Director: Jang Jin
Writer: Jang Jin
Producer: Jang Jin
Cast: Cha Seung-Won, Oh Jeong-Se, Lee Som, Go Kyung-Pyo, Shin Sung-Hun, Jo Bok-Rae, Park Chang-Hee
Running Time: 125 min.
By Paul Bramhall
In many ways the gangster genre is to the Korean movie industry what the heroic bloodshed genre was to the Hong Kong movie industry of the 90’s. Ever since Korean cinema gained international recognition in the late 90’s, every year we can be guaranteed a hard hitting slice of gangster violence and bloody backstabbing. While for many this might be all that’s needed, for those who long for a slightly different angle, director and writer Jang Jin looks to be delivering just that with his latest offering – Man on High Heels.
Jin is a prolific director who’s worked in various genres, but to western audiences the title which will likely be most familiar is 2001’s Guns and Talks, which featured a young Won Bin in a quirky tale of four hitmen living together. With Man on High Heels, we get a typical tale of a cop on the tail of a pair of gangster brothers, however what’s not so typical, is that the cop in question secretly harbors the desire to be a woman.
The above description may sound like the setup for another quirky take on a well established genre, but surprisingly, Jin boldly decides to play the whole thing completely straight (no pun intended). The challenge of portraying such a character is given to Cha Seung-won, who rises up to the part with aplomb. We’re introduced to his character as the epitome of masculinity – he never uses a gun, his body is covered in scars, he has steel pins in his arms and legs, to his colleagues he’s a cyborg, to criminals he’s a legend – basically, someone who doesn’t have an ounce of femininity in him.
Within the first 10 minutes he’s single handedly raided a karaoke room, seating 11 armed gangsters, in a scene which will make you realize that the carcasses of recently eaten crabs and lobsters can make just as effective weapons as knives and daggers. It’s a brutally choreographed sequence, one which has blood spraying everywhere and a massive amount of pain being dished out, but it also establishes the almost hyper reality that the movie sets itself in.
Seung-won is essentially a one-man army, an army that even the gangsters admire. In another scene one of the gangster brothers dreamily recalls the first time he encountered him. In the flashback Seung-won stands in a rain drenched street holding an umbrella, as a horde of umbrella wielding attackers charge towards him, everyone dressed in sharp black suites. He takes them down one by one in a flurry of kicks and punches (and umbrellas) to the face, before the scene comes to an end and the gangster wistfully recalls that he didn’t get a single drop of rain on him.
These scenes are a joy to behold, sharply choreographed and violent to the point of being over the top, the transition to Seung-won’s woes over his identity crisis should be laughable against such a backdrop of machismo. Somehow though, they’re not, thanks to the combination of Jin’s assured direction and Seung-won’s committed performance. When his associate takes him to a transgender club to help find his look as a woman, it’s a scene which could potentially derail everything in a lesser talents hands, but here it all just fits into place.
Jin seems to be aiming at paying as much attention to the both the gangster storyline and Seung-won’s goal to have a sex-change operation, and he’s almost successful. Onscreen the gangster storyline is ultimately more prevalent than the transgender one, which if anything only makes the movie a more interesting beast. Should it be marketed as a transgender study, or a gangster flick? The decision to go for both is apparent even in the movies marketing, the Korean poster showing a roughed up Seung-won in a feminine blouse, easily making for one of the most unique viewing experiences in recent memory.
Jin deftly works in a healthy dose of black humor into proceedings. When Seung-won finally makes the decision to venture out into public in woman’s clothing, the elevator of his apartment breaks down, resulting in what he’d hoped would be a quiet ride having the small space gradually occupied by more and more passengers. As his phone rings and he answers with a male voice, causing everyone to turn around and stare, it may seem like a cheap laugh at people who choose to be transgender, but the look of hurt and embarrassment Seung-won portrays quickly gives the scene an unexpected poignancy.
It’s these moments, in which his expressions reveal a massive sense of vulnerability, and his body language an unmistakable femininity, that really make his performance stand out, as we’re suddenly witness to someone a world away from the one-man army image he’s built up of himself. An equally delicate touch is given to the flashback scenes of Seung-won’s childhood, in which he develops a same-sex relationship with another boy in his class, one which eventually leads to tragedy, but also ties into why he chooses to be seen as the epitome of masculinity. While a more scholarly reviewer may call foul on the presumption that being gay leads to transgender issues, or indeed vice versa, in the context of the story these elements all tie together.
Intended as a metaphor or not for the way people who are transgender constantly have to put aside their desire to fully transition to who they want to be, in the movie Seung-won finds that being a one-man army also brings with it a lot of grudges that aren’t easy to let go of, and needless to say for the finale those grudges come back with a vengeance. Traditionally in Asian cinema when a good guy enters the finale wearing white, whether it be Chow Yun Fat in The Killer, Jimmy Wang Yu in Golden Swallow, or any number of others, it means things are about to get bloody. It’s a credit to all involved that in the finale of Man on High Heels, the fact that the white Seung-won is wearing happens to be a ladies blouse couldn’t seem more appropriate, and what follows is one of the most bloody finale’s I’ve seen in a long time. For audiences who like their vengeance served without mercy, Man on High Heels delivers with an almost unapologetic delight.
Thankfully Jin respects the subject matter enough to not just forget about all that’s come before, and the final moments give a worthy emotional depth and respect to bring the movie to a close. All in all, Man on High Heels succeeds in its mission to blend a pair of unlikely storylines, and for that alone, it comes with a strong recommendation.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10