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My Wife Is A Gangster


My Wife Is A Gangster
cast: Eun-Kyung Shin, Sang-Myeon Park, Jae-Mo Ahn, and In-Kwon Kim

director: Cho Jin-Kyu

105 minutes 2001 DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
My Wife Is A Gangster (aka: Jopog Manura) is an uneven Korean crime comedy, which nevertheless has some interesting things to say about the role of the sexes in general and the place of women, in particular. Eun-Kyung Shin, mostly familiar in the West from her appearance in the weird fantasy Uzumaki, and Ring Virus (1999), plays Cha Eun-jin, alias Mantis, also nicknamed 'Big Brother'. She's a fearsome number two in a crime organisation, who's in charge of 50 men. Normally seen in blue business shirts and trousers, she is a ultra cool, deadly fighter, feared and admired by those over whom she has control. Her unyielding side is fatally compromised however when she discovers her sister dying of cancer and who, as a last wish, asks her to get married and have a child. Meanwhile an opposing gang is causing trouble, while Shitboy, a raw recruit to the gang from the country, has to be shown the ropes...

One could easily imagine this plot being remade by Hollywood, for instance with Steve Martin as the gormless husband selected by the gangsteress to promote her marriage and pregnancy, or Angeline Jolie in the title role. Many of the rough edges would undoubtedly have to be smoothed off in the process, as My Wife Is A Gangster is surprisingly violent, notably in the final scenes where the pregnant heroine is kicked in the stomach. As such, it works as a Long Kiss Goodnight scenario in reverse, as the non-nonsense action woman has to discover/re-invent her softer side. The action of the film is sandwiched between two major confrontations: the first, as the opening credit sequence roll, is a startlingly stylish fight in the rain, featuring the deadly flying knives of Eun-jin, and the last a revenge attack on those who have killed a popular henchman. In between there is another stylish knife fight, this time a matter of honour between Eun-jin and a Japanese martial arts expert, whom she succeeds in defeating and reducing to 'a eunuch'. This confrontation, set in long grass and rolling hills, whether deliberate or not, reminds one of the climax in Kurosawa's early masterpiece Sugato Sanshiro (1945). While not on that level, and influenced by the cool shenanigans of The Matrix (1999), the present film makes the most of a fairly limited budget in the action department, effectively conveying the casual violence of gangsterdom.

In fact so insistent are the set pieces that the more frequent, quieter moments of the film require some adjustment on the part of the viewer. First-time director Cho Jin-Kyo has chosen a tricky property in terms of tone, and has trouble balancing the fault line between villainous combat and the social comedy surrounding it. Hong Kong cinema, of even the most serious genre kind, can have a slapstick manner that's disconcerting to Western audiences. Fortunately a lot of that distraction is absent here, although there is a peculiar scene in this film involving smelly feet, a resuscitated cat and a tense stand off between gangs that works notably uneasily. The subplot, featuring Shitboy and his mentor Romeo (a ultra-cool henchman), is more effective, although the occasional Laurel and Hardy antics hardly connects with the main predicament of Eun-Jin.

It is Eun-jin's concern for her sister that gives the film its heart. At her instigation she has to act out a different lifestyle, softening her looks with make-up, which involves a dating agency, courting a man, entering into marriage, setting up home and eventually trying for a child. Having chivalrously - and unnecessarily - come to Eun-jin's aid during a street fight, Kang Su-Il is quickly selected as a prospective groom, being gullible and desperate for a mate. Proposing to the female gang leader with tender words from The Bridges Of Madison County, after the marriage he soon realises that he is only allowed to touch her with permission, that a Yakuza-type tattoo covers her back and his initial advances can be rejected with a kick to the groin. But once the need is felt to get herself pregnant then the process is reversed and, in scenes satirical of the usual meek role allotted to wives in Eastern cinema, she forces herself upon him at regular intervals. Much is very amusing parody, whether it the sight of such a independent, strong woman learning how to flirt and tease and even suck cock, (moments anticipatory of those in Golden Chicken aka: Gam Gai, 2002), or just sitting demurely, cold eyed with fury during the traditional romantic introductions. The excellently staged wedding scene, set in a chapel stocked with nightclub girls, gangsters and a punch up in a balloon-filled balcony, is a highlight. Eun-jin's henchmen make awkward witnesses to the happy event, but they are persuaded to follow through this, and her other increasingly bizarre lifestyle choices, by a fierce loyalty to their leader. Her most likely suitor it appears worships her from afar after she brought him out of a coma, but is too intimidated by the debt to act upon his admiration.

Eun-Kyung Shin gives her difficult role suitable presence, and one is almost convinced of the punishment that her slender figure can give out to those who transgress against her. As the unlucky husband, Sang-Myeon Park is also good as a man who gradually gains his self esteem and pride, although his transformation to avenger and then leather-clad hero at the end of the film is less persuading. A similar transformation overtakes Shitboy who, with new hairstyle and cool dress sense, promptly steps into the shoes of the absent Romeo to introduce the new bumpkin to the gang. And, having been relieved of her responsibilities and promises by the death of her sister, for Eun-jin it's business as normal. But perhaps that is the point: in a film that plays with sexual roles and stereotypes, the changes and reversals we see in characters are often ludicrous, pointing up social and cinematic stereotypes in a broad but effective fashion. It's worth seeking out, although more accomplished; less formulaic comedies are now emerging from Korea on DVD - for example Barking Dogs Don't Bite (aka: Flandersui gae, 2000) and Attack The Gas Station (aka: Juyuso seubgyuksageun, 1999).
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