My Wife is a Gangster Review
The Jopok (a term for Korean gangster) genre of film making has been alive and well for a number of years now, though by large it was given a fresh boost around 2001, while South Korea was enjoying its immense new wave success. Films such as Friend and Failan took the more gritty and heartfelt route in exploring organised crime, while the likes of Hi Dharma and Kick the Moon went the way of comedy and served up barrels of fun with their cute characters and brilliant set ups. The Jopok comedy has proven to be the most successful in recent years, in that it often provides fun pastiches of traditional gangster types, while being able to throw in specific cultural references. In 2001 My Wife is a Gangster also surfaced, taking the noble turn of trying to be fun and a tad poignant. It didn’t earn immense praise, though it performed remarkably well at the Seoul box office and ensured that a sequel quickly followed. Word of mouth and a successful tour on the international circuit ensured that it also became the first Korean film to have its name licensed for a U.S. remake - one that has yet to surface, but is rumoured to star Queen Latifah. 2001 could then be considered quite the vintage year; it’s significant in that it’s where most of the originality still lies: these days the South Korean film industry gets by on churning out sequels to guaranteed bread winners like Marrying the Mafia (currently on three films), Hi Dharma, My Boss, My Hero, and yes, even My Wife is a Gangster, which is about to see a third instalment starring Shu Qi. So let’s revisit one of the titles that spurred on massive interest from Asian cinema fans and became something as legendary as Mantis herself.
Cha Eunjin (Shin Eun-kyung), who was orphaned at a young age, has managed to successfully work her way up the criminal ladder in becoming the second in command of a well known South Korean gang; dubbed “Mantis”, she exhibits lighting reflexes and proves to be a deadly weapons expert. But a sudden tragedy in her family soon sees her life being turned upside down. For years Eunjin has been searching for her sister Yujin, but when she’s finally reunited with her she learns that her sister Yujin (Lee Eung-kyung) is dying from cancer. Yujin asks one thing of her sister: that she settles down and gets married, so that she can die in peace, knowing her sis is being well taken care of. Of course this disturbs Eunjin somewhat, but out of honour she promises that she’ll do as her sister wishes. Consequently she rounds up three of her best men: The steel-plated Majinga (Shim Won-chul), who also harbours a soft spot for her, Romeo (An Jae-mo) and new recruit Yong-man (Kim In-kwon), to seek out a suitable man to tie the knot with. They come up with civil servant Kang Soo-il (Park Sung-myun): an unlikely candidate, but one who may just be dumb enough to not realise that Eunjin intends to string him along for a year or so.
Having grown up in a male-dominated environment, the tomboyish Eunjin cannot comprehend natural female qualities. She eventually undergoes an awkward transformation, thanks to a beauty therapist, and then sets out with her new man to try and persuade both families to grant them their blessings. Meanwhile a rival gang known as the White Sharks get wind of Eunjin’s situation and decide to shake things up a little by exploiting her unlucky fortune. Eunjin is about to find herself juggling a doting husband and hordes of gangsters who have firm eyes on taking over her territory. What’s more, it doesn’t look like her sister is done with her requests yet…
MWIAG knows exactly what it wants to be, and for the most part that’s a silly romp, fuelled by an unlikely twist being that the head gangster is in fact a female. That in itself is enough to ensure that director Cho Jin-gyu has enough perfect material to throw at the screen, even if essentially it deals with some rather ordinarily fish out of water elements. Regardless, his film is, for the most part, one of grand execution; what shouldn’t work ultimately does and that’s largely thanks to its tongue in cheek/often satirical humour aimed toward your typical gangster, as portrayed through stereotypical preconceptions. The hoods in Eunjin’s gang are familiar archetypes, blown up to cartoon proportions so that they rarely come across as being anything less than bumbling: highlighting their status with grand delusions and outrageous actions, which makes them hardly the traditional honourable types that their job may require them to be. Loyalty and family bonds plays a large part in MWIAG’s script, but throughout most of its run time the feature solely concentrates on well timed bouts of slapstick comedy (played to perfection between An Jae-mo and Kim In-kwon), while the characters Eunjin and Soo-il provide a fun couple in a series of marital skits that eventually sees them grow and respect one another. The comedy is fairly broad and it may not appeal to everyone; this is strictly for those who enjoy their slapstick routines (and who doesn’t find someone getting slapped around the head not funny?) and light toilet humour. It’s particularly fun to witness Eunjin go through the humility of conforming to popular feminine ideals, with the help of Romeo’s beau and “beauty therapist” Sheri (a very funny Choe Eun-ju tarting it up for the lads).
