Spoilers for The Beauty Inside up to/including episode six
Yes, I cried. Happy? I am, because it’s been a while. The story as old as this website is my search for another K-drama as affecting to me as the first I saw, Cheer Up! (Sassy Go Go). Last year, I thought it might be Something in the Rain, with superstar Son Ye-jin, a relatively straightforward romance where the twist is that the woman is older than the man by maybe six years. Scandalous! Granted, it was further complicated by the man being a family friend, so to Son’s mother, it was like her two children were hooking up and she did not take that well. Also, it is kind of scandalous, damn it, and would be even in the States. Also, if the woman is taller, but I do go on. Could go on. I’ve seen ten episodes, but a few episodes back, my view rate slipped from days to weeks to months. It was so disheartening because I loved the show from premise on, and I really liked the central couple, as well as Son’s long-suffering friend. The problem was a fatal, repetitive subplot involving sexual harassment, which felt so tertiary to the main plot and certainly prickled me with sensitive subject matter.
Something in the Rain was illustrative to me, and it’s why I’m writing about The Beauty Inside now rather than when I’ve seen its entirety. I’ve fallen in love again, but I’m only on episode six of sixteen. So on the off-chance I get stuck or finish with nothing to say, I’ll pause now to corral some loose thoughts, including an account of a perfect episode of television.
As I had with other dramas on the previous “K-Drama Report” on Man in the Kitchen, I’ll tell you how I came to The Beauty Inside, though that information is more for my bookkeeping benefit than anything else. It was the talent — again, and as it almost always has been — in this case Lee Da-hee, pictured here:
Lee immediately caught my eye because she’s one of the few K-celebs who’s actually taller than me (and I am not tall). If K-dramas go after the tallest possible Korean actors (every show I’ve seen, the male leads are at least six feet tall, no joke) that sort of deliberateness must also apply to the actresses and idols, because they seem to top out at 5’6”. Lee is a towering 5’9”, so when she walks, they say you can hear the quakes in South Jeolla — and we’ll revisit this point at a later date because Lee’s had a hard time getting roles because of her fucking height. Consequently, when I decided to locate a Lee Da-hee-starring drama, I shittingly came up empty. Arguably her first lead role was from this year, L.U.C.A.: The Beginning, but I was put off by its premise:
“Ji Oh (Kim Rae Won) is a man in possession of unearthly powers and fighting skills – the only problem is, he has no idea who he is, how he got where he did, and why he is being pursued by people keen to capture him and learn his secrets. He isn’t even sure he is fully human. The intrigue deepens as he learns about a mysterious group of scientists at an institution named Human Tech, and a secretive genetics and biotech project codenamed L.U.C.A. This shadowy group, assembled by a secretive mastermind, is conducting curious experiments in a bid to create the perfect human, The group wants to learn Ji Oh’s secrets – as does another fearsome individual, a special forces agent named Lee Son (Kim Sung Oh) who also possesses otherworldly powers.” (Viki)
Two problems: this sounds exactly like all those ‘90s/2000s scifi shows from America, like Dark Angel or Terminator, where all the action is chase scenes because anything else would be too expensive (this genre was briefly resurrected by The Gifted a few years ago). It also sounds like Sisyphus: The Myth, which I’m still determined to do a full writeup on, vis-à-vis Korean science-fiction. I suffered through 2009: Lost Memories for that future post, so it will be done. The other problem is that Lee Da-hee isn’t even mentioned! I know she plays a gritty detective, having shared photos from the set on her Instagram. That’s promising, but not enough to keep from browsing (very few things are). So the next guess was Search: WWW, and see if you can spot the problem with this one:
“Thirtysomething tech whiz Bae Ta Mi (Im Soo Jung) is flying high as the director of a search engine platform named Unicon. Bae Ta Mi believes she is singularly focused on making Unicon the country’s biggest IT success story… but her world is turned upside down when after a court hearing, she unexpectedly finds herself without a job thanks largely to the scheming of her former mentor Song Ga Kyung (Jeon Hye Jin). In her distraught state, she then meets Park Mo Geon (Jang Ki Yong), a maker of music for video games – a man who clearly has feelings for her.” (Viki)
