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Beauty Inside, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Man of 4,000 faces (and counting)."
3 stars

I remember hearing about "The Beauty Inside", a short webseries produced by various tech companies with some sort of social or interactive content attached, but forgot about it almost immediately. Apparently it made more of an impression on someone in South Korea, resulting in this feature version which isn't bad at all. This version itself has been deemed noteworthy enough to get a fairly quick North American theatrical release. If nothing else, it deserves credit for pulling off a premise that could have sunk it from the start.

That premise is the protean nature of Kim Woo-jin, who has, ever since his eighteenth birthday, been a different person every time he woke up - sometimes old, sometimes young, sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes not even Korean. He makes his living by building high-quality furniture customized to one's specifications, with childhood friend Sang-baek (Lee Dong-hwi) handling sales. With only Sang-baek and Woo-jin's mother (Moon Sook) knowing his secret, it's a lonely life. Dating is even stranger - when he meets the beautiful Hong E-soo (Han Hyo-joo), he waits until waking up with a handsome face (Park Seo-joon) before asking her out, but his initial plan of never sleeping again is not going to cut it.

The credits list 122 actors as playing Woo-jin, although only a couple dozen are there long enough to make a distinct impression. Interestingly, the fillmmakers use women for a number of noteworthy moments - perhaps to emphasize just how everything in his life is made more difficult by not being his true self - and they don't falter: Both Chung Woo-hee (of Han Gang-ju) and Ko Ah-sung (of Snowpiercer) handle their pivotal scenes with aplomb, while Park Seo-joon and Lee Jin-wook turning the charm up high during their segments, which are tilted more toward romantic comedy. Those four are joined by many others, and that this large group pulls off something approaching a consistent characterization. To a certain extent that's accomplished by allowing the actors to be free to do more than imitate whoever is chosen as the "prime", implying that a bit more than just Woo-jin's appearance changes day to day, although not so much as to lose continuity or change motivation.

That makes Han Hyo-joo the star if you're going by screen time, and the film does come to focus on how difficult this situation is for E-soo as much as Woo-jin in as it goes on. Han shines in the role, in some ways helping to define Woo-jin by matching his eccentricities. She's luminous enough for audiences to buy her as the one that can change everything while also keeping the film on firm ground with her always believable reactions and eventual fall to earth. Lee Dong-hwi isn't quite able to manage that before she appears, although Moon Sook seldom hits a false note as Woo-jin's mother.

Wrangling this large cast must have been a unique challenge for director Baek Jong-yeol; he probably deserves a great deal of credit for those performances merging into one as well as they do, more so than most films where multiple actors play a single character. He and writers Kim Sun-jung and Park Jung-ye have fun with the premise, and the moments where they give little indications of how Woo-jin manages a day-to-day existence that includes a great deal of major changes (selecting the right shoes, eyeglasses, etc., means learning a lot of new skills) tend to be rather enjoyable. That Baek and his editors manage to pull together something that feels consistent is no mean feat.

Unfortunately, like a lot of Korean films, it seems longer than it need be at over two hours, with several segments being inefficient enough to make the audience fidgety and others being extraneous (the scene that plays out behind the end credits, nice but quite frankly unnecessary, is the most glaring example). The filmmakers often seem to contradict themselves on basic parts of the story: Given how relatively easy Sang-baek and E-soo are able to accept the premise, it certainly seems like E-soo's family could be dealt with, and just how the heck does Woo-jin get a passport, anyway? If his identification changes with him, that sure opens another whole can of worms that the film basically ignores.

Indeed, there is often a sense that "The Beauty Inside" spends a lot of time using a grand idea to tell a small story. That's not itself a bad thing - that small story works a lot better than it has any right to - but with the room the filmmakers are given to play with the premise, it seems like they could have done quite a bit in addition to a decent love story.

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originally posted: 09/13/15 14:06:01
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  11-Sep-2015 (NR)



Directed by
  Jong-Yeol Baek

Written by
  Sun-jung Kim
  Jung-ye Park

  Hyo-ju Han
  Dong-Hwi Lee
  Sook Moon
  Seo-joon Park
  Jin-wook Lee
  A-sung Ko
  Yeon-seok Yoo

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