LAAPFF Review: ‘The Ugly Model’ (2019), dir. Doris Yeung
There’s no doubt that Doris Yeung‘s The Ugly Model is a documentary that tackles a difficult subject matter, but it seems to have lost its way somewhere between its conception and its execution. Doubling as an exposé of the demasculization of Asian American males as well as a semi-biography on its subject, Korean American adoptee model/fitness instructor Kevin Taejin Kreider, The Ugly Model tries to do too much within a very limited timeframe. And unfortunately, the film chooses to delve more heavily into Kreider’s life than it does the larger subject at hand.
While Yeung’s choice of spotlighting Kreider’s journey is well intentioned (she posits that if a Korean American model like Kreider has issues with his masculinity, then other Asian American men may feel the same way), it can be difficult for other Asian American men to put themselves into Kreider’s shoes. Most people aren’t attractive enough to be male models, after all. Further harming the film is the fact that the film makes Kreider seem like someone who is simply frustrated with his overall career—whiny, in his worst moments. At times, the film heavily dips into that territory to give us that impression—showing footage of Kreider’s personal freak-outs, awkward Tinder dates complete with baiting questions, and general self-deprecation. The film seems to forget that the audience doesn’t know Kreider other than what it chooses to show us—and the way that it portrays Kreider is as a largely negative person, even if he is trying to make some good points.
On the topic of Asian American masculinity, there are a few interesting moments that reveal oppressive societal stigma against Asian American men—a fashion editor mentioning that Asian American male models would never be put on a cover due to lack of sales, as well as a gay hairdresser ranking Asian male desirability as the lowest, for example. However, the film doesn’t investigate further as to why these thoughts are so commonplace. Aside from these stray remarks and empty affirmations from others in the entertainment industry, The Ugly Model doesn’t divulge any new ideas about the topic that most people didn’t already know. Somewhere in the middle, the documentary slowly transforms into a self-serving biography about Kreider more than anything else. One could argue that the demasculization of Asian American men has shaped the way that Kreider turned out—broken and depressed that he is. But the way the film is put together makes it hard for one to naturally come to that conclusion.
In times where Asian American actors and actresses are finally being taken seriously, The Ugly Model is a necessary film that sparks the conversation about a topic that lingers in the back of the minds of many young Asian American men. But as for furthering that conversation? That’s where it might fall short.