Cosmetic surgery is a booming industry worldwide, yet arguably more so in Korea where even middle and high school students return from vacation with bigger eyes and ‘western’ style noses. The obsession with appearance and rising number of surgeries, partly inspired by the influx of celebrities who have undertaken procedures, has alarmed various social groups for many years yet demand has always outstripped criticism by a large (profit) margin.
200 Pounds Beauty (미녀는 괴로워), or translated as ‘Being Beautiful is Agonizing’, is a romantic-comedy based on the huge social debate surrounding cosmetic surgery that attempts to explore opposing sides of the argument. It frequently succeeds and is often quite charming, yet it does so in a superficial capacity while the narrative is ultimately undermined as the film’s mixed message not only condones surgery – it encourages it.
Kang Han-na (Kim Ah-joong (김아중) is an incredibly obese and kind hearted woman, with a superb singing voice. Due to her appearance she sings popular K-pop songs for hit star Ammy (Seo Yoon (서윤) under the stage, while the untalented-yet-pretty performer mimes and dances. The injustice of it all does not escape Han-na yet she accepts that her voice bring s happiness to others through singing and also in her part-time job where she moonlights as a phone-sex worker. Her talent as a singer also brings her closer to her unrequited love, music producer Han Sang-joon (Joo Jin-mo (주진모) who has genuine affection for Han-na. However, upon secretly hearing of Sang-joon’s disgust at her appearance she resolves to have cosmetic surgery on her entire body and reemerge as a beautiful girl to win his heart once and for all.
200 Pounds Beauty is competently directed by Kim Yong-hwa (김용화), who understands the nature of physical comedy well. The jokes created at the expense of Han-na’s weight, such as rebounding off of walls and falling through the floor, are contrasted with moments of innocence and naivety that strike a highly empathic chord with the character. The director also deserves credit for continuing such devices when Han-na transforms into Jenny, as Kim Yong-hwa refrains from fetishising her new body with the camera and instead consistently emphasizes the awkward physical comedy she perpetuates. In doing so Han-na/Jenny becomes even more sympathetic as her innocent identity is still intact. The source of comedy is also contrasted between Han-na and Jenny well, as Han-na’s obesity is often comical but the root of bullying while Jenny’s awkwardness is fun yet her beauty highlights the funny superficiality of others. When Han-na is invited to a birthday party she is mocked for wearing a tight gown; when Jenny is the cause of a car crash the men instantly forgive her due to her appearance. As such the social commentary within 200 Pounds Beauty is concerned with the superficial preconceptions that exist within culture and undermines them through conveying how hollow such concepts – and especially men and the entertainment industry – are.
Yet just as Arial in Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) changed her body and identity to find her prince, so too does Han-na in obtaining hers. Despite the existence of social critique within the narrative it is often rather shallow in the effort to be light-hearted entertainment. Jenny’s rejection of her father and best friend, her obese best friend’s suicide attempt, and even the surgical process itself are all present yet conveyed without the requisite detail that would portray Han-na’s journey as a poignant trajectory of self-discovery as well as a comedic one. Sang-joon’s attempt to touch Jenny in her surgically enhanced areas is also amusing, yet despite her own reference to herself as a product there are few scenes exploring how Jenny is used as ‘image’ by her love interest. Combined with the prosperous K-pop career and winning Sang-joon’s heart that Jenny receives in undergoing treatment, 200 Pounds Beauty ultimately conveys that cosmetic surgery is the way to a successful and love-filled life, wholly undermining prior scenes of Han-na’s torment by bullies and the superficiality of culture and the media.
For her performance as Han-na/Jenny, actress Kim Ah-joong won the Best Actress award at the 2007 Grand Bell Awards. Kim Ah-joong’s performance is good, emphasising the awkward physicality of her character with skill with a sense of comedic timing. However she is consistently on the verge of tears almost regardless of the scenario, functioning as an innocent and tearful ‘image’ of traditional femininity that further serves to encourage cosmetic surgery. Her acting is often childlike despite scenes which offer a chance at a more nuanced performance. Despite this Kim Ah-joong is by far the most engaging and talented performer throughout 200 Pounds Beauty, and the film is difficult to imagine without her as the main protagonist.
The other actors fare much worse, particularly Joo Jin-mo as love interest Sang-joon. He is lacking in charisma throughout, and the absence of chemistry between him and Kim Ah-joong is solely his responsibility and is highly noticeable. This is in part due to the lack of development of the character as there are an abundance of minor roles, yet there are several opportunities where the actor could convey his emotions. As it is, his performance conveys he is unworthy of Han-na’s love and portrays the romance between them as contrived.
200 Pounds Beauty is a comedic and humorous film that attempts to explore both sides of Korea’s obsession with cosmetic surgery, a highly ignored cultural trend – cinematically at least – with a highly competent performance by Kim Ah-joong. While the film does depict a variety of social discourses surrounding the cultural phenomenon, such scenes are often superficial and are undermined to such a degree that 200 Pounds Beauty ultimately reinforces – even encourages – cosmetic surgery as the key to a successful and happy life. Mixed messages notwithstanding, 200 Pounds Beauty is a fun, if rather shallow, comedy about the beauty that lies within.