What did I know about Jang Jin until recently. Well I had seen, without it registering very mucha film he wrote the script for back in1996, A Hot Roof. It screened on SBS way back in the days when people with taste and knowledge had something to do with the channel's feature film offering. Those days have passed.
So segue to 2014 when out of the blue Tony Rayns selects Jang's latest film Man on High Heels for the Vancouver Film Festival. Tony's program note contains the usual barbs but here it is: Why are Kim Kiduk’s increasingly ridiculous movies better known around the world than Jang Jin’s genuinely subversive satires, dramas and comedies? That’s a zen riddle of a question, but it’s a fact that Jang Jin—who is a major innovator in Korean theatre and television as well as a terrific writer-director of movies—is unaccountably neglected outside Korea. Maybe Man on High Heels is the film that will, at last, make up for two decades of that neglect. It delivers all the shocks and ultraviolence we’ve come to expect from Korean crime thrillers, but with a truly subversive twist.
Yoon (Cha Seungwon) is the ultimate hard man, a battle-scarred cop who gets his man by any means necessary. But Yoon has a secret: she’s a woman trapped in a man’s body. The body in question—first seen naked in a sauna, as described by scummy gang boss Huh—seems as masculine as they come, but as Yoon’s later meeting with a transgendered former marine suggests, appearances can be deceptive. The plot has two main strands: Yoon’s take-down of Boss Huh, whose criminal empire is minded by his brother while Huh is in jail, and the tribulations of woman cop Jangmi as she works to trap a serial rapist. Matters are complicated by Jangmi’s feelings for Yoon. Can this story have a happy ending? And, if so, what would that happy ending be?
Man on High Heels was a terrific mix of police procedural and contemplations about gender. You would think it would have made it a standout for festivals around the world but that doesn't appear to have been so, with the exception of Rotterdam. At that event in January Rayns programmed an entire Jang Jin retro into proceedings and among the selection was Guns and Talks. I didn't see the film there but by chance a Hong Kong release DVD has recently fallen into my arms and has just been watched with much interest. Again, the subversion of genre is the key into the movie for its a hitman story with a twist or three.
In brief, we are in some future nirvana period where getting people whacked is a much more polite affair. So polite that a group of barely post-teen young boys who share a house together have gone into the business of bumping people off. Now the hits are a little more sophisticated than simply whacking someone. Elaborate despatches are cooked up, once at the start when four crims are done away with in one evening by various ingenious methods which employ the boys best skills. Then there is the finale where a performance of Hamlet has to be worked around. (That's not a spoiler). In between the boys share a house, argue about the cooking and domestics and have their first crushes. All, however, are besotted with a sweet TV newsreader. The domestics remind you of the Beatles house in Help - so politely spoken, so neat, so organised.
As for the cops who have to pick up the remnants of the mayhem, they are a little distant from the usual brutes in most Korean movies. There's a sunny national future ahead. Ho, ho. Joke.