In an image-conscious society where people are willing to go under the knife to get a new look, what’s it like to wake up with a different face everyday? Well, according to the protean hero of the South Korean fantasy-romance “The Beauty Inside,” your lovelife sucks! Tyro helmer Baik effectively remakes the 2012 social film of the same title, depicting intriguing scenarios of dating a stranger everyday while lightly skewering the idea of “taking people at face value.” Deploying a hefty ensemble of star cameos to clever effect, the film keeps its high concept afloat for two-thirds of the way but loses steam toward the end; it’s sold to 11 markets and opens Sept. 9 Stateside.
The original “Beauty Inside” was created by Intel and Toshiba, helmed by Drake Doremus and launched on Facebook in 2012. The protag Alex, who wakes up as a different person every day, is played by Facebook users from 13 countries who auditioned for the role and contributed to its evolution. The adaptation sticks fairly close to the main plot developed by the ad agency Pereira & O’Dell, but weaves in many new scenes that give the work more tension, humor and coherence. While the original is wholly immersed in Web media and sports a rough-edged, live-cam style, this version has been repackaged with typically swanky South Korean production values, infused with tasteful sexiness as well as unabashed sentimentality. Still, stretching out a six-episode, 41-minute series into a two-hour feature only exposes the gimmick’s limitations.
Woo-jin wakes up in the aftermath of a one-night stand, and finds that he’s gained mounds of fat overnight. Nevertheless, he’s come prepared with suspenders to help adjust his trouser waistline. This daily transformation is something that began on his 18th birthday, when he received the shock of his life, seeing an unfamiliar reflection in the mirror. He confesses to his mom (Mun Suk), who tearfully accepts his fate, and after some effort, also convinces his buddy Song-beck (Lee Dong-hwi, endearingly venal) to believe in his preposterous tale.
How he copes with such a condition affords some neat sight gags — such as a wardrobe lined with different sized clothes, shoes and toiletries for both sexes, as well as a cabinet of spectacles. There are also occasional perks, as when he wakes up as a hot dude and decides that “this is the day” to go bar hopping. Inhabiting different bodies has made Woo-jin unusually sensitive to people’s manifold shapes and forms; thus, he’s found his vocation as carpenter, handcrafting a bespoke furniture line — a slight change from Alex’s job restoring antiques.
The flurry of Mystique-like shapeshifting supplies the money shots that keep the thin narrative moving at a breezy clip. The depth of Woo-jin’s loneliness and frustration only begins to resonate when he develops an all-consuming crush. Given his reclusive lifestyle, it’s only natural that he falls for E-soo (Han Hyo-joo, “Cold Eyes”) a salesperson at the furniture retailer that carries his pieces. Their meet-cute, or rather meet-cutes — since Woo-jin visits the shop to eye her and occasionally chat with her everyday — is observed with slow-burning tenderness, building up to the day that he plucks up the courage to ask her out, all orchestrated like a lilting musical movement that would rate as a dream date for many female viewers.
While the original contrived a throwaway happy ending, Ganggeul. K and Park Jung-ye’s screenplay takes the conceit further, expanding on Woo-jin’s ploy to prolong the same identity and depicting the psychological impact on E-soo. The result is a greater sense of empathy for the couple and a handful of genuinely bittersweet moments. However, the film reaches a narrative and emotional impasse once it gets past the will-they-or-won’t-they stage. Even a second big reveal doesn’t give the story any momentum, and the final segment, set in Prague, is rather contrived, aggravated by cheesy soft focus and a slushy pop score.
The casting of 123 thesps (21 of whom are major Korean stars) serves mainly to provide eye candy, since none of them have time to sink their teeth into the role; also, the Web project’s emphasis on racial diversity and ordinary voices is lost here. Park Seo-jun, who gets to spend the most time with co-star Han, naturally leaves the most lasting impression, and he does ooze enough charm to persuade a guarded femme like E-soo to venture into a risque date. Effortlessly interacting with dozens of actors as if they’re the same person, Han possesses a natural grace and a dreamy innocence, which makes her oblivious to her hold on men. Still, it’s difficult to emotionally engage with the romance without one leading male star to serve as dramatic anchor.
The production’s visual flair and bravura command of effects and editing reflects the helmer’s background in commercials. Production designer Lee Ha-jun (“Haemoo,” “The Thieves”) sets a quietly hip tone and imbues Woo-jin’s workshop, E-soo’s showroom and their trendy hangouts with strong personal color. The beautifully designed furniture is a Shaker’s wet dream. Yang Jin-mo’s complex, breakneck montages are pure wizardry.