'The Beauty Inside': Film Review

A cleverly crafted romance that works despite itself.

Commercial director Baik makes his feature debut with help from Korea’s most dependable supporting players and its up-and-coming young stars.

Is it really what’s on the inside that counts? That’s the central query that drives first-time feature director Baik’s The Beauty Inside, a frothy slice of romantic fantasy in the vein of Lee Hyun-seung’s fantastical weepie Il Mare. Blessed with a MLB roster’s worth of veteran character players (Kim Sang-ho, Kim Min-jae, Jo Dal-hwan) and buzzy young stars, Beauty is equally cursed with a narrative structure that is a house of cards. Poke at it too much and the entire thing collapses. That being said, just as there is an audience that buys into the idea of an evil intergalactic empire with robed knights wielding Day-Glo swords, so too is there an audience for this kind of magical romance. Beauty was presold at Cannes to several Asian markets where it’s likely to do well if its moderate box-office success in Korea in August is any indication. Overseas it could easily find a home in urban markets familiar with the source material and where the Korean brand is still viable.

Back in 2001 when BMW Films blurred the already fuzzy line between advertising and filmmaking with a series of ads directed by Ang Lee and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, among others, it seemed like a novelty. Drake Doremus The Beauty Inside — one of Toshiba, Intel and Pereira & O’Dell’s Cannes- and CLIO-winning “social” films — about a man who wakes up a different person every day, became something of a cult hit. It was only a matter of time before someone adapted the YouTube shorts into a “real” film, which is where Korean ad director Baik (Baek Jong-yeol) steps in.

The Beauty Inside begins when a young man, Kim Woo-jin (Kim Dae-myung, the first of 21 actors in the role) sneaks out of a woman’s apartment after a one-night stand, telling us in voiceover how he didn’t fall asleep in “this body,” and he won’t wake up in it the next day. A solitary, MacBook-using furniture designer, Woo-jin has resigned himself to a life alone, with only his best friend Sang-beck (Lee Dong-hwi) as real company. He meets Hong E-soo (Han Hyo-joo, C’est si bon) and asks her on a date, expecting it to last one night, but he winds up falling for her. Woo-jin (Park Seo-jun in this iteration) manages to stay awake for three days before he drifts off on the subway and is forced to give her up.

Up to this point, Beauty is a nearly shot-for-shot copy of Doremus’ original. But after coming clean and having E-soo accept his odd condition, the film takes a turn for the melodramatic as the pair try to further their relationship nonetheless. Baik and co-writers Ganggeul. K and Park Jung-ye focus on the difficulties they face being in an unconventional relationship: Friends and family want to meet the mystery man, E-soo herself can’t recognize her lover on any given day, and her boss questions the fact she “sees a different man every night.” Of course there are tears, a break-up, physical illness and miscommunication before a final reconciliation in Prague (Korean romances often reconcile in medieval European capitals).

The Beauty Inside is a missed opportunity on several levels. It is unchallenging in precisely the way the Doremus’ films were not interested in the thematic potential of suddenly being black, Latino or Muslim (as a start). The Korean version plays it safe, changing Woo-jin, mostly, from one good-looking Korean man to another. The story’s romantic touchstones come when Woo-jin is in the body of heartthrobs like Park, Do Ji-han, Lee Beom-soo (200 Pounds Beauty), Lee Jae-joon (Night Flight), Lee Jin-wook, Seo Kang-jun, Lee Dong-wook, Kim Hee-won (The Man From Nowhere) and Yoo Yeon-seok (Hwayi). There’s no real dive into gender identity or the impact on romantic love for E-soo if Woo-jin were to ultimately “stick” in a woman’s body. Notable, however, is that when Woo-jin has an important emotional or psychological moment, he usually is in a woman's body: Japanese actress Juri Ueno (Swing Girls) Chun Woo-hee (Han Gong-Ju) and Ko Ah-sung (Snowpiercer). Whereas the ad ended when coming clean miraculously changed the protagonist permanently into a handsome white man (there’s a pattern here), this Beauty carries on beyond that point, but the nitty-gritty of Woo-jin’s life is glossed over, as is the perception of E-soo as promiscuous. More interesting still would have been E-soo changing daily, given the beauty implications in a country with one of the highest cosmetic surgery rates in the world.

But the “social” in the original film’s mandate refers to social media (Facebook factored in heavily), not socially conscientious filmmaking, and so it’s hard to fault either it or this remake for their political shortcomings. Bottom line, The Beauty Inside works for the fantastical, soft focus romance it is. It’s fortunate to have female lead in Han who creates the ideal girlfriend without the insipid infantilism too often heaped on women in romance. She’s the more compelling character, and she injects some real emotional nuance into what could be an archetype.

Tech specs are polished as expected from Korea, though Cho Young-wuk’s score overwhelms at times, and the story could easily have been told in 90 to 100 minutes.

Production company: Yong Film
Cast: Han Hyo-joo, Park Seo-jun, Lee Dong-hwi, Lee Mi-do, Kim Dae-myung, Koh Ah-sung, Juri Ueno, Lee Jin-wook, Chun Woo-hee, Yoo Yeon-seok, Moon Sook, Kim Hee-won, Do Ji-han, Kim Sang-ho, Lee Beom-soo, Lee Jae-jun, Jo Dal-hwan, Lee Dong-wook, Kim Joo-hyuk
Director: Baik (Baek Jong-yeol)
Screenwriter: Ganggeul. K, Park Jung-ye
Producer: Syd Lim
Executive producer: Kim Woo-taek
Director of photography: Kim Tae-kyung
Production designer: Lee Ha-jun
Costume designer: An Ji-hyun
Editor: Yang Jin-mo
Music: Cho Young-wuk
World sales: Contents Panda

No rating, 127 minutes

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