Like so many pastiches before it, the thematically unfocused Dead & Beautiful succumbs to its own vacuous sheen.
In the metropolitan center of Taipei, five young men and women convene to celebrate their wealth; nestled in a private lounge amid the stratosphere, they discuss their engagements with culture, politics, and such topics of the times. One would be forgiven for harking back to Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive as a reference point, for the casual flippancy with which these youth stage a prank — involving the alleged death of one member — intimates, alongside the ostensibly regular fashion in which these conventions are scheduled, an impression of unassailable immortality. The comparisons do not end there. The cabal’s members carry themselves with an outward maturity and confidence reserved for older, hardened tycoons; yet, billionaires as they are, none appears older than twenty-five. Of course, Dead & Beautiful will also venture into the vampiric realm, literally and metaphorically, if its title hasn’t already clued the viewer in.
Transposing a supernatural tale of modern capitalism’s bloodsucking parasites onto their natural urban habitat, David Verbeek’s satirical effort disappointingly draws less blood than its conceptual bite suggests. At once centered on class consciousness and millennial apathy, it initially performs a balancing act between the two with beguiling allure, before dropping the ball in its second half in favor of overworked plotlines and a frustrating lack of thematic focus. Opening with a lonely shot of ennui, Dead & Beautiful captures the city’s opalescent beauty within an expression of uncertain reverie in the face of its protagonist, Lulu, not unlike the violently pensive individuals beloved by Diao Yi’nan and Tsai Ming-liang. The difference lies in Lulu’s obscene wealth and that of her coterie; clad in designer apparel and flanked by Lamborghini doors, her brooding countenance foretells less her nervous uncertainty with the future than gnawing, restless boredom. Each one takes turns organizing an event or retreat to spice up their lives, but novelty and excitement are quickly running dry.
After a shamanistic encounter goes awry, the youngsters discover their newfound sets of fangs, and subsequently a rejuvenated lust for life — and blood. Verbeek follows their varied reactions and responses first with garish levity, then with leaden gravity (and not in a productive, philosophical way). The twofold metaphor of vampirism, as metonym for capital’s triumph over common labor and synecdoche of the mysterious nocturnal world inhabited by the super-rich, loses itself to a plodding narrative where the clarity of its characters’ motivations is exchanged for a chic synth-wave atmosphere. In so doing, Dead & Beautiful, like countless pastiches before it, succumbs to its own vacuous sheen; its cityscape forgoes reconstruction and resurrection in favor of a restful necropolitan veneer.
You can stream David Verbeek’s Dead & Beautiful on Shudder beginning on November 4.
Originally published as part of IFFR 2021 — Dispatch 2.