Yeah. No friggin’ Da-hee! In American movies, especially action ones, it’s usually the female characters whom you can exclude from a plot summary and still communicate the story. I’m not interested in that kind of character — fuck that character — so much so I won’t even risk it. Of course, it turns out that Search: WWW is the series I should’ve watched, because the Wikipedia entry describes the plot like this: “The story of three women in their late thirties — Bae Ta-mi, Cha Hyeon and Song Ga-kyeong — who work in the top two competitive web portal companies: Unicon and Barro,” and lists those three women as the main characters. Further, Da-hee apparently plays a total badass who beats up people and a car. The things you learn! But it was too late, because by this point I’d already started The Beauty Inside. For consistency:
“Han Se Kye (Seo Hyun Jin) is a top actress with many rumors surrounding her, especially because she seems to disappear out of the blue sometimes. To others, her life is a mystery because she’s hiding an unbelievable secret. Her appearance completely changes for one week every month! One minute, she’s the most famous actress in Korea, and another minute she can become a middle-aged businessman! One day, she encounters Seo Do Jae (Lee Min Ki), a brilliant man who is an executive at an airline company. He seems to have it all: a perfect appearance, intelligence, and a good job; but he has a secret too. He suffers from Prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. However, he manages to hide this from the world, and he makes an effort to remember people by their personalities instead. Seo Do Jae (Lee Min Ki)’s life begins to change when he meets Han Se Kye (Seo Hyun Jin). She is the only person whose face he can recognize. But with Han Se Kye (Seo Hyun Jin)’s constant disappearance and random physical changes, how long can she keep her secret?” (Viki)
I realize this also excludes Da-hee, but she’s featured third in the “Cast” section below the synopsis, and I was far too defeated by this point to protest. Funny, in fact, because what I really wanted was something more in line with Something in the Rain — a normal-ass, regular-ass show about people in South Korea, and that’s a lot to ask from K-drama. No, no, no, there’s always got to be ghosts or the main character is a cyborg or there’s a crazy serial killer running around, watch out. I’ll take May/December as the twist any day, and in the case of The Beauty Inside, the twist is that our lead, Han Se-gye, shapeshifts into a different body once a month for a week. I should clarify, because I’ve hardly internalized the lingo: when I say “twist,” I don’t mean to suggest there’s a wild plot turn buried in the last episode. No, these wild plot turns are baked into the logline or otherwise quickly revealed. I thought I was watching an airport-set romance with Where Stars Land, but eagerly does it reveal its A) ghost, B) cyborg, or C) serial killer. Se-gye’s shapeshifting had me skeptical, but what choice did I have, damn it? “England.”
And it wasn’t too bad. The establishing exposition played a bit like Strong Girl Bong-soon, car crash and all (also like Where Stars Land), and it’s actually a clever fantasy device that reveals our protagonist: because she doesn’t want people to see her transform, she’s always running away, stamped with a reputation as a result. This premise also suggests the potential for cross-dressing “comedy” (first episode) and actual possible queer themes. But before we get there, this brings us to the matter of genre.
If you ask an anime fan, they’ll tell you anime is not a genre. It is also not something to be co-opted by western conglomerates and slapped onto anything animated. Then they’ll tell you about JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and they will never, ever stop. There’s a difference between Prison School and Spirited Away, or Pop Team Epic and Belladonna of Sadness, and this difference automatically negates the singular categorization required of “genre.” And yet, when I recommend an “anime,” come on — you know what I mean. Something probably shonen. It is a medium, but it’s still sometimes useful as a genre, for shorthand. Anime’s gotten a lot of stick for its genreness, for giant robots and tentacles and bloody noses. These are the widely-parodied elements which have come to characterize it in the popular imagination, just like the soapiness of telenovelas and K-dramas. When I watch an anime, I kind of want something wild and colorful like The Tatami Galaxy, though I’d never say no to something that could’ve easily been live-action, like Jin-Roh (which was live-action, many times, arguably). And then, when I watch a K-drama, I want the soap opera.
