It is one of the great truths of cinema that fat suits are comedy gold, something which surely stands director Kim Yong Hwa’s “200 Pounds Beauty” in good stead from the start, as does the fact that it deals with the ever topical subject of plastic surgery and its place in modern Korea. Taking the concepts of the personal makeover and the obsession with appearances to a wacky extreme, the film manages to work in not only comedy, but also some surprisingly eloquent social commentary, all wrapped up with the expected romance and melodrama. The combination proved to be a successful one, and the film struck a cord with Korean audiences, emerging not only as one of the top ten domestic box office hits of all time, but also as the country’s highest grossing romantic comedy ever.
The film follows Hanna (actress Kim Ah Jung, recently in “When Romance Meets Destiny”), a friendly though unfortunately obese woman who works as a ghost singer for untalented pop idol Ammy and who secretly yearns for the heart of manager Sang Jun (Ju Jin Mo, also in “Musa”). After a cruel joke leaves her self esteem in tatters, poor Hanna undergoes drastic plastic surgery and remerges a year later, completely transformed into the svelte, almost unrecognisable Jenny. Pursuing a singing career in her own right (rather ironically being marketed as a natural beauty) and working her way into the affections of the curiously blank Sang, everything seems to be going well, until the suspicious Ammy begins digging into her past.
Although much of the humour in “200 Pounds Beauty” stems from embarrassment gags, the film is surprisingly free of the kind of cruel weight related slapstick at the expense of the protagonist that might have been expected. Instead, director Kim plays mainly upon the ways in which Hanna retains her pre-surgery mannerisms and shyness, and the fact that she is clearly not the sharpest tool in the box. Most of the jokes hit home, and the proceedings are amusing throughout, with a few odd subplots helping to give a somewhat eccentric air, such as her sideline as a phone sex worker or her poor, crazy old father who is shamelessly wheeled out every now and then for a quick shot of hilariously misplaced cheap sentiment.
Whilst more in the way of fat suit action might not have gone astray, this does allow for a little more character development, and the film benefits from the fact that Hanna is a likeable enough figure whose naivety is charming rather than annoying. As such the viewer comes to care for her and support her, if not in the rather redundant quest for the hand of the determinedly uncommunicative Sang, then at least in her efforts to get her life in order and to find some kind of peace with herself. Certainly, the film works better as a personal journey than as a romance, with life lessons a-plenty on the menu, and ultimately emerges as being more about Hanna learning to love herself rather than the floppy fringed dullard.
Director Kim also tackles, in a deceptively light-hearted manner, some fairly complex subjects. The film not only explores the ways in which people are treated differently according to their appearance, but also the inherent hypocrisy and double standards of a society which encourages the pursuit of beauty, yet criticises the methods taken by those not necessarily naturally blessed. In “200 Pounds Beauty”, plastic surgery is never demonised nor wholly condoned. Despite some surprisingly bitter themes lurking in the background of obsession, self loathing and suicide, the overall message which eventually emerges is a plea for tolerance and acceptance, and as such the film does have an upbeat, life-affirming feel.
This is echoed in Kim’s direction, which is colourful and energetic, though mercifully free of the kind of visual gimmickry which is often seen in such films, and he allows the story to play out in a pleasingly unforced manner, accompanied by a fitting soundtrack of bouncy pop songs. On the downside, the film is a little too long, especially since the plot plays out exactly as expected, with the initial joys of transformation giving way to Hanna undergoing personality changes and turning her back on her old life and friends, right through to the inevitable identity crisis and climatic emotional outpouring.
Still, this doesn’t prevent “200 Pounds Beauty” from being a great deal of fun, and the film stands as one of the best romantic comedies from Korea in recent years. Offering an effective and thoughtful mix of laughs and social commentary, it should manage to win over even viewers who are not normally fans of the form.
Yong-hwa Kim (director) / Yong-hwa Kim, Hye-yeong No (screenplay), Yumiko Suzuki (comic)
CAST: Ah-jung Kim … Kang Han-na
Jin-mo Ju … Sang-jun