My Wife is a Gangster (2001)

November 17, 2003 • Film, Reviews

Country: Korea
Director: Cho Jin-Gyu
Producer: Soon-Yeoul Lee
Cast: Shin Eun-Kyung, Park Sang-Myeon.
Running Time: 105 min.

Plot: Cha is the the bad-ass supreme of one of the big Korean mafia families. Cha is infamous for eliminating targets every time. Cha is also a woman. When she learns that her sister has terminal cancer, and her sister’s dying wish is for Cha to be married and lead a normal, assasination-free life, Cha takes her sister’s wishes to heart and begins her move toward normalcy.

It’s an intriguing idea, a kind of inversion of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” set in the Korean gangster underworld. And My Wife is a Gangster has one of the best looks and styles of the year, coupled with a collection of charming performances by a very talented cast that has great chemistry together. But somehow the movie refuses to come together. And once you’ve laughed uproariously at the first hour of the film and held your breath for the second hour, you end up wondering what it was all about.

There is a basic problem with the tone of the film, which runs from adrenaline-pounding scenes of combat (some of the slickest fight scenes ever filmed) to punchy, anarchic comedy. When the film somersaults into gut-wrenching pathos the tonal shift seems entirely innapropriate. After director Jo Jin-gyu and writers Kang Hyo-Jin and Kim Moon-Sung have gone out of their way to glamorize the gangsters, they turn around and condemn the violence they’ve been presenting with such comic-book vigor. And after the anti-violence message gets effectively communicated, they turn around and head back to anarchy with a non-sensical ending.

The basic plot. Shin Eun-Kyung is Mantis, a militantly macho young woman who just showed up at a gang rumble one day and saved a gang from certain desctruction. Quickly she rose to be the interim leader of the group. An orphan, Mantis suddenly locates her long-lost sister, who is, conveniently for plot purposes, dying of leukemia. The peaceful, saintly sister’s last wish is to see Mantis happily married, and so Mantis decides-forget courting, love, harmony, and all that crap. It’s time to get to the bottom of that marriage thing, and fast. Her loyal and entirely hilarious lieutenants (a dyed-blonde young hipster called Romeo, a country bumpkin who carries a horse bone around with him, and a very serious guy with a metal plate in his skull) do their best to help Mantis attract a man, but it’s obvious that they really have no idea what it is about girls that wins them over. So eventually they and Mantis settle on a nebbish, middle-aged clerk with a pot belly and some greatly aggrandized notions of true love.

Up until this point the film was doing great. Especially noteworthy are the performances by Shin Eun-Kyung, who is priceless as the woman warrior, and Park Sang-Myun who gives the lieutenant Romeo a surprising amount of depth and sophistication, even as he makes sure that Romeo does not appear too worldly wise. But once the marriage goes through, things start to get derailed. The husband is one of the weakest links in the film. His character is simply out of tune with all the others. It seems as if the writing is the problem-it’s never clear why the husband is the incredible dope that he is, or what makes him as special as we are supposed to feel that he is. Not helping this dilemma is that half of the film’s second half are scenes dealing with the husband and Mantis, not getting along.

Okay, I’m going to talk about the ending. Because it’s the ending that is one of the biggest problems. In the end of the film Mantis’ thoroughly domesticated husband becomes one of the gangsters. After the entire film has gone towards the notion that in domestic life Mantis might be able to feel the kind of emotions she has been denied for many years. So rather than humanize Mantis, the director and writer have gone with the idea that the husband should become a “tough-guy” himself. Even though the second half of the film pounds home the idea that this tough-guy attitude has a tragic outcome.

So ultimately, what’s going on here? Is the film for or against the violence? How are we supposed to decide, when the violence looks so good, the effects of it are so sad, and the heroes of the film, rather than abandon violence in favor of compassion, just get that much tougher? This is a film that, unfortunately, can’t decide whether it’s a commentary or a comedy. Too bad it couldn’t have been both.

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