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SAD BEAUTY (2018) review

September 25, 2018

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produced by: Bongkod Bencharongkul and Kongkiat Khomsiri
directed by: Bongkod Bencharongkul
rated: not rated
runtime: 92 min.
U.S. release date: July 14, 2018 (New York Asian Film Festival) & September 26, 2018 (AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL, Asian Pop-up Cinema)

 

Friendship and trauma are at the heart of “Sad Beauty”, the second feature-length film from former Thai actress Bongkod Bencharongkul, who shows an assured hand at communicating the complicating and toxic relationship between two lifetime friends. Not only is it a well-crafted and artful film, it also feels true and real, thanks to the fine performances from the two leads, and more importantly, the tone Bencharongkul takes, conveying an certain authenticity. That may not be too surprising since there is an indication that this is a semi-autobiographical story. 

The film opens in a bit of a panic, with publicity representatives who handle a once-famous (or at least popular) model and actress, Po (Florence Faivre), try to spin their way, or at least profusely apologize, out of a situation the spoiled star got herself into. With her self-absorbed disposition and entitled demeanor, one gets the idea this isn’t foreign territory for Po and her handlers, but it could be the final blow. Pretty soon we’ll see that it’s just the start of a downward spiral for the attractive young woman.

To get away from the spotlight, Yo retreats to the lifelong friendship she’s had with Pim (Pakkawadee Pengsuwan), a level-headed, whip-smart young woman, who’s been a patient and loyal friend to Yo for years. Pim, who was once a trained dancer, is not in the entertainment industry, which offers Yo the chance to just be herself.  Although they like to go out and have fun and generally enjoy each other’s company, their dynamic soon becomes quite clear. Yo takes Pim for granted and is the kind of person who is unaware of anyone else’s problems or concerns except her own, even if that person is a lifelong friend who has always been there for her. Their friendship begins to change when Pim is suddenly diagnosed with eye cancer and between the two of them there is now one who becomes more needy than the other. This development is foreign territory for Yo, and while she tries to be supportive and encouraging it, it’s just not something part of her DNA which causes her to resort to the vices that serve her own self-destructive nature. 

 

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Their friendship takes another turn, one that irrevocably changes both their lives permanently, when both Yo and Pim engage in a violent altercation with Pim’s druken and abusive stepfather in order to come to the rescue of Pim’s mother one late night. The next they know, the two friends hit the road and are on the run, searching to resolve a crime they are now bound to as they register a variety of emotions in the aftermath of what they’ve experienced. The exact details of what Yo and Pim experience are better left unexplained – some details viewers should discover on their own.

What becomes most absorbing and revealing is how the two lead characters in “Sad Beauty” respond to what has transpired recently in their lives. Pim may remain the level-headed one and there’s almost a relief that her mother is now safe, but her headaches are getting worse and she’s likely going to have to give up on the natural treatment she was hoping for in order to alleviate her pain. Meanwhile, Yo manages to resuscitate her career with some opportunities that come her way, yet she is plagued by what she and Pim have been through, eventually leading her back to her friend’s side, but the outlet of sex and drugs keep her from being the friend she should be.

 

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While cancer and crime certainly take a toll on their friendship, “Sad Beauty” excels when it simply offers the cause and effect off Yo and Pim’s decisions and behavior. It becomes clear to viewers right away that Yo takes Pim for granted, while Pim sadly longs for reciprocation that she’ll never receive from her friend. That’s where the titular “sad” comes to play in the film, as we find both women ultimately coming to terms (or at least a stark realization) with who they were unable to be for their friend and the result is a tragic look at a friendship that just couldn’t last.

Throughout it all, Bencharongkul displays an impressive handle on who these two women are, but it helps that she is assisted by two talented actresses who have great chemistry together and powerfully convey the emotions that come from their circumstances. Faivre is an attractive and alluring presence, but she is also able to communicate the insecurities, the desperateness and overall fears of Yo with a palpable honesty. As Pim, Pengsuwan is essentially the heart of the film and the actress shows an impressive range of emotion in the story, pulling in viewers with her openness and vulnerability. The story here may be ambitious, as it covers the effects of unintentionally toxic friendships, but it’s ultimately the two actresses who draw us in and maintain our curiosity as the story goes through its dramatic ups and downs. 

Back to the aforementioned semi-autobiographical approach though, something that’s hinted at in an end-credit text that appears on screen. I’m really curious as to what part of this story was based on Bencharongkul’s life. Knowing the director was an actress, the inevitable question is how much of this really happened and how much has been extrapolated for dramatic purposes.

 

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RATING: ***

 

“Sad Beauty” makes its Midwest Premiere as part of the seventh season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema at AMC River East 21 on September 26th at 6:30pm with introduction and Q&A with director Bongkod Bencharongkul Tickets on sale here!

 

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