The “manic pixie dream girl” trope must be one of the most beat to death tropes in film: a quirky, free spirited woman meets a somehow emotionally inept man, and over the course of the film she teaches him…something. Not only is it a tired plot device, it’s also a misogynistic and highly problematic concept in the guise of something sweet and silly. In Aime Kuge’s Cannibal Mukbang, this idea of the MPDG is inverted, dissected, and turned on its head in a bloody midnight black comedy that is somehow still super endearing and adorable despite being a critique of something seemingly adorable, drawing not just the inversion of archetypes but also leaning heavily into the primal connection between eating and fucking.

            Cannibal Mukbang is the story of Mark, a remote customer service rep who’s dealing with a lot at the moment. Resentful of his job, wracked with anxiety, and unfortunately not estranged from his insufferable brother, Mark is…not doing great. That is until a fateful meeting with Ash, an almost overwhelmingly charming YouTuber who specializes in “mukbanging” or eating various kinds of food on camera while others watch. Mark finds himself in a whirlwind romance only to have a horrifying reality rain on his parade: Ash is a cannibal who roams the streets at night, preying on men who seek to take advantage of her.  Soon, he must decide is the love of his life worth her nocturnal routine of butchery and bloodshed.

            This is a film in which that manic pixie dream girl routine goes horribly wrong and yet somehow also rights itself in a way a lot of films using the device don’t. At first, it is every ounce the MPDG film: April Consalo is utterly captivating as Ash, whereas Nate Wise as Mark is a moody nerd who just mopes around. The surreal circumstance of their meeting makes it even more fantastical. Only when Ash begins acting strangely hot and cold towards Mark is the MPDG illusion shattered; things might still be going (for the time being) but it’s clear that Ash isn’t “quirky” or simply “not like other girls” and that there is definitely something not right under the bubbly exterior. That’s not to say her feelings for Mark aren’t genuine. It’s clear that she truly cares about him and wants him to be in her life, even if it is her own fucked way. But once her true nature as the titular cannibal emerge it ceases being a cutesy MPDG story and starts being something truly sinister. Still funny as hell, but sinister. Even Kuge’s defanging of one of the more insidious qualities of the MPDG trope in which the female character serves little to no purpose other than to help the male protagonist gain some sort of insight is done in a way that has horrifying and gory side effects: Ash absolutely has agency and desires of her own, they’re just appalling and indicative of some terrible internal dysfunction. Arguably saddest of all is that in the end Mark isn’t really any better of a human being. He hasn’t learned any deep life lesson that no one else could teach him besides some cute girl he ran into. He’s learned nothing but maybe that life is actually way worse than he thought it was, and this is a man who was orphaned by a car accident.

            The chemistry between Consalo and Wise is delicious. The two actors seem to have a sincere tension in the best way, and that carries over into their portrayal of their characters. There’s a sweetness to the way they look at one another that is powerfully convincing, and their expressions of affection are entirely believable. Consalo’s delivery of Ash as someone who seems to be a genuinely decent human dealing with some unspeakable trauma in the worst way is tragic, and her seamless transitions between warm and affectionate to icy and distant are stunning and wholly successful at keeping the viewer guessing what her true motives are. Wise, for his part, excels at playing the average joe lost within his own bullshit and being too busy being a fucking sad sack to see the beauty in the world, or whatever emotionally wounded men do in these movies. In Mark’s case, however, he’s got good cause to be such droopy bastard. Orphaned at a young age due to a car accident that left him with a steel plate in his head, his only surviving family is his jerkoff brother who seems to be a walking embodiment of bro culture. He is, in other words, truly alone in the world. But Wise imbues Mark with a likeability that transcends the archetypical brooding male archetype in film. Nothing about him ever comes off as insincere, or entitled, or any of the other horrifying qualities “nice guys” are imbued with. He’s just…a guy who happens to be alone in the world and isn’t dealing with it in the best way. These two performances carry the film to some wonderful places, be they scenes dripping with a very palpable sexual tension or scenes of two people simply existing in each other’s presence and happy to be doing so.

            One concept that is lightly touched upon in this film is how trauma can be passed on from person to person, intentionally or not. We learn Ash’s backstory and how she ended up being a night stalking anthropophagic vigilante, and it’s not hard to draw a parallel between that and suffering abuse at the hands of one’s parents/guardians. She, in turn, by introducing Mark to her world of cannibalism, kinda sorta messes him up to. Sure, they become closer because of it (I guess) but at what cost? Mark is already a damaged individual, and by the end of the film he’s even more broken as a human being. Not that Ash had any malice in doing so; again, I cannot stress that the beauty of this film is that she actually cares for him as a human being. But, intentionally or not, the damage is done. Fucked is fucked, and Mark is all the worse for it.

            This is an achingly sweet film that I can’t recommend enough. Somehow, that sense of first kiss euphoria, of smiling like an idiot while driving home the next morning after the date went really well, of hearing a song and thinking of them, co-exists perfectly not just with a very non-innocent and smoldering sensuality, a raw and very hungry carnal sense of passion, but also with some very intense scenes of gore and violence. Sure, shots of April Consalo winking at the camera while devouring ribs are adorable and tantalizing, but there’s also plenty of shots of viscera, blood, just vague meat, and scenes of evisceration and disembowelment that will possibly upset some more sensitive viewers. Ultimately though I think it is a love story, and very well done one at that. Kuge crafts what has no right to be a universal tale of love and heartache but somehow is, as somehow you will find yourself relating to this poor bastard who finds himself madly in love with a beautiful cannibalistic woman intent on meting out street justice. And best of all at no point does Ash show she has cool taste in music by listening to the fucking Smiths.