For K-drama, that soap genre is all the more apparent because it’s demarcated from the aforementioned “twist.” It’s always “romance plus ghosts” or “romance plus cyborg” and so on. Something in the Rain was refreshing to me because it was simply “romance,” but clearly I need to get used to the fantastical elements. “I become a different person” from The Beauty Inside is pretty out-there, even for K-dramas, but would you believe it originated in a movie first? I can’t get my mind around that. There’s a tension here. However outlandish the twist upon the genre, these two things are at odds, and the phrase I keep thinking is “return to center.” American sitcoms can be pretty diverse with premises/settings, especially among the unsuccessful ones, like Living Biblically or The Great Indoors. But they always feel the same, because it’s the same jokes, the same situations, the same point-of-view — no matter where they start, they always return to center, or normal. It’s a safety thing. K-dramas will always see the two leads get together, or tease that, and how much will the genre accoutrements have mattered?
Funnily enough, this question intensifies the better the accoutrements are, because it’s a balance of priorities, perhaps. I might have issues with some of the power dynamics of this romance, but I like it so far. However, with The Beauty Inside, Where Stars Land, and Stranger, I’m picking up on a pattern with the male leads: their unfeeling, unblinking robot exteriors need cracking, and this will most contrast to a bubbly young lady who maybe needs to grow up a little. Barf! I’m not really sure where this comes from, other than perhaps the obvious, a general underestimation of women — truly, a blameless crime — but all three of these shows were written by women. I have to say, that’s pretty surprising, because it was such a fight to get women behind the camera and even inside the writer’s room in Hollywood. I won’t read anything into the fact it only began happening when the demand for content skyrocketed upon the advent of streaming platforms. They were taking anyone they could, putting pens in their hands! Men, women, children — babies, you write me a damn bottle episode or I’ll start throwing chairs! Maybe because K-dramas are always romance shows… again, won’t read into it. For now.
A Perfect Episode
The episode with the first kiss is always gonna be important, but the one for Beauty Inside, episode six, is perfect. It’s nice, too, because I haven’t thought about “perfect episodes” since just after the heyday of American golden age TV — I guess, the second golden age, peaking with Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
The episode starts out with a flashback sequence, offering a glimpse into what at first look like missed life events of Se-gye’s. Because of her transformations, she couldn’t attend her friend’s wedding or her mother’s surgery, further alienating her from those she loves, but we then see she does show up, unrecognized. After this, we pick up on the gory cliffhanger, where Do-jae’s domineering mother faints after finding him in bed with Se-gye in teenage boy form. Whoa! Now, that was an interesting moment because it was two revelations in one for the mother, Jung-yeon: Do-jae is gay and he’s possibly a pedophile. He maintains that the boy (again, Se-gye) is 18 or 19, what we in the States call “the Republican Defense,” but Jung-yeon’s shock doesn’t leave her. It might just be the other thing, as she tries to explain to her husband and Do-jae’s stepfather: “Do-jae is gay–” but she can’t even say the word gay, so it comes out like “crabs” instead.
Later, Do-jae will ask his very-serious assistant Joo-hwan if he’s ever been attracted to male bodies, and Joo-hwan takes theatrical steps back and even crosses his arms over his chest like he’s refusing the Eucharist. I just don’t know, and you can imagine me shaking my head in disapproval. Or like the Old Man to Dick Jones: “I’m very disappointed.” It’s tiring, but it speaks to the core issue with The Beauty Inside, which is an issue neither good or bad yet: whose side are you on, bro? This is actually the same issue I had with Man in the Kitchen. You’re giving me signals, and then you contradict those signals. For example, in The Beauty Inside, Se-gye makes it a habit to rescue girls from sexual harassment, as she does with a character Ga-young. Later, a high-powered businesswoman finally pierces through to a men’s club, only to find they still treat her like an object. Good, good, this is all good.
