Animated features don't get much more imaginative or touching than Lee Sung-gang's My Beautiful Girl, Mari, a fanciful coming-of-age tale in the same class as My Life As McDull and some of the more plaintive Hayao Miyazaki films. The opening credits set the mood: as snow falls on Seoul, Lee follows the slow swooping of a bird, flying by fragments of people and buildings. He uses a simplified hybrid of cel and computer animation, similar in look to Waking Life, and when he focuses on minutiae—like the bubbles in a glass of beer—it's not to show off technique, but because he wants to take a moment to consider the textures of everyday life. Gradually, Lee dissolves to Jun-ho and Nam-woo, two middle-aged friends who've known each other since they were kids. Over a drink, they remember their youth, and the summer when they found a magic marble that transported them to another dimension, full of giant furry creatures and friendly girl-sprites.
Mari isn't really a fantasy film. The trips to wonderland are few and brief, and have the quality of dreams, not adventures. The movie is more about the end of childhood, and the end of the kind of friendship that only children have. The flashback begins with Jun-ho about to leave his seaside village to move to Seoul, just as Nam-woo's grandmother has taken ill and the boys' favorite haunt, an abandoned lighthouse, has been marked for demolition. Everything's changing, and there aren't many more days left for the two friends to lie on their backs, stare at the sky, and talk about whether people grow five centimeters taller when they travel to the moon.
Although it's a Korean production, Mari has some similarities to Japanese memory-plays like Seijun Suzuki's Fighting Elegy, Takashi Miike's Dead Or Alive 2: Birds, and pretty much the entire last half of Yasujiro Ozu's filmmography, though Ozu went lighter on the magic marbles. Lee focuses on the kind of momentary mannerisms that people remember when looking back at the past—like the way Nam-woo's mother's boyfriend drums his fingers while passing on the message that grandmother is in the hospital, or the way a man at a train station flicks his lighter in the background while Jun-ho says goodbye. At the movie's climax, Lee sketches a stunning montage of decaying childhood delights and fecund gardens. It's a keen visualization of how the fevered passion of pre-adolescent friendship fades at the inevitable onset of puberty.