Saturday, 12 July 2014
200 Pounds Beauty (2006)
Bedevilled, 2010, is an excellent horror film from Korea. In this tale a stressed-out executive named Hae-won returns, Shuttered Room style, to the island of her birth. Here she discovers that her old childhood friend, Bok-nam, is being treated as a slave and is forced to dig potatoes, keep bees and perform sexual services for the menfolk of the island. But, among some Last House on the Left style roughness and an Anthropophagus scale massacre, the film makes some pertinent points with regard to what the filmmakers perceive as the role of women in Korean society and how wome are defined by how they look. The film emphasises the notion of what is considered to be natural beauty. It achieves this by spotlighting ta fictionalised "old" world as represented by an island "that time forgot" and contrasting this with mainland modernity. Bedevilled makes a reference to the water in the capital, for example. We are informed that this water is a source of beauty and that it is guaranteed to provide fairer skin without the aid of make-up. It is this beauty obsession, especially of the idea of a beauty that is natural and free of enhancement, that is also the subject of 200 Pounds Beauty. But, beyond this, the films are gazillion miles apart in terms of genre and tone. Nevertheless, both dwell on this common theme. Up to a point, at least! 200 Pounds Beauty, which is originally titled in Korean as Minyeo-neun goerowo, is an unashamedly cutesie South Korean romantic comedy that was directed and written by the less-than-prolific director Yong-hwa Kim. Yong-hwa Kim has, to date, only directed four feature films. One of these being an award winning comedy about a baseball playing gorilla! On this occasion he takes a Japanese manga, Yumiko Suzuki's Kanna-san, Daiseikou Desu, as a starting point and uses it to shoehorn in some serious points. You see, for all the candy coloured Fancy World wrapping, 200 Pounds Beauty is a film that allows Yong-hwa Kim to say something that is important to the clearly youthful target audience. He is making a demand for reflection. In terms of performances the star turn here, and the 200 Pounds Beauty of the title, is played by Ah-jung Kim. She is, no doubt, a major contributing factor to the significant success that the film enjoyed at the box office. She portrays Kang Han-na. Kang, who makes a living trading on her beautiful voice. Kang provides vocals, Milli Vanilli style, for a famous music producer Sang-jun, played by Jin-mo Ju. In particular she does this for Sang-jun's latest discovery “Ammy”. After all, Ammy at least looks the part. She prances, poses and pouts. But, unfortunately for Ammy, she can't sing. And this is where Kang, an occasional phone sex worker, comes into the picture. Kang is a shadow singer and gives the less talented, but more easy on the eye, Ammy the chance of being "the whole package". This idea, one of an unseen potential star who's light is hidden under a bushel, is one of the many themes that is explored in Minyeo-neun goerowo. This is, after all, a film that is especially interested in a vacuous world of manufactured celebrity. It is unfortunate that Kang fancies the ruthless Simon Cowell-like Svengali. For, while Sang-jun is aware of Kang as his meal ticket, and utters sweet platitudes to keep her onside, he confides to Ammy that he finds Kang a complete turn off. Kang overhears this and decides it is time to make changes. She gives in to the societal pressures to conform and sets out to become a star in her own right. To do this she utilises the services of a plastic surgeon. He is a customer of Kang's sex work and as the result of blackmail reluctantly puts her under the knife for free. Kang even gives her name a makeover and adopts the new celebrity name “Jenny”. Success however changes Kang on the inside as well as outwardly and her celebrity persona takes over. It is the more heartless and driven Jenny who becomes a star while the "real" Kang becomes increasingly pushed into the background. She even, for appearances sake, denies recognising her own mentally ill father who she dismisses as being yet another fan. In this, the film provides a commentary on the superficial nature of popular culture to which the director appears to be somewhat unsympathetic. The message, it seems, is that the current state of affairs is that the celebrity fixation of beauty is one that should not be allowed to continue unchallenged. What, it seems, is being articulated is that talent SHOULD count and not the package it comes in. But, in reality, the film is casting a much wider net. In taking celebrity world and as a microcosm it expands the point to take into consideration of Korean society as it is equally a musing on the role of the demands of the fan in the whole equation . The film also ponders the idea of authenticity. Natural beauty is deified while, at the same time, the notion that someone with plastic surgery is fake and undesirable is emphasised. So, even in the superficial world of stardom, as constructed here, there is a hierarchy of surperficiality. Ultimately the rivalry between Ammy and Kang is one of two phoneys. Yet, still, we are invited to sympathise more with Kang as we get to share the mitigating circumstances in her backstory. Ammy is afforded no such luxury. Despite the points considered, surprisingly, the film is never preachy. Indeed it completely eschews polemic and heavy handed monologues. Instead it encapsulates any “issue movie” pretensions within the familiar romcom formula. 200 Pounds Beauty may well be a sharply satirical eye that is cast upon a society wide obsession, and even the consequences of this but, while this is a film with something to say, it is one that maintains its funny, and sweet, ambiance throughout. But, for the viewer, the real joy of the film comes from the performance of lead actress Ah-jung Kim. She is, in real life, a singer as well as an actress and, apparently, she performs her own songs here. For example, she belts out an excellent rendition of Blondie's Maria. Even for this alone the film is worth watching. However, beyond this though, to be honest, there is no reason to especially seek out the teen comedy “by numbers” that is 200 Pounds Beauty. You see there are, after all, hell of a lot of teen-oriented romcoms out there. Indeed, there are hell of a lot of South Korean teen-oriented romcoms out there. But, honestly, to pass a bit of time there is no reason to especially overlook 200 Pounds Beauty either. It is simply what it is. Sure, the whole Cinderella or Ugly Duckling, rags-to-riches, makeover thing has been done to death. Some of these themes had already been handled more directly in Shallow Hal. As has the whole weightloss transformation thing. In Umberto Lenzi's Cicciabomba, aka Fatty Girl Goes to New York, for example. After all, that is what 200 Pounds Beauty is! It is, sort of, Shallow Hal meets Singin' in the Rain meets Cicciabomba with added X Factor.