Saturday, November 4, 2023

Jeonghyeongmi-in (1975)

... aka: 정형미인
... aka: 定形美人 (Ding xing mei ren)
... aka: 鬼猫上身
... aka: Geom-eungoyang-i gamyeon (Black Cat Mask)
... aka: Guai tan zheng xing mei nu (Ghost Story: Plastic Surgery Beauty)
... aka: Gui mao shang shen (Ghost Cat Daughter)
... aka: Remodelled Beauty, A

Directed by:
Il-ho Jang

Taking the bones of the French mad scientist / face transplant classic EYES WITHOUT A FACE, adding a supernatural twist and giving it a distinctly Asian ghost cat flair sounds like the makings of a pretty fun film... and this actually is pretty fun!

As domestic cats curiously swarm a hospital, obstetrician Tae-min Shin (Nak-hoon Lee) is horrified to discover that his delirious wife, Gyeong-ja (Yang-mi Park), has just given birth to a hideously deformed baby girl, which is supposed to be cat-like in appearance but actually looks more like someone let a toddler doodle on an infant's face with a Sharpie. It all has something to do with a family curse that we eventually see the origins of via flashback. (Note: If your wife's black cat scratches your bratty daughter, don't repeatedly slam your spouse's face onto hot coals until she's dead, strangle kitty to death with your bare hands and then bury them together.).

The more pressing immediate issue is that the wife dies shortly after giving birth and Tae-min is now saddled with a monstrous baby he has no interest in claiming. The doctor, along with a few other members of the hospital staff, including nurse Mi-hye (Jin-ah Seong) and his surgeon father, Jun-ho (Am Park), decide to remedy the situation by sneaking into the nursery and swapping out the defective baby for a normal one.

Nearly two decades pass and Tae-min has become an even more esteemed figure in the medical community. After returning from an international conference in the U.S., he announces to the press that he's been working on "artificial skin awareness in the field of orthopedics" and has revolutionized the art of skin grafts. He and live-in nurse / assistant Mi-hye have become romantically involved and raised the oblivious Yeong-ran (Ok-jin Kim), now a happy, well-adjusted and beautiful teenager, as their own. However, someone else has tuned in to the news broadcast, and she's about to make an unscheduled and unwelcome appearance at Yeong-ran's 19th birthday dance party.

A masked young woman cloaked in all black shows up in the cellar late at night. She - Myo-sook (Ji-in Yu) - announces herself as the doctor's dejected biological daughter and proves it when she removes her mask and gloves to reveal her blotted face, bushy eyebrows, fangs and claws. Myo-sook then demands her father operate on her face. She'd like to look just like Yeong-ran and, since dad has now perfected his skin grafts, he has the ability to turn her wishes into a reality.

Since she's cursed, the cat girl has supernatural powers at her disposal, which she demonstrates by hypnotizing Mi-hye, clawing her face and threatening to rip her throat out if her father doesn't agree to the operation. She can also levitate and do some other cool stuff that regular humans cannot. With her deep, gravely, echoed voice, and the sadistic delight she shows in shocking and scaring others, she actually comes off a lot like Regan in The Exorcist, which not-so-coincidentally was released just a few years before this.

When it comes time for the operation, Myo-sook refuses to be put under or given any kind of anesthesia. She wants to be awake to watch the entire process as it plays out! Once the operation begins, something even stranger happens. As Myo-sook's face is restored, Yeong-ran's face starts to deteriorate, almost as if the two are switching identities. Myo-sook, who has lived the life of an outcast hiding in the country her entire life, decides to take advantage of her newfound beauty by venturing out into the city. She also makes a play for Yeong-ran's fiancé, Chang-hoon (Jin Kim), who isn't receptive to her aggressive seduction attempts. The doctor then performs an operation to restore his adoptive daughter's face, thus turning Myo-sook back into her original form... and making her really pissed off in the process!

While this is a full-blooded, serious movie most of the time with some surprisingly gory and creepy moments, a lot of cat tropes are touched upon in an intentionally amusing way. At a restaurant, the cat woman gags when she tries to eat sweets yet helps herself to live goldfish she digs right out of a fish tank, much to the shock of onlookers! She also leaves dead animal gifts for the doctor, kills and feasts on rats, hisses, howls, hangs from the rafters and raids the fridge looking for raw seafood. The chaotic finale finds her disappearing and reappearing at will, leaping onto trees and the roof, transforming into an actual cat, multiplying herself and flying, sometimes accompanied by some silly slide whistle-sounding music cues. The rest of the experimental electro score from Min-seop Jeong is pretty great though, as are the performances from Nak-hoon Lee and Ji-in Yu.

The screenplay from Young-il Lee is adapted from the work of Japanese manga legend Kazuo Umezu. I've seen some sources claim it was his 1966 manga Nekome no Shōjyo ("The Girl with Cat Eyes"), which also involves two sisters - one normal and the other cursed with cat eyes - but instead this uses his Kuroi Nekomen ("Black Cat Mask"). "Mask" (seen below) has the cat stuff, the family curse, the doctor father, the assistant, the hospital stuff, the baby swap, the two young women (one beautiful, one disfigured), etc. According to the Korean Film Database, Black Cat Mask was also the film's original shooting title, so that should finally clear up any confusion in regards to the actual source material.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, the director was occasionally wooed away from his homeland to make movies in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, including being tapped by Shaw Brothers to direct the martial arts films The Deadly Knives (1972) and The Thunderbolt Fist (1972), as well as the horror film Night of the Devil's Bride (1975). He also made the obscure genre films Legends (1968) and Life After Death aka The Afterworld (1981) in his home country. Released just six years later, Yu-seop Lee's Hannyeo / "Grudge of Women" (1981) also involved skin transplants and was heavily inspired by Eyes Without a Face.

There was a poor quality VHS release in South Korea in 1983 (below, left), which is very clearly cut, though I'm not sure by how much. This version runs just 63 minutes, while the original theatrical running time given by Korean sources is 81. While I can't comment about the uncut version, the hacky editing jumps, scenes ending mid-sentence and incoherent butcher-job of a finale featuring shots seemingly out of order (like someone safely inside one minute but outside fighting the cat-lady a second later) is probably not how this originally played out. Though I'd love to see the film restored to its full glory one day (which would almost certainly boost my rating up at least half a star), I'm not sure that's even a possibility. This severely cut and heavily-damaged version is all that's known to exist. Since it was a box office flop, apparently nobody really cared about preserving this title.

This also received a VHS release in Hong Kong (above, right) with burnt-in English subtitles in the 80s, though that's not the version I watched. One source claims the HK video is a few minutes longer, though again I'm currently unable to verify that claim.

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