IFFR 2021 review: Dead & Beautiful (David Verbeek)

What if, when you woke up this morning, you found out that you had become a vampire overnight? Would it change your psyche, your personality, your outlook on life? These are the questions pondered by Dutch director David Verbeek in his latest film, the long-gestating vampire tale Dead & Beautiful. Shot in Taiwan, as he does with most of his projects, the film combines a slick aesthetic and the sensibilities of an Asian mainstream action flick with a more psychological character approach, deliberately eschewing the type of action scenes you would expect in this setting. This makes Dead & Beautiful a perfectly entertaining 90-odd minute romp with a sizeable amount of social commentary. But not a perfect film by any means, as the acting is too weak to carry the emotional heft that seems to be there in the script, leaving a somewhat cold aftertaste.

Five twenty-something billionaire heirs who can have everything their hearts desire surprise each other every so often by organizing unusual get-togethers for the five of them. At one such gathering, organized by Anastasia (Anna Marchenko), they experience an ancient tribal ritual. To their shock they wake up the next morning as vampires. Now what? Each of them reacts differently, as they discover that not everything vampire films have taught them is true. The blood part is though, even if they don’t extract it in the traditional way but simply draw blood from a willing (because well-paid) bystander by syringe. It’s like a drug to them, giving them an enormous high. Each has their own ideas about how to get more, with Alex (Yen Tsao) opting for the standard neck biting, while Bin-Ray (Philip Juan) explores other powers his vampirism might have given him. The two other members of the group, Lulu (Aviis Zhong) and Mason (Gijs Blom), are more reluctant to enjoy their new lifestyle, and because of this they draw closer to each other as the group threatens to tear itself apart due to their conflicting ideas about how to enjoy life as a vampire.

Earlier this week we had news that Chloe Zhao is developing a ‘sci-fi western’ version of seminal genre classic Dracula for Universal. That news gave at least this reviewer pause, but seeing what somebody like Verbeek can do with the genre has eased the fears a bit. Dead & Beautiful focuses more on the alienating effect on the characters’ personality than it does on the teeth-in-neck aspects of the genre, and in that sense is far more of a character piece than one would expect. Unfortunately the cast is not up to par to get the most out of this with the exception of Zhong, whose Lulu becomes the increasingly horrified focal point as she watches her friends succumb to bloodlust. Part of the problem is that all leading roles are in both English and Chinese, which probably limited the pool of actors to choose from (to the point that the American Mason is played by the Dutch Blom, who happens to speak both languages).

Verbeek’s sleek style is a perfect fit for the genre though. His usual abundance of neon-lit night scenes in cool and eerily empty exteriors mirrors the emptiness of these rich kids’ existence, but also the feeling of isolation that creeps in after their change. Verbeek also uses genre beats at times to perfection to misdirect expectations of where the story is going, and a number of twists in the film’s final act keep the audience on its toes. Relationship triangles within the group add another layer of tension, although to be honest the added complications feel tacked on. The score is appropriately modern and emotionally bereft, even if Verbeek’s tendency to music video aesthetics when putting the emphasis on the music cheapens the feel of the film. And shooting in digital does not help in this regard. But in the end it’s the weak characterizations that truly rob the film of anything or anyone to identify with, resulting in Dead & Beautiful feeling like an interesting exercise in genre-bending that lacks a soul and is emotionally distant. Like vampires do, perhaps. Dead & Beautiful is clearly not Verbeek’s best effort, though he remains a talented filmmaker with an unusual approach to genre material.

Dead & Beautiful (David Verbeek)