Film Review: “The Beauty Inside” (뷰티 인사이드)

“The Beauty Inside” began life as an online series of shorts commissioned by Toshiba and Intel, and directed by Drake Doremus. Running to about 41 minutes in length, the series hinged on an intriguing high concept. The protagonist, named Alex, has an unusual condition, wherein his body completely changes appearance each day, as he transforms into various shapes, genders and races. He beds a different woman each night on the days he’s the most attractive, but must hurriedly leave each morning after he changes. It’s a rather lonely life, but one he’s become accustomed to. That is, until he meets one special woman (played in the original short by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who makes him want to have a lasting connection. Complications ensue, as they say, as Alex wrestles with contending with his condition and with the necessity of having to come clean to his newfound love about his true nature.

“The Beauty Inside” (뷰티 인사이드) has been remade as a Korean-language feature film by a director who goes by the one-name moniker of Baik, and who, as it so happens, is a commercial director himself, making his feature debut with this film. Here, the protagonist is named Woo-jin.  Portrayed by 123 actors, most of whom appear as video images, Woo-jin (as did Alex in the original) records a nightly diary as each iteration of him/herself. The actors who play Woo-jin include 21 major Korean stars, such as Lee Beom-soo, Yoo Yeon-seok (“Hwayi”), Ko Ah-sung (“The Host,” “Snowpiercer”), and Chun Woo-hee (“Han Gong-ju”).

This version of the story initially sticks very closely to the original series, while fleshing the scenario out with a few other characters, such as Woo-jin’s best friend Song-beck (Lee Dong-hwi) and his mother (Mun Suk). There are some minor tweaks, such as Woo-jin being a furniture maker instead of Alex’s antique restorer, but other than that, Baik’s version is very faithful to the short films.

The female love interest here is E-soo, played by Han Hyo-joo (“Cold Eyes”), who delivers a very lovely performance, and convincingly plays opposite the many actors she works with. E-soo is a salesperson at the furniture store that sells Woo-jin’s pieces, and Woo-jin chats her up each day, E-soo of course not knowing that she is speaking to the same person each time.

When Woo-jin feels he is sufficiently handsome enough to approach E-soo, he asks her out, urgently insisting it has to be that night. She initially demurs, but he manages to turn on the charm successfully enough to persuade her. Thereafter begins the couple’s romantic journey, fleshed out beyond the original shorts with dreamy montages and more elaborate complications to their relationship. The film’s visual style is where the Korean film most significantly diverges from its source material. While the original short is more unadorned and slightly rougher (but still visually accomplished), Baik’s film is lushly rendered, boasting the typically high technical standards of commercial Korean films.

However, this expansion of the original short is unfortunately not accompanied with a deeper, or more politically and socially engaged, exploration of its themes. There is much metaphorical potential in the fact that “The Beauty Inside” was made in a country where the use of plastic surgery is exceedingly rampant. The idea of a character who changes his face, as well as his entire body, every day easily lends itself to a truly edifying inquiry into the concept of beauty and society’s standards of same. But this film mostly shies away from that; while some versions of Woo-jin are elderly, overweight, or otherwise usually considered undesirable, we mostly get scenes of very attractive Korean actors. Similarly, while there are a number of non-Korean nationalities and races briefly seen, the film avoids dealing with any of these differences in meaningful ways. The impact of Woo-jin’s changes in gender also goes mostly unexplored here.

Still, “The Beauty Inside” manages to charm with a visually beautiful rendering of its concept, and works most effectively as a romantic melodrama with some interesting tweaks. That, and Han Hyo-joo’s outstanding turn, makes it worth seeing despite its flaws and missed opportunities.

“The Beauty Inside” screened late last year in the New York Korean and San Diego Asian film festivals, as well as having a limited U.S. release.