Contrast. Se-gye and Do-jae’s relationship gets off to a super weird start, as Do-jae’s social awkwardness in tandem with his incorrigible demeanor — not to mention power position — all adds up to coercion. Their first meal together is under professional pressure, and followed a scene where Se-gye demands to be let out of the car he’s driving, only to realize she has no other way home. That cuts extremely close to narratives from real-world domestic abuse. And look, I’m no prude — may come up later — so I can grant a lady a somewhat troublesome fantasy, because I’m not in a position to grant or not-grant. I’d never even apply for that position, I promise. It’s just, the juxtaposition confounds, and I’m only asking, again — where are we going with this? Is this show gonna do the girls a good turn or are all the very contemporary sexual harassment aspects simply window dressing?
This question doubles in urgency when it comes to the transformation premise, and all the queer avenues we might travel. So here’s the thing: Se-gye and Do-jae make a fated couple not just because he needs a cracking and she needs to grow up a little, but because Se-gye physically appears as a different person every now and then, and Do-jae’s thing is face blindness. He can only know people from their details, like their gait, or in Se-gye’s case, the delivery in their voice more than the voice itself. So no matter what body, Do-jae always sees Se-gye, and nobody else does. He sees who she truly is, in this fantasy-adjusted way. The real-world parallel is stunning in its audacity — right away, Se-gye maintains her pronouns even in a male body, and we might then think, “Well, what is a ‘male’ body anyway?” But if the show’s gonna have its cutesy gay panic or even downright homophobia (?), I don’t even want to think about trans themes. Unless you’re on the right side, bro.
But this also calls to mind the beauty of one of my favorite movies, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and anything that can call Innocence to mind has a ticket to my heart. In the too-often-maligned anime sequel, Batou is pretty sad about the loss of his partner, the Major, and his journey takes inspiration from the philosophy of Donna Haraway, whose cyborg transhumanism blends gender and bodies, obliterating social definitions. In the end, Batou is able to accept that the Major hasn’t died or disappeared, she’s simply taken a new form, just as robot dolls are essentially themselves and not human beings. God, it’s such a beautiful story and a masterpiece from Mamoru Oshii, but so much to say, this is the brass ring. Anime got there, why not a K-drama? They’re both mediums after all.
In my experience, K-drama episodes are not structured around their individual plots, so they’re closer to the porous streaming binge-ers than episodic television of American networks. And yet, while their pacing is variable across series (horrible, in the case of Man in the Kitchen), I find they’re far more economic with storytelling, choosing to jam in an almost reckless amount of subplots and digressions into the admittedly inflated runtimes. Something in the Rain was different here, not only for its stage-like proceedings across long takes, like an Ozu film, but also its limited POVs. There are two storylines, and only a few characters’ viewpoints to cut between. The Beauty Inside has a larger cast of characters, and this is a case where quantity is quality in storytelling, I think. Of course, these characters have to be interesting, and the things they get up to have to be intriguing.
I couldn’t believe mine eyes when the Eun-ho character accidentally broke Sa-ra’s chandelier while housekeeping her ritzy pad. Being that Sa-ra is the Da-hee character, I thought, “Are they really gonna do some sort of indentured servitude thing here?” And indeed, for lodging, Eun-ho negotiates to pay off the damages with labor. Wow. I’ll see where that goes, but I’m extremely not used to anything even remotely suggesting the possibility of a dominant/submissive scenario, especially if it’s femdom, my holy grail. (TMI?). Even if it’s just he’s on his hands and knees while she’s standing there — (TMI). This was episode six, and while the balance of Eun-ho and Sa-ra’s story does muscle out Woo-mi, who’s back to her old self, it does feature a straight-up RPG side-quest. But first — I really like Woo-mi, but I tend to gravitate toward friendships in movies and TV shows over romances anyway. Woo-mi is Se-gye’s manager, and one of two people who know Se-gye’s secret (the other being Eun-ho). She’s very supportive, but she has her limits. Always on the move, always on her phone, Woo-mi is as much a businesswoman as a friend, and when those two things conflict, she bears the brunt of it. I mean, no one antics like a K-drama protagonist, other than maybe theme park mascots. Woo-mi blows up at Se-gye after an egregious example, and Se-gye has to win her back with posterboards, Andrew Lincoln-style. I would’ve liked it if their relationship had been irrevocably changed from that point on, but it’s just a thought.
