The Discreet Charm of the Undead
Do you know how much a billion dollars is? I mean, it’s a staggeringly large number, so much so that even when the term is tossed around willy-nilly, most of us don’t understand the enormity of it. Seconds of research taught me that a billion is a thousand million. To think of it in physical terms, one million dollars can fit comfortably into a backpack. One hundred million can be stuffed into a crate, and you might be able to wedge it into your closet.
If you physically had a billion dollars, you would have about ten of those crates packed full of hundred-dollar bills.
The idea of a single human being, or even a family, to be worth one billion dollars is insanity. Wealth like that buys influence. It creates an imbalance, in which tiny groups of individuals wield power disproportionate to their numbers. The very notion is parasitic. One might even say it’s vampiric.
What is the essential essence of a vampire? It’s not that they’re undead, or that they can turn into bats or control the weak-minded. It’s that they’re predators that conceal themselves as much as possible under the cover of darkness. If a financial vampire can exist, the new film Dead & Beautiful gives us a taste of their exploits.
At street level, Taipei is like any other city. Too crowded, too fast, too confusing. From sixty stories up, Taipei is also like any other city, all sleek surfaces and decadent entertainments. The confusions and contradictions of life evaporate at those heights, and for the members of The Circle, there is no confusion. Only boredom.
Despite the pretentious nickname, The Circle isn’t much more than a group of five friends in their twenties, all of them children of billionaires. Anastasia (Anna Marchenko) is a vlogger, one who’s nearly surgically attached to her phone. Bin-Ray (Philip Juan) is the party boy, a walking talking id ruled by impulses. Mason (Gijs Blom) styles himself as a deep thinker (Though how intellectual is it to punch people intruding upon your reserved lounge?). Alexander (Yen Tsao) struggles to hide his darkness in a cloak of refined disinterest. And Lulu (Aviis Zhong) seems to be the only one conflicted about the Olympian heights of privilege she lives in.
The Circle has come to realize there are only so many dance clubs, so many meaningless sexual encounters, and so many things to buy before it all becomes deadly dull.* To spice up their lives, each of them treats the group to extravagant adventures. It’s Anastasia’s turn, and she drags them all into the woods for a kind of ritual. Something unexpected happens, and much later, they all awaken with fangs and a craving for blood.
So have the members of The Circle truly been transformed into nightwalkers? They sure seem to think so, and immediately hide out in an unoccupied skyscraper owned by one of their families. There’s cursory experimentation. Will the sun really fry them to a crisp? Do they truly need blood to survive? Does vampirism truly transform their un-lives, or is it just another aspect to be bored by?
The metaphor of financial vampires is a good one, and director David Verbeek runs with it — for a while, anyway. The first two acts are sleek and energetic, as we watch The Circle searching for something to occupy themselves and finding something unexpected. In the third act, what ought to happen is that everything goes to hell, the action sticks the landing, and the metaphor is pushed in an interesting yet recognizable direction. That doesn’t happen, and it’s as if Verbeek reached the limits of the concept and just threw in the towel.
The screenplay by Verbeek and Hugh Travers never has the bite that a concept like this demands. Verbeek and Travers don’t seem to realize that, in a great deal of ways, their characters are deeply stupid. The idea of The Circle, the heirs of the global ruling class, immediately assuming they’re vampires is a hilarious concept, one that mocks the idea of the elite actually being elite. The script feints in that direction a little, then goes for some fairly mawkish moments of sympathy for characters who are never developed well enough to earn our sympathy. They’re all selfish, to one degree or another, and a more sophisticated and witty script would have explored how the lifestyle of the one percent can transform people into monsters.
The cast is fine. They’re all very pretty people, and I have no doubt that if they had been given a stronger script, they would have been able to deliver compelling performances. I recognize that’s an unfair judgment, and I should mention that I was particularly struck by the performance of Aviis Zhong as Lulu. Through glances and subtle body language, she lets us into the ambivalence Lulu has of a life with great power and no responsibility. It’s an intelligent job of acting, and Zhong and her fellow actors deserved better.
Dead & Beautiful isn’t a bad movie. It’s ambitious, and it tries to create a union between horror, satire, and sleek drama involving the beautiful people. The idea is never pushed as far as it ought to go, and the end result is a great deal of setup with very little payoff. If there’s one thing this film needed desperately, it’s teeth.
*Like many wealthy people, the idea of using their vast riches to help people seems to have never occurred to them.