Woo-jin wakes up in a different body everyday, regardless of age, gender and nationality. Each time he transforms, Woo-jin must figure out how to return to his own body and reunite with his girlfriend, Yi-soo.
Folks have been discussing the dearth of romantic comedies – and romances in general – lately; some even describe them as “dying genres.” Films such as this summer’s hit “Trainwreck” attempt – and to a certain degree succeed – to revitalize rom-coms by resorting to raunchiness, so prominent and hip nowadays. Others, like the deluge of Nicholas Sparks and John Green YA adaptations, wholeheartedly embrace the inherent sentimentality of the “romantic” genre, manipulating audiences into weeping by resorting to cheap cliches (e.g. Ryan Gosling proclaiming his love in the rain to Rachel McAdams in the much-beloved atrocity “The Notebook”).
America’s history of rom-coms seems too steeped in sappy sentiments and overtly forceful moralizing; so it doesn’t come as a surprise that it took South Korea’s film industry, known for its inventiveness and defiance of conventions, to come closest so far this decade to bringing us a well-made, funny, insightful and honest romance.
“The Beauty Inside” introduces a spectacularly assured talent to the world of cinema: director Baek Jong-Yeol, previously known for his work on commercials. Here, he elicits subtle performances, complementing them with elegant images and a smooth flow, barely resorting to maudlin, manipulative tactics to make his audiences feel deeply for the fate of his protagonists.
The film starts with a nifty montage, quickly depicting our hero’s – the 30-year-old Woo-jin’s – predicament: for the past 12 years, he has been waking up in a different person’s body every morning, be it a child, woman and/or foreigner. The colorfully mournful prologue briskly establishes the overall, Charlie Kaufman-esque (yes, I am officially coining that term) tonal juxtaposition of lightheartedness and melancholy.
Woo-jin makes furniture in a spacious but desolate studio, where no one, save for his best friend and work partner, Sang-bek (Lee Dong-Hwi), has to interact with him. Sang-bek takes Woo-jin out to clubs and parties; when Woo-jin is in an attractive young girl’s body, Sang-bek proposes they make love, just once, for he would never be able to sleep with a girl like that (Woo-jin declines the offer). Whenever Woo-jin finds himself in a handsome man’s body, he takes advantage and sleeps with women. Some hilarity ensues: what if you fell asleep with a charismatic stud and woke up with the same man, but in an old, wrinkly body? “I can never fall in love”, Woo-jin proclaims.
Only he does – with Yi-soo (Han Hyo-ju), a stunning young woman who works at a different furniture shop. It’s love at first site, and Woo-sin patiently waits until he is in the body of a good-looking guy to ask her out. They “click,” and he stays up all night to see her again. “People say true beauty lies inside,” Woo-jin says dreamily, “but first impressions are equally important.” After a few nights, his exhausted body caves in…His struggle to stay up for the girl he loves, while maintaining his sanity, functions beautifully as a metaphor for our strive to be as charming on a second – and third, and fourth – date, to live up to established, fragile expectations, as the initial mystery begins to subside. How he explains his dilemma to Yi-soo, and the consequent blossoming – and possibly disintegrating – romance, I’ll let you discover.
A variety of international actors play Woo-jin, which may sound confusing, but it all gels surprisingly well; the sparse, lyrical narration, for one, holds it together seamlessly – you never, for a minute, doubt it’s him, and it’s all in the little gestures and mannerisms and vocal intonations of the impressive cast. The lead actress, Han Hyo-ju, gives an incredibly memorable performance, by turns subtle and funny and touching. The chemistry between the leads truly sparks.
“The Beauty Inside” consists of almost-unbearably heartrending moments, such as when Woo-jin comes to his mother after his first transformation, and she recognizes her son almost instantly; or when Woo-jin states longingly about Yi-soo, “She’s the only person that understands me,” a well-worn phrase that takes a whole new meaning; or the lovely sequence where he taunts her to find him in a crowded square; or even something as simple as a description of a chair – “Once a tree, then a ship, and now a chair” – which reiterates the film’s theme of the passage of time…I loved how the custom-made furniture, carefully carved to fit individual postures, mirrored so brilliantly our tendency to “customize” ourselves to fit expectations.
That’s not to say it’s all philosophical musings – this rom-com surely lives up to its “com” element; the film is sprinkled with great, bizarre moments of humor, such as when Woo-jin turns into a… young boy. Yi-soo takes him on a somewhat-uncomfortable date – but he gets drunk quickly (“The body doesn’t lie”), and then, completely inebriated and hanging off her neck, insists on picking up the check, confusing the waitress.
Upon closer scrutiny, certain questions do arise. Whose bodies does he take, exactly? Are they real people? If so, do they keep leading their lives, while he’s in their bodies? What if he met his counterpart? Would it be a “Back to the Future,” Armageddon-type scenario? What about allergies? A bit of a passport issue there? The film is also a little too long, and never really delves into the psychological toll frequent transformations like that would have on a body and mind…but then again, that would be too heavy for an allegorical romantic comedy.
If you buy into this admittedly far-fetched premise, you’ll find a moving parable about alienation, loneliness, friendship, identity, sexuality, societal expectations and, well, the meaning of beauty. What the film truly nails is the wrenching heartache of being in love. Forget your Sparkses and Greens and go see “The Beauty Inside.” I’ll be honest, I was never a fan of “romance” as a film genre. But this one got to me.
“The Beauty Inside” opens in theaters September 11th