Well Go USA
Two new foreign language films have crossed the ocean to unspool before our English-speaking eyes – just roll with it – and while they have nothing in common plot-wise they both embrace their chosen genre while also subverting expectations. Keep reading for a look at South Korea’s dram/rom/com The Beauty Inside and Iceland’s tough, gritty procedural Brave Men’s Blood.
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Kim Woo-jin (Kim Dae-myung, for a little while at least) has had something of an identity crisis since turning eighteen nearly twelve years ago. He wakes up every day in a new body. He’s still himself – he’s just occupying a completely different body. They range from male to female, young to old, and while it’s normally Korean he’s sometimes surprised to find a white or black face staring back at him in the mirror. Those foreign vessels complicate things further as they leave him unable to speak Korean even though he still understands it.
Only two people know about his condition – his mother, and his best friend, Sang-beck – as it makes things understandably difficult when it comes to building relationships. One night stands have long since grown old, but he finds his heart stirred when he meets Hong Yi-soo (Han Hyo-ju). He forces himself to stay awake for three days straight and manages to spend much of that time with her, but when his tired body finally gives in he wakes to discover a shlumpy, middle-aged man in his reflection. Unable to let her go, Woo-jin tries to stay in her life even if she doesn’t know it’s him and even as it breaks his heart a little more each day.
The Beauty Inside is every bit a magical romance that should appeal to fans of films like Il Mare with its engaging love story and accepted impossibility. It lacks that film’s teased tragedy, but it also doesn’t need it as the loss of love and companionship can be just as compelling.
There’s a risk to making a romance where one half of the couple is constantly changing as it would be too easy for viewers to disconnect each time the actor changes. And he does change. There’s no one Woo-jin (as evidenced by the film’s IMDB page) meaning each time a scene leaves us affected and drawn to the relationship it’s followed by the arrival of a new actor, a new face, a new performer that needs to work quickly to retain our attention.
Director Baek Jong-yeol’s film (adapted from a series of YouTube shorts by Drake Doremus) plays with our perceptions by placing some of the sweet and tender moments at times when Woo-jin is anything but a conventionally attractive young man. One heart-wrenching exchange occurs while he takes a young woman’s form, and other moments hit home while he’s trapped in a wrinkled, liver-spotted old shell. It’s not all dour melodrama though as his condition also allows for some fun with one instance seeing Yi-soo and an eight year-old boy out on a “date” with Woo-jin being chastised by strangers for not referring to her as Auntie.
The logic of the story, and of Woo-jin’s condition in particular, is never really tested, but that’s not the point of the film. It would be easy to turn the setup into the beginning of a thriller as Woo-jin comes face to face with a body he previously occupied or some such thing, but the focus here is love and the weight that physical attraction holds when it comes that most rare of feelings. It refuses to shy away from that central question, but it makes time also for concerns over peer pressure, ridicule, and the idea that some relationships might not be worth the condemnation of those around you.
The film does run a bit long at over two hours as some of the conflicted drama grows redundant, but Han carries us through as the one constant with a dueling fragility and strength. It’s easy to see why Woo-jin would become stuck on her – yes she’s beautiful, but as is the focus of the film we’re allowed the opportunity to see a bit beyond that to the person beneath. More of that would have been beneficial, but there’s enough here to believe the attraction and hope for the best.
The Beauty Inside is sweet throughout and funny at times, but the overriding feeling is of a romance challenged by life. Doomed or hopeful, it’s always romantic.
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Hannes Arnason (Darri Ingolfsson) is the son of a well respected ex-cop, but his own attempt at moving up in the force hits something of a disgraceful snag when he fails out of Special Ops training. Indifferent to the scorn of those around him he makes the move into Internal Affairs instead, and it’s not long before he finds himself attached to a case that promises to threaten both his career and his life.
A recently incarcerated gangster named Gunnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) contacts him with a tip about a corrupt policeman, but this is far from just any dirty cop. He claims that a man named Margeir (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson), the head of the department’s narcotics division, is working in cahoots with the city’s most powerful drug dealer, Sergej (Zlatko Krickic). Hannes proceeds with his investigation, but his inexperience at turning over rocks results in tragedy when he finds what’s hiding underneath.
Brave Men’s Blood (aka Borgríki 2) is actually a sequel, but while knowledge of that first film would no doubt enhance the experience here it’s not a requirement to enjoying the new film. (I haven’t seen the first, but I intend to fix that as soon as possible.) Enjoyment isn’t quite the right term though as the film is both frustrating and unsatisfying even as it impresses.
The setup feels familiar, and while there are certain beats that feel unavoidable as the film moves forward there are just as many expected moments that never come. Genre expectations come up empty just as frequently as they’re fulfilled, and it’s there where both the frustration and lack of perceived satisfaction come into play.
One of the ways in which director/co-writer Olaf de Fleur Johannesson shifts our focus is with a narrative jump that moves viewers from Hannes’ story to Sergej’s. It humanizes the criminal through time spent with his family and struggles, but the goal is less to make viewers care than it is to make viewers understand. As one visiting villain tells Sergej while threatening his family, everyone has someone to answer to.
That idea, that there’s always someone bigger and badder than you, plays throughout the film to great effect. It feeds into the idea of a grey area, a swathe of hazy morality, and ultimately affects the idea of where a story like this should end. Most Hollywood films tell us one thing, but the real world is one of compromises and pain. The film leans closer to the latter, and it’s there where viewers may be left unsatisfied. We expect certain things to happen,so when the opposite occurs the feeling we’re left with is confusing in the best possible way.
Some of the frustrations seem inexcusable including some real moments of stupidity by protagonists that lead to tragedy and contrivances that help usher along elements of the story. Could they happen? Of course, but they sometimes feel more like lazy writing than human errors.
The cast is strong throughout with Sigurðsson being one of the standouts. He projects an authority even as he’s bent into submissive shapes. Also fantastic is Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir as a detective returning from leave after surviving an assault (that presumably occurs in the first film). She’s tough even as the shakiness within sits just beneath her skin, and her coiled intensity feeds into some of the film’s most memorable sequences.
Brave Men’s Blood is a hard-hitting look at idealism and corruption from which no one escapes unscathed. It’s far from the clean, good guy defeats bad guy-type tale we’re familiar with, but that’s part of what makes it worth seeing.