Former cellist Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) travels to Shanghai to re-connect with her former tutor Anton Bachoff (Steven Weber). While there she meets and forms an immediate connection with Anton’s latest young protégé Lizzie (Logan Browning). When they head on a rural road trip of China, however, Lizzie falls ill with an unknown disease – leading to a catastrophic moment of desperation.
Produced by Miramax and then picked up for release by Netflix, The Perfection is a wobbly but potent thriller. It deliberately works at misdirecting its audience in its first act before settling down in its second half. Several critics have already noted its similarity to some of the more edgy South Korean thrillers of recent decades, and certainly The Perfection showcases some fairly sharp similarities in style and content. It is not quite as clever a film as it purports to be, and descends a little too much towards silliness, but for fans of things confronting and stylised will most likely find plenty to enjoy. It is, despite some nightmarish and challenging imagery, a gaudy pop confection. One could almost call it a guilty pleasure, were you one to think you should be ashamed for enjoying such films.
One of the reasons that those absurd Korean thrillers found such commercial success is the dedication of their casts to such absurdity. Oldboy would not have succeeded without Choi Min-sik’s central performance. The Handmaiden would have floundered without the dedication to earnest portrayals by Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee. In this vein, director Richard Shepard (The Matador) has made a great decision in casting Allison Williams, Logan Browning, and Steven Weber in the lead roles. They commit, no matter how elaborate or unconvincing the narrative they inhabit, and they do a great amount of work easing the audience’s suspension of disbelief. It is requirement of this sort of film: if the cast cannot find faith in their characters, the audience has no hope of finding it at all.
As for the film generally, it runs a broad field of thriller styles. There are startling moments, and there are periods of growing dread and unease. There is gore, and there is graphic body horror. There is violence in both physical and sexual forms. If, as a viewer, you are troubled and adversely triggered by any of these, there is a good chance that The Perfection is not for you. If you’re an enthused fan of horror in all of its forms, there is plenty here to enjoy. The screenplay is wildly haphazard, going from good to bad and back on a moment-by-moment basis, but the scattershot approach does bring enough highlights to make it a deeply flawed but broadly entertaining production. It works more than when it does not, and results in a relatively disposable piece of pop horror. It uses a bold sense of colour and visual design. It offers elements that are either familiar or audacious.
There is an oddly uncomfortable aspect to the film’s opening act, which is set in both Shanghai and a rural Chinese highway. It is not immediately clear why these scenes are set where they are, other than to isolate Charlotte and Lizzie when they are on a bus and cannot easily communicate with other passengers. There is an unpleasant ‘othering’ of the Chinese people in these scenes: food is rendered as exotic and unpalatable, while locals are depicted as untrusting and in key cases actively hostile. Without a driving purpose for the setting, it feels tokenestic and somewhat Orientalised.
Some films are masterpieces. Some are trash. Some sit awkwardly straddled somewhere in the middle: worth checking out, but with the caveat that it may not be a ride that a mass audience really wants to endure.