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Movie Review

A very extreme makeover challenges lovers in 'Time'

Seong Hyeon-a plays a woman who doesn't reveal herself to her boyfriend (Ha Jung-woo) after undergoing facial surgery. Seong Hyeon-a plays a woman who doesn't reveal herself to her boyfriend (Ha Jung-woo) after undergoing facial surgery. (lifesize entertainment)

In South Korea, where plastic surgery among the young has become such a craze that 50 percent of women in their 20s have reportedly gone under the knife, Kim Ki-duk's spare, unsettling "Time" is this close to a documentary. For American audiences, it's a metaphor: a tale of lovers who'd rather lose their identities than their passion. What do we really fall in love with, the film asks -- another person or the rush of love itself?

After a brief, disquieting barrage of reconstructive-surgery footage, "Time" settles into the fraught romance of Ji-woo (Ha Jung-woo) and Seh-hee (Park Ji-yeon), the latter a young woman on the verge of nervous collapse. After two years, she's certain her lover has grown tired of her (he hasn't) and apologizes for having the same boring features and body.

In a society where plastic surgery is cheap and common, getting a new face is like trading in your car -- a consumer-culture response to deeper spiritual panic. "I don't want to be prettier," Seh-hee tells the surgeon. "Just different."

Her abrupt disappearance leaves her boyfriend foundering, unsure whether to stay faithful or start dating again. "Time" portrays a modern South Korea built on fickleness, where personalities shift as easily as facial features. Inconstancy is the only constant. Ji-woo's belief that his lover will come back starts to look like a radical act.

Eventually she does return, with a new name and played by a different actress (Seong Hyeon-a). The same crippling doubts are there, though. Because Seh-hee doesn't reveal her real identity, she'll never know whether Ji-woo's attraction is a betrayal or confirmation of their initial love. Eventually he takes the only route left available to him, pushing "Time" into existential tragedy.

This is powerful stuff, so why does the movie feel less convincing the longer it goes on? There are two ways to tell this story -- coolly distanced or melodramatically hot -- but Kim combines both approaches, and the mixture doesn't congeal. The stark, elegantly composed cinematography creates a frame in which the emotional histrionics turn overwrought, verging on the silly, and our patience with Seh-hee's shrill narcissism wears thin.

Having made art-house horror films ("The Isle"), Buddhist fables ("Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. . . and Spring"), and magical-realist love stories ("3-Iron"), Kim is a hard director to pin down. This is the first time the inconsistency has spilled onto the screen, though. The identity crises in "Time" echo back onto its maker, leaving some of us wondering what the real face of Kim Ki-duk looks like.

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Written and directed by: Kim Ki-Duk

Starring: Ha Jung-woo, Park Ji-yeon, Seong Hyeon-a

At: Museum of Fine Arts today and various dates through Aug. 12

Running time: 98 minutes

Unrated (sexual situations, plastic surgery gore)

In Korean, with subtitles