Prolonged 'Beauty Inside' Loses Poignancy in Clever Concept

Directed by: Baek Jong-Yeol; Runtime: 127 minutes
Grade: C+

Constancy is taken for granted in this society of ours, one that encourages spontaneity and jumping at change. In a way, that also applies to physical appearance, which often goes unmentioned or ignored unless there's a noticeable transformation: a loss in weight, a haircut, or visible signs of aging. We also operate around the idea that it's what's on the inside the counts, not the outside, so the fact that the people we interact with look by and large the same from one day to another -- making it easy to recognize them and appreciate the distinctive outer shell of their inner selves -- is an overlooked comfort. The Beauty Inside tries to reveal what might happen if we weren't given that consistent variable in human interaction, using a fantastical premise to transform the appearance of a man into other men, women, children, and elderly people every time he goes to sleep. While overlong, maudlin, and unaware of other problems the condition might present, the sincere depiction of the character's struggles with the mundane and the romantic offer a heartfelt-enough look at the significance of facial recognition.

One morning, when he was eighteen, Woo-jin woke up with the face and body of another person. Imagine how much of your life would change after looking in the mirror and seeing someone completely different glaring back: no more schooling since teachers couldn't recognize you; no more social interaction since friends couldn't recognize you; and a very, very complicated relationship with one's family. Then, imagine if it happened again the next day, and the day after that, and continued to happen for over a decade. Forced to respond to his newly inherited condition, Woo-jin eventually found a way in the modern age to cope and earn an income: by crafting custom furniture and having a long-term friend (Lee Dong-hwi), the only one who knows about his condition, handling the business affairs. Despite some complications, Woo-jin lives a strange, sustainable, lonely life with something resembling a routine, until he runs into the lovely Yi-soo (Han Hyo-joo) at a furniture store. After interacting with her once, Woo-jin knew that he'd have to find a way to make his condition work with Yi-soo in his life.

The concept presents a unique challenge for freshman director Baek Jong-Yeol: the drama must be created without an identifiable face for the protagonist, filtering the personality of Woo-jin through dozens of different people of many shapes and sizes. Conveniently, though, the vast majority of them are Korean, making cultural transition a good deal easier wherever needed. Perhaps that's the universe's mystical way of taking it easy on him because of his condition, but it left me curious why he didn't have to deal with other ethnic groups more frequently, a possibility emphasized early on in the film. Taking that into account, The Beauty Inside explores a reasonable range of looks and ages across both genders, enough to establish the idea that the audience must latch onto subtle body language and other traits, conveyed by the cornucopia of actors, to pick up on Woo-jin's personality. Thing is, despite the story's noble intentions, this doesn't really happen. Beyond sideways glances, a snide sense of humor, and the artistry of custom-made furniture, it's hard to grasp the depth going on inside this person lost underneath so many faces.

When Yi-soo enters the equation, The Beauty Inside gets wrapped up in lengthy, stirring scenes of gazing -- powered by melancholy piano music -- that assume the audience has deciphered enough of Woo-jin's qualities, or merely sympathized with his situation, to embrace his pursuit for the attractive woman. The delightful presence of Han Hyo-joo as the object of his affection helps that along, with her charming and curious personality responding naturally to the complex circumstances (after some trickery on her suitor's part), framing her as one of the few who might actually comprehend and tolerate what he's going through. Scenes of their budding romance are overly extended, though, filled out with florid aesthetics that attempt to transport the point-of-view into what it's like for Yi-soo to search for familiarity in the eyes of different people. Some of these vignettes are delightful, specifically when Woo-jin gets trapped in drastically different appearances that require a lot of adjustment from Yi-soo; others are frustratingly bogus, such as the product of Woo-jin's ardent wish to look a certain way for an important event.

What does impress in The Beauty Inside is how far the script eventually goes to explore to the other side of its romantic melodrama: the somber effects of Woo-jin's condition upon those closest to him. Reminiscent of fantasies like About Time and Il Mare in its depiction of the blissful and bittersweet moments created by subtle magic in a contemporary setting, the film underscores particular emotional complications involved with this lack of facial recognition, infused with realistic concerns and prospective themes about mental health. A smart, heartfelt 90-minute conceit exists somewhere within its runtime, but director Baek Jong-Yeol draws the romance out far too long and without a consistent underlying intention, beyond the extent of their dedication to such a difficult but seemingly fated kinship. It's also, in general, less interested in the potential of where this magic really could've gone with the impacts on Woo-jin's personality over the span of twelve years, ending instead as an elusive two-hour quixotic romance without enough substance within to express something truly beautiful.

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