It’s a shame, then, that the final twenty minutes of the film heads into far more serious territory. Underlining the playful comedy is a common theme of human bonding and learning to be content with ones self. That may sound a tad pretentious, yet it’s clear from the beginning that Eunjin is meant to discover the more important things in life and know what it is to be happy. She’s put through a lengthy trial in which everything is a learning process for her. Having never lived her life as a “normal” woman she’s oblivious as to how she’s expected to act, and when she does undergo a momentary transformation she becomes privy to how poorly treated woman in a male dominated society can be. This allows some of the more social aspects to filter through all too apparently. Much of this works: Jin-gyu provides some strong contrasts between civil servants and lowly criminals and he subtly throws in references to contemporary Korean culture, with of course the aforementioned female role aspect thrown in for good measure. But with this, whether it be satire or otherwise, comes some heavy prices. With her sister dying and death becoming another major focus in regards to another player we're dealt some difficult cards, and none is more disparaging then when
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|a pregnant Eunjin is battered and brutally kicked in the stomach until her baby dies.|
Still, never mind. There’s a solid hour and twenty minutes here which gets by due to some wonderful casting. Shin Eun-kyung hits the right balance for what is no doubt a difficult role to pull off. She sticks to her guns and delivers a fine performance that sees her bridge tough and naïve complexities rather well. But she’s totally out performed by Park Sung-myun as the charming and innocent Kang Soo-il. Park is a character actor who effortlessly manages to shine in every film he appears in: a combination of his unmistakable features, superb comic timing and a knack of making bumbling idiots lovable always sees to it that he’ll often be the most memorable addition to any cast. And indeed he’s a joy here; though he’s a secondary character he’s pretty much the nuts and bolts of the piece. As fellow gang members, An Jae-mo and company provide great support and keep the film on its comical toes for as long as possible, which leaves the baddies to fill in with straight-faced, one dimensional performances. One or two characters could have certainly benefited from being better drawn out, such as Majinga, who quietly admires Eunjin from afar, but these are concessions that have undoubtedly been made so as not to drag out the storyline any longer than it needs to be.
With all of that said you’re probably wondering where the action is. MWIAG’s original advertising campaign built it up highly as being an action flick, what with strong emphasis on exciting fight sequences, and the odd injection of humour. It does have action, but in actual fact it’s sparingly used. We have a good introduction showing Eunjin take on a bunch of baddies in a barren-lit space as rain falls down, while much later she takes on an assassin on a reed-filled hill, before the final showdown in which she goes up against the White Sharks. So the set pieces are far too few between, but they’re well staged. Kim Won-jun, more commonly known to Hong Kong martial arts fans, provides the fight choreography, which works to a degree, but is occasionally let down due to some unavoidable choppy editing as a result of Shin Eun-kyung’s obvious stunt double (Won-jun). But on the whole there is enough variety here to please fans of action cinema who happen to dig a little humour along the way. Think of it more as being in line with some of Hong Kong’s comedy/action films of the eighties and you should come away with a decent idea of what to expect.
