The Beauty Inside is a remake of sorts. It’s taken from a 2012 social film of the same name. “Social film” is a term I learned while writing this introduction. Social films are episodic and feature integration with social networks. The Beauty Inside told the story of Alex, a man who would wake up every day as a different person. He could be a man or a woman, young or old, any race or ethnicity. It was totally random. The “social” element came from the end of the day. He would record a short clip of himself, letting future hims know who he was. These were interspersed with real people who interacted with the digital Alex during the project’s creation.
The idea was then picked up by someone in South Korea. Not the social aspect. The basic premise. It was turned into a feature film. This review is about that movie, one that I saw several days ago. I started writing this review before seeing the social film it was based on. That was a mistake, because now that I have seen it, everything about the film is just a little bit different. I had to cut chunks of the review (including the original introduction). Questions I had about style and structure were answered, and certain decisions seem bolder while others seem timid.
But though these specifics might have changed, my overall feelings have not. The Beauty Inside is excellent, and you should see it.
The Beauty Inside
Director: Baek Jong-yeol
Release Date: September 11, 2015
Country: South Korea
As a remake, The Beauty Inside is an interesting beast. It takes a 40 minute, episodic experiment and makes it two hours long. It keeps some many of the same moments, but there are some crucial changes that speak to broader cultural differences between America and Korea. Early on I had thought that The Beauty Inside 2015 might go exactly where the 2012 film did. It didn’t, of course, and what it does is ultimately far more compelling and meaningful, but the fact that I had those expectations (and that the American version of the story met those expectations) says a lot of things. It seemed like a logical conclusion. But then again, I also thought it would have been a bit too neat, tying things off too nicely at the expense of a greater message. TBI2012 does that. The Beauty Inside does not.
But while we’re thinking about cultural differences, let’s think about the title. I spend a lot of time thinking about movie titles. In the grand scheme of things, they’re all sort of irrelevant (especially with translated titles, since they’re often different (which is, in and of itself, kind of interesting), but there’s something significant in the way a film is presented. Someone(s) thought that any given name was the best way to sell it. “The Beauty Inside” made me think of another Korean film: 200 Pounds Beauty. When I first saw that film, I expected it to have a message like The Beauty Inside, that looks are only skin deep and what really matters is who you are underneath. Cliches, etc. That’s not what the film is about. It almost seems like it’s going to be… but then it turns out the actual message is that you have to be both interesting and extremely attractive to get the guy. I had a big problem with that. Sure, it’s better than just being pretty… but come on. I get it, superficial culture and all that, but that’s bad.
The Beauty Inside doesn’t have that message, though its inspiration’s parting note is closer to that than I think anyone involved would like to admit.
Kim Woo-jin wakes up every day as a different person. His running internal monologue (always the same voice) is the only thing we really have to latch onto. One day, an old woman; the next day, a young boy. And on and on. Some days he’s extremely attractive, goes out, and has a one night stand (which he runs from in the morning). Other times he just does his work. He’s a furniture designer, half of the brains behind the customizable furniture company ALX. He has one friend – the other man behind ALX – and his mom, both of whom know his secret and accept him. But, as is wont to happen, something is changed by the power of love. Not the secret, but Woo-jin’s reaction to it. He was cool with the whole isolation thing, but then he fell for Yi-soo, a furniture saleswoman. And eventually, she falls for Woo-jin too. But there are a lot of questions there, big ones, existential ones, for both sides of the relationship.
It’s not easy. Obviously.
There was a movie I saw at the Japan Cuts Film Festival this year called Forget Me Not. I liked it a whole bunch but I couldn’t bring myself to write about it. It was a romance about a high school girl who is forgotten by everyone around her: her teachers, her classmates, even her parents. I didn’t write about the film because the whole thing was just too damn bleak. I couldn’t get up the energy to write something that did it justice.
I bring Forget Me Not up because I was absolutely terrified for about two thirds of The Beauty Inside that it would turn out a similar way. When I figured out that it wasn’t going to end the way the 2012 film did, I thought that maybe it would go there; eventually E-soo would forget about him or something to that effect. There’s already a supernatural element, so why not add another one? Woo-jin is easy to forget. Everything about him changes from day to day. Some days he can’t even speak Korean, but he can always understand it. (This is particularly interesting, since he doesn’t actually learn this new language, as evidenced by a back-and-forth in Japanese and Korean where his conversation partner slips into Japanese and he can’t translate.) And so some day, he could easily just disappear and no one would ever know.
What makes The Beauty Inside fundamentally more interesting than its source material is its focus on society. In the original experiment, it was just the two characters. But Yi-soo has a family and colleagues and friends. She’s not isolated, and so dating becomes a Thing. Colleagues start rumors about her, saying she goes through a new man every day. And… they’re right, sort of. But that starts to wear on her. How does she respond to that? How would she introduce him to her family? Where does all of this lead? These are those existential questions, and the way they motivate the characters is fascinating to watch.
This may be a bit too clinical, but I sort of think of it as its own kind of experiment. We take a guy who, every day since he turned 18, has become a new person. We take a woman who, it turns out, he gets on rather well with. Then they just go. It has a very naturalistic style (ripped straight from the social film), and so the whole thing feels oddly real. It looks like a movie, but it feels distinctly non-cinematic. It feels like a bizarrely good looking documentary. The whole thing played out in a way that felt right, and with a narrative like this that’s crucial. When things are sad, any overtly manipulative move feels cheap, but so does any deus ex machina. Things don’t just get better because they get better. If they get better, it has to feel natural and earned. It may leave plenty of questions open, but you don’t need to have all the answers all the time. It’s about the moment and making that moment feel as honest as possible.
And that’s where The Beauty Inside succeeds. It feels honest. And a film (a romance at that) that can feel honest when its protagonist is played by 123 different people is a special one indeed.