounding things is the news that Jun-ho will soon be moving to the big city. Lonely and feeling a sense of impending loss, Nam-woo starts to see dreams of an ornate fantasy world. In it, a girl clad in white fur, and a vision of beauty.

My Beautiful Girl Mari is a film about a person's roots, and childhood at its most lonely and desperate. The fantasy world has little effect on reality: it's simply an escape, or a distraction from the increasing worry in Nam-woo's life. Thematically, it's similar to My Neighbor Totoro: an imaginary friend appears to soften the blow of reality for children going through a rough time in their lives. But where Totoro meanders off into the joyous world of fantasy, Mari plows into a darker sort of fantasy for a more melancholy (and older) sort of child.

Director Lee Seong-Kang made several short films, but this is his only animated feature. (He's recently tried his hand at live action, with 2005's The Color Of Skin, which I haven't seen.) His attention to detail, such as the bubbles in a mug of beer, or the subtle movement and activity of people in the background, reminded me of something his obvious influence Isao Takahata said about Grave of the Fireflies: "A strong story doesn't need details. The story would be enough to appeal to and impress the audience. Here, I had to show the details because the story itself is very simple. I had to get the audience to experience the experiences of these two children and the circumstances they were in."

But beyond that, children have an amazing visual acuity that most adults forget. Everything is intense and vivid, and you can see for long distances and on some level everything seems important. There's a wonder and a joy to everything. At Nam-woo's age, he is just about to lose that. I wonder if that was the intent behind the 2D art without outlines, sort of like seeing the back of a painted cell. Without the harsh edges, the film feels softer and warmer. It's disarming, as the foreground blends into the background without a sense of dullness.

Late childhood is seldom the idyllic, blissful existence most fiction cracks it up to be. This is the age where troubles start, where life starts to be defined, and where things happen. It's when life loses its sheen, and starts smelling less like a new car and more like a laundered T-shirt. And yet, it's an age where we can still dream vividly, before the calouses of experience make us forget. It's that glimpse of existence that My Beautiful Girl Mari reminds us of, ever so gently.

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How To Get It: My Beautiful Girl Mari is not hard to find, provided you check beyond your local brick-and-mortar shop. ADV Films is to be given major kudos for releasing the film to the US market in 2005. Featuring a new dub by Carl Macek, the DVD is otherwise quite bare-bones. Unfortunately, ADV's slightly over-zealous video post-production department also hard-subtitled the Korean opening credits in a quite distracting manner. I normally don't mind such things, but the opening sequence it distracts from is so lovely, it's a bit of a shame. Despite the film being a gigantic financial bomb by most accounts, import versions (legal and otherwise) seem to dominate many Chinatown video stores in big cities.

I like Macek's dub, but recognize that it's flawed. It's a bit hammy in parts, and some of the back-and-forth dialogue suffers from the same awkward timing that reminded me of some of his older Streamline releases. But just the same, there's a deadpan warmth to it, the sort of distant introspection that reminded me of early scenes of the Animaze dub of Wings of Honneamise. Still, the Korean version, which has actual name actors in the lead roles, is significantly better.

Screenshots ©2002 Ipictures.

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