Flippin’ hell, if this one didn’t take a long time to surface. If I recall My Wife is a Gangster was meant to be one of Premier Asia’s flagship titles, but it looked to be heading down the toilet in recent years. However, they finally got off their arses and released it. . Sadly they’ve added very little to it, with a disappointing low quota of bonus material and god-awful sleeve work (I was always partial to the original Korean poster art). That just about leaves us to focus on the A/V side of things.
Premier Asia gives MWIAG a very nice progressive transfer, also presenting the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It’s about the best the film has looked on DVD, with natural black and contrast levels and accurate skin tones. It’s too bad that there’s plenty of edge enhancement and a spot of aliasing to spoil things, but overall we’re not looking at anything overly distracting. Out of curiosity I decided to compare it against the original South Korean DVD release from Bear Entertainment. That release was soft, non-progressive and had considerably high contrast and over saturated colours, leading to lack of detail, which you can clearly see here. The only thing I’m concerned about is the pre-credit sequence which was given a nice blue tint in the original release, whereas PA have either toned it down here with a more Matrixy green, or show the print as it’s meant to be seen. It’s difficult to judge, but it looks good regardless. Still, I’ve included some shots below (R3 TOP, R2 bottom):
Our audio options consist of Korean DTS, Korean Dolby Digital 5.1 and English Dolby Digital 5.1. Naturally I went with the DTS option, but I have to say it’s quite a disappointment. The action itself and ambient effects are well steered, with the rear channels packing a fair punch, but unfortunately the track as a whole is unevenly balanced. Dialogue, while presenting no distortion etc, is channelled through the front speakers, but the audio levels are very faint, which means it’s often a case of changing the volume levels at certain intervals which we shouldn’t ever be expected to do. The basic 5.1 offering doesn’t fair much better I’m afraid. The tracks do their job, but a little fine tweaking wouldn’t have gone amiss. Saying that, the Korean release wasn't much better either. The English dub, I can safely say, is awful. It’s so monumentally bad that you’d be a fool to sit there and listen to it. I’m not sure what the idea behind this particular dub is, but I suspect it’s something to do with appealing to fans of films like The Football Factory. I’ve enjoyed plenty of HKL dubs in the past, but this all wrong. So very wrong.
Optional English subtitles are naturally included and they offer a good translation, with no grammatical errors to my eye; however, character names seem to have been changed. The characters translated here as Romeo and Yong-man have otherwise been referred to as Butter and Shit-boy. There is also a second set of subs for the hard of hearing, which is a good call.
The one and only feature has Bey Logan and Mike Leeder provide an entertaining enough audio commentary, despite never going into any great detail about the film’s production. There’s some nicely researched material in terms of cast and crew, but more often than not the pair focus on Korean cinema in general and go off on large tangents when comparing it to the Hong Kong industry, though I guess the latter is fair when dwelling on MWIAG, considering I came to similiar conclusions. They discuss some of South Korea’s social aspects and how they tie in with MWIAG, and they never pause for breath while doing so, which makes the track a worthwhile listen. There’s some gags and plenty of anecdotes, some of which bare little relevance to the film, but perhaps more frustratingly is that Logan refers to deleted scenes and making of features several times, which he assumes will be put on the finished DVD. This was evidently recorded some time back, before Bey Logan left HKL for Dragon Dynasty and at the end he even mentions that HKL picked up the rights for My Wife is a Gangster 2 and they should be around to discuss it as and when. A shame that HKL never fleshed out the disc a lot more.
This has been the first time that I’ve sat down to My Wife is a Gangster since watching it when it was first released on DVD in South Korea. I was a little apprehensive about going through it again because I figured my original opinions would prevent me from enjoying it so much. While I do still have reservations about the last act I can’t deny that it has balls and I find that the film is nonetheless an enjoyable experience - certainly not deserving of the critical mauling it received back in its homeland. Cho Jin-gyu had only made one film [Who’s Got the Tape] in the time since his debut feature did the rounds, and now he’s set to return with the third instalment of the MWIAG series, which is due to hit DVD real soon.