Late in Time, a character suddenly looks into the camera wearing a life-sized mask of her own face, complete with eye shadow and lipstick. Had the movie worked to that point, the moment would have been chilling, reducing the audience to a stunned silence. As it is, however, the scene is greeted by shouts of incredulous laughter; for viewers like myself, it's the point at which we realize there's no redemption ahead, and we're never going to make the emotional connection director Kim Ki-duk seems certain he's created.

Based on a fascinating topic -- the allure of plastic surgery, not for enhancement but for renewal -- Time is a story loaded with potential. As the film opens, Seh-hee (Park Ji-Yeon) and Ji-woo (Ha Jung-woo) have a terrible fight that stems from him having the temerity to lay his eyes on another woman. Later in bed, Seh-hee apologizes over and over for always having the "same boring face," and begs him to imagine one of the women they fought over as they make love. The next day, she's gone, ending a two-year relationship without a word. Though it takes Ji-woo a while to catch up, we know from the beginning that Seh-hee has disappeared to undergo major plastic surgery. She doesn't want to look prettier, she tells the doctor, just different. In the wake of her surgery, she and Ji-woo suffer together and separately as they try to sort out their own lives, and their feelings for one another and themselves.

The problem with Time is that every character in the film is so fundamentally repulsive it's impossible to care about any of them. As a result, we find ourselves simply waiting for the movie to end rather than aching for Seh-hee as her bizarre agony mounts. From the moment we meet her, Seh-hee is pushy, high-strung and irrational. That's putting it nicely -- a less polite way to describe her would be "completely insane," and in such an off-putting, aggressive way we can't even sympathize with her. Ji-woo, meanwhile, is painfully bland and, like every man in the film apart from the plastic surgeon, frighteningly sexually aggressive. He, all of his friends, and the strangers Seh-hee meets seem to think that any woman who spends a few minutes talking to them is doing so because she wants to have sex, and the men find it quite reasonable to hold the women against their will and force unwanted kisses (at the very least) upon them. It gives the film a very uncomfortable atmosphere, and since there's virtually no exception to the rule of aggression, one is left to wonder what, exactly, Kim is telling us about young people in modern-day South Korea.

Despite the total absence of likable characters, Time remains visually arresting. The film returns again and again to an island park (despite being a ferry ride away, Ji-woo and Seh-hee somehow manage to get there at all hours of the day and night) filled with bizarre and thrilling sculptures. The familiarity of their strange shapes gives Kim's work the touchstone its ever-changing faces refuse to provide, but it's not enough to rescue his film from its laughable self-indulgence. By the time the movie arrives at its trite end, it's become a task to even sit through; we don't care at all about Seh-hee, Ji-woo or their relationship, and are simply waiting for the story to end so the lights will go up, and we can go home.