Having heard about this film from a number of reliable sources (AKA online friends who either have good taste, or sometimes just know particular movies that I may find interesting), I decided to use this World Cinema Wednesday to view, and review, Man On High Heels. I have to admit that I approached this film with some trepidation. Would the movie treat the subject matter appropriately? Would I be able to review it in a way that would not show me up as some kind of ignorant wearer of cisgendered blinkers? Well, I hoped the answers to both of those questions end up being yes.
Cha Seung-won plays Yoon Ji-wook, a transgender woman hoping to save up for the operation that will match her physical exterior to her inner feelings. Most around her would find this hard to believe, largely due to the fact that she is infamous in her police force as someone who can enter a building with no weapon, kick ass a hundred different ways, and leave a bloodied, bruised pile of criminals in her wake. Many look up to her as a pinnacle of masculinity, an idea reinforced by her scarred, muscular, body. Aiming to retire and start a new life, Yoon soon realises that she won’t be able to do that. She has upset far too many people for that to happen, and if they can’t get to her directly then they may try to get to her through the ones she cares most for (particularly Jang-mi, played by Esom).
Stylistically similar to the superb A Bittersweet Life, writer-director Jang Jin takes an interesting approach to what eventually amounts to an interesting, and surprisingly complex, character study. Setting it in the traditionally macho territory of the action crime thriller allows for some interesting commentary on identity, image, and how continually forcing yourself into a physically-misaligned pigeonhole can result in extreme pendulum swings between theatrical exaggeration of gender traits and deeper inner pain and turmoil. Which is a sentence that it took me some time to construct.
While the subject matter makes for an obvious tightrope walk, it has to be said that one or two moments fumble things slightly. A scene in an elevator, in which Yoon first tries to go out and about in female clothing, features a feeble attempt to turn the situation into something played for some awkward comedy. And then we have the club scene, with Yoon being encouraged to look around and take in the different “models” of transgender women apparently populating much of the space around her. What could have been a look at the broad range of women around Yoon, and the potential variety of different circumstances that they all went through, ends up being nothing more than a character simply pointing out, to paraphrase, “who still has to tuck, and who doesn’t.” Which is a sour note, especially considering how well the rest of the film deals with the journey of the central character.
Despite the good work from Jin throughout the rest of the movie, it’s the casting of the central characters that gives the film a strong core. Seung-won is fantastic, and I’d argue almost downright flawless (although those who know better may rush to tell me off). His portrayal of Yoon is strong, tender, and always believable. Esom doesn’t need to do as much in her role, but she does everything well enough, and Go Kyung-pyo is an endearing third wheel who cares for both of the main characters. Oh Jeong-se is also very good in a supporting role, playing a gangster who admires Yoon for her displays of extreme machismo.
If you’re after something a bit different from the norm, something that manages to mix in some thrills and action with genuine food for thought, then I encourage you to give Man On High Heels a try.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: JANG JIN
STARS: CHA SEUNG-WON, OH JEONG-SE, ESOM, GO KYUNG-PYO
RUNTIME: 125 MINS APPROX (139 MINS, DIRECTOR’S CUT)
COUNTRY: SOUTH KOREA
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