The greatest thing about the body-swap movies is that nobody expects anything else from them than being entertaining. Unless they aspire to bring some big message across (bad idea), they are designed to make the audience either laugh or shudder. That said, not everyone has Carl Rainer’s ability to make a screwball comedy like “All of Me” (1984), blessed with hilarious dialogues and unforgettable performances by Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin, nor the creepy vision of a body swap penned by Mike Werb & Michael Colleary for John Woo’s “Face Off”, with John Travolta in his scariest role so far. It is clear that all of them, be it good or bad use the proved recipes with the same basic ingredients, because what else can you do in a body swap movie, then swapping people in each other’s bodies? The opposites always qualify for the plot, and fine seasoning is needed to make it work, which proves to be the case in Kang Hyo-jin’s comedy “The Dude in Me” (aka “The Man Inside Me”), his fifth long feature that screens in the official selection of Fantasia.
Built on a classical nerd and cool dude switch formula, the film initially centres around the middle-aged, successful ‘businessman” Jang Pan-su (Park Sung-woong), married to a pretty, but bored to death and not very much on the faithful side daughter of a mafia boss. Careful about his looks, Jang Pan-su (between teaching folks lessons in a hard way) eats healthy diet, is good at martial arts and has slightly compulsive-obsessive reactions to other people’s untacked shirts. Amidst his not so gentle attempts to get rid of the carpenter whose store messes up with his plans to build a shopping mall, he accidently meets a nerdy voracious teenage boy with thick black-rimmed glasses in a ramen shop, and falls on him, verbally, like a ton of bricks. Not long after, the same boy finds the karmic revenge by literally falling on him from a rooftop, and Jang Pan-su wakes up in his new body in the hospital bed. He is initially grossed only by his new unflattering looks – protruding belly and double-chin included, before the rest of reality starts to kick in. As Dong-hyun he’s under constant attack of school bullies and his new father turns out to be the carpenter (Kim Kwang-gyu) whose life he destroyed. But it doesn’t take long for his true nature to show its face, and bullies start realising they are messing with the wrong person. Along the way, he builds friendship with another oddball at school, a girl called Hyeon-jeong (Soo-min Lee), who becomes his protégé.
The transformation from a chubster to a fit young man reveals the face of the South Korean actor heart-throb Lee Huyn-huk (some will also recognize him as a member of the popular Boy band B1A4), who’s performing both roles – first as a clumsy, overweight geek and later on as the shady, tough character trapped in the (through a hard training trimmed) boy’s body – with great ease. But also, Park Sung-woong is comfortable in his routine role of a criminal dressed in suit and tie, sporting his resting bitch face, before mutating into an emotionally wrecked teenager. His performance is believable all the way through, which arises hopes that we’ll see him in more diversified roles in the future.
The level of predictability may seem high at the beginning of the film, but “The Dude In Me”, besides being highly entertaining, holds a couple of surprises, including the boy-girl bond that takes an interesting twist. There is a love story, but not where we’d expect it, it’s plotted in sober, yet funny tones, and it involves the fabulous Ra Mi-ran, who takes the screen the moment she shows up. Generally, the message of the film is clear – finding true priorities in life, and sticking to what matters: family, decency and honest work, but not before showing a bit of gangster gore. It’s the fisticuffs scenes that make it an especially fun watch, and Kang Hyo-jin is not a stranger to them. He’s already sent fists flying in his debut “Punch Lady” (2007) about the wife who’s had enough of her abusive husband. He also knows how to highlight some of the problems of the modern society without drenching his plot in clichés, and how to let the actors play the roles slightly out-of-the-box. And you know you are entertained, when you don’t feel the 122 minutes.