Se-gye bumps into Ga-young again in episode six, while in the form of the teenage boy. Dressed up in Do-jae’s old school uniform, she witnesses Ga-young’s mistreatment at the hands of her boyfriend and decides to take action — as only a teenage boy might. Part of the fun of The Beauty Inside is its metatext, that this is a hallyu product about hallyu, with Se-gye being a popular actress. We see how non-stories blow up into scandals, and how reporters and people on the street go wild for dating rumors or even stars’ public appearances. Some of the major beats in Se-gye and Do-jae’s relationship have been accented by a crowd of onlookers, which only heightens the drama. It’s like a laugh track but more naturalistic. Se-gye as teenage boy, whose looks inspired Woo-mi to recruit “him” as talent, shows up at Ga-young’s high school and all the girls are gathered around oohing. “He’s so hot!” “What school is he from?” Holding flowers, Se-gye waits for Ga-young’s arrival, and they play-act a scenario for the benefit of the crowd and Ga-young’s boyfriend. It gives the teenage girl the strength to diss him and walk away, and then the boyfriend and his gang chases Se-gye into the next scene.
At the end of the side-quest, Se-gye and Ga-young talk on a bridge overlooking a river at night. It’s a gorgeous setting, and before Se-gye can leave, Ga-young asks for a phone number. Se-gye thinks quickly, and says she’s going to study abroad in France. She’ll try to become someone worthy of her, she says, and Ga-young’s response? “Even the exit is perfect.”
Despite the odd Dutch angle or way-too-much headspace for flavor, The Beauty Inside conducts itself with the usual lush cinematography, of ample light and color and maximum detail. The writing is so witty some of the jokes poke through translation, and I really like this cast. The charm and beauty quotient is high even by K-drama standards, and their characters are fully-realized, with both immediate quirks and deeper concerns. The lead, Seo Hyun-jin, is absolutely marvelous, tough in so many ways but steeling a deep vulnerability. She’s almost childlike as a result; because she can’t let this one thing matter, nothing matters. And yet, she struggles with how much it matters to her. There’s a lot riding on that ultimate question.
I think it’s kind of funny, and I think it’s kind of devious, that K-drama productions are so tied into various tourism industries. Cheer Up! had a curious production credit for a sports agency? For her work in Where Stars Land, Chae Soo-bin became an ambassador for Incheon International Airport. Korean YouTubers will warn you against moving to Korea to live out your drama fantasy with oppa. (Noona’s probably okay, though, so I’ll be fine). And I was kind of disappointed with Something in the Rain for its totally weak food porn. Give me the noodles — as many as possible, quickly. We revisit the airport with The Beauty Inside, and it had to click for me: Oh, this is a country showing off. “Look at our airport, you fucking plebians.” Everyone is rich, everyone is stylish, everyone talks on their Samsung phones. The image of South Korea is a concerted product, and it looks shiny and tasty and romantic, all dialed up to eleven.
This reflects on story, too, and while selling Korea might be a consistent project, there is an appreciable variance — it’s world-building each time, even if it’s “soft” world-building. There’s a moment in The Beauty Inside when a gaggle of rowdy guys takes a table near our dining/drinking protagonists and makes a ruckus about who’s hotter, Se-gye or her rival. Woo-mi and Eun-ho make a big deal about Se-gye’s strong points, eventually convincing them that Se-gye is the hotter. This prompts Se-gye, transformed, to buy eel for that table, and we leave the scene on the guys cheering. There’s so much that’s essentially human in the scene, from the intuition of friends and their subsequent protection of Se-gye’s feelings to my own softening on the rowdy guys, who I’d hate in real life. K-drama’s blend of competitively absurd fantastic elements and characteristic soap opera storytelling somehow alchemizes into genuine affect, and this is the heart of my fascination. Se-gye is a werehuman, but when she looks up at that control tower and simply says, “This is nice,” I get a little twinkle in my eye.