“We all have different ways of looking at the world” according to a customer to Jung Eun-hye’s caricature stand at a local market explaining that she’s told all her friends to come and check her out because she wants them to see the world from Eun-hye’s perspective. A short time later, however, the same woman seems to attempt taking advantage of her in pleading for a little more change back than she’s actually owed because she’s handed over her bus fare home. The exchange in some sense characterises Eun-hye’s existence in her persistent battle to show others the world the way she sees it, responding to her customers’ pleas to make them look pretty that they are pretty already, while often experiencing discrimination on the grounds of her disability,
Directed by Eun-hye’s stepfather documentary filmmaker Seo Dong-il, Please Make Me Look Pretty (니얼굴, Nieolgul), follows Eun-hye over a period of three years as she develops a career as an illustrator that eventually leads to a solo exhibition and a residency at a centre promoting the work of disabled artists. Eun-hye was born with down syndrome and at 27 had been unable to secure a job, left at home all day with nothing to do but knit. Helping out at her mother’s art school she developed a desire to draw herself and adopted an unconventional style that is all her own. Her mother says that if she attempted to teach her conventional art theory, Eun-hye simply nodded and then went back to drawing instinctively. Originally with her mother’s help, she began drawing carictures at a local crafts markets and soon gained a steady stream of customers.
Though in the beginning some may have complained and even asked for their money back, people came to love Eun-hye’s unique vision in which as she says she draws what she sees. She is clear that they are “caricatures” and not “portraits”, though looking at her compositional style they bare a strong resemblance to traditional portrait paintings from the feudal era with a comparatively large empty space at the top and the subject looking directly ahead. Her mother occasionally offers advice, telling her she should have started higher up on the paper, or that she’s made one of the people too big in comparison to the other but Eun-hye draws things the way she sees them and quickly becomes irritated with her mother hovering over her until she concedes to let Eun-hye draw in peace.
It is however quite tiring, especially in the heat of summer or in the freezing cold, and it occasionally seems like it might be too much for her but Eun-hye resolves to soldier on and eventually runs the stall all on her own even if struggling a little when it comes to figuring out the right change and dealing with confusing customers. In her spare time she writes song lyrics in a notebook that poignantly describe her loneliness and feelings of isolation as a disabled person often locked out of mainstream society, but clearly enjoys interacting with the other vendors at the market and participating in its community atmosphere. After saving money from her work, she is able to host a solo exhibition and is also invited to illustrate a book on business etiquette aimed at the disabled community as well as taking up a residency at a centre dedicated to promoting the work of disabled artists.
What’s most evident is how happy drawing seems to make Eun-hye, giving her both an outlet and means of expressing herself while expressing her love for others in drawing caricatures which truly make their subjects feel seen as if Eun-hye has captured how pretty they are on the inside as well as out. Since the documentary was completed, she’s also gone on to become an actress playing an artist with down syndrome in the popular TV drama Our Blues and continuing to raise awareness of the lives of disabled people in a society which can often be hostile and unaccommodating. In any case, she continues to draw the world as she sees it, a place where everyone is pretty and deserving of love even if they don’t always see her the same way.
Please Make Me Look Pretty streams in the US until March 31st as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season 16.
Original trailer (English subtitles)