Hanna is a good-natured, hard working woman who has been blessed with a knockout voice. Thanks to this, she is hired to perform as a "ghost singer" for a sexy, hot-tempered young pop star named Ammy. As Ammy struts about the stage, lip-synching amidst her crowd of backup singers and dancers, Hanna is backstage in front of the microphone. No one takes seriously the prospect of Hanna becoming a pop star on her own, because at 169cm and 95kg, she's about as far from the thin/pretty prototype as you can get. But she seems happy enough pouring her heart into song each night, and staying as close as she can to Ammy's good-looking young music producer Sang-joong, who seems to genuinely enjoy her company.
Alas, this happy equilibrium cannot last, and one day Hanna finds herself utterly humiliated and robbed of any will to go on. Rather than kill herself, she drops out of society and embarks on a course of radical plastic surgery and weight loss. Her surgeon is talented, the pounds come flying off, and a few months later Hanna is not only unrecognizable, she is a stunning beauty. And with a voice to match (but a secret to hide), she is a prospective diva with no need to lip-synch.
I'll be honest, the synopsis of this film did not inspire great confidence in me, and the first 20 minutes seemed only to confirm my worst fears. The hot young actress Kim A-jung (When Romance Meets Destiny) who portrays Hanna is decked out in a latex fat suit which I suppose is more or less convincing, except for the fact that her face muscles don't move when she speaks. The narrative initally bumps along powered by fat jokes that are mildly offensive and not particularly funny.
Gradually, however, the film starts to produce some well-deserved laughs, and by the time Kim A-jung emerges in her full glory, we have one of the year's most entertaining Korean comedies. The film has various little strengths I can point to, such as a career-reviving performance by Joo Jin-mo (Happy End, Musa – I don't think he's ever been as charismatic as he is here), an energetic soundtrack, interesting supporting characters, and an amusing behind-the-scenes look at the Korean music industry.
But Kim A-jung is the reason to watch this film. Kim A-jung is the bomb. Not only does she look great, but she does all of the singing on her own and she displays a nice instinct for comedy. When Hanna transforms herself, she becomes beautiful but doesn't really "act" beautiful, having grown up as someone almost universally looked down on. Kim manages to capture this element of the role nicely, even when it gets rather heavy-handed towards the film's end. When this film was in the casting stage, quite a few established actresses turned down the role, including Ha Ji-won, Kim Ha-neul, Kim Hee-sun and Ko So-young. Now, it's hard to imagine the movie doing nearly as well if any of these other women had been cast.
The second film by director Kim Yong-hwa, 200 Pounds Beauty is originally based on a Japanese manga by Suzuki Yumiko, although – like Park Chan-wook's Oldboy -- the final screenplay has ended up differing quite a bit from the source material. It's tempting to try to tease some sort of social message out of the film, given the rage for plastic surgery among young Koreans (for men as much as women). I'm not sure the film really supports this, however – more than anything, it's just an entertaining comedy. Certainly Korean audiences were charmed, as they bought more than 6.5 million tickets to the film (for a box office take of about $45 million). It may be "hard to be a beauty" (the original Korean title of this film), but it certainly doesn't hurt ticket sales.