Friday, November 21, 2014

NYKFF ’14: Man on High Heels

Detective Yoon Ji-wook is definitely a cop on the edge. In fact, he is overdue to be re-assigned. Hey there, gender-bender pun. Just when Seoul’s most feared gang-busting cop is about to walk away from his life of butt-kicking, the bad guys pull him back in. Genres will also be bent and blurred in Jang Jin’s Man on High Heels (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 New York Korean Film Festival (in Brooklyn).

Yoon regularly faces down large packs of gangsters singlehandedly. Nobody knows that better than Heo Bool. The mob boss is currently facing a raft of charges while recovering from Yoon’s thorough thrashing. Charges have been filed against the cop, but they are nothing the hotshot prosecutor can’t handle. This might be the perfect time for Yoon to go out on a high note, allowing him to finally resolve his identity issues with reassignment surgery.

However, there are a couple of loose ends Yoon is still not sure how to tie-up. One is Jang-mi, an aspiring singer and bartender, who often provides freelance undercover support for Yoon. Their ambiguously platonic relationship is even more ambiguous than she realizes. The other loose end is Kim Jin-woo, Yoon’s hero-worshipping protégé. Unfortunately, Heo Bool’s son Heo Gon might solve his interpersonal problems the hard way when he declares war on the Seoul organized crime task force and all of Yoon’s closest associates.

Heels is the strangest mishmash of genres. It is a complicated tale of unrequited love, rooted in a tragically sentimental schoolboy crush story, periodically punctuated with no holds barred action beatdowns. The first and the latter are often rather effective, but the heavy handed flashbacks are really pushing it.

Frankly, Yoon’s scenes with Jang-mi are surprisingly touching, perhaps even more so before their secret connection is revealed. They just seem to be two lost souls who manage to connect in a hard to define way. In contrast, the detective’s scenes with his new life coaches just seem to drag on. After a while, we just so get the subverting masculinity thing.

As Yoon and Jang-mi, Cha Seung-won and Esom develop some quiet but powerful chemistry. Cha’s performance is particularly versatile, encompassing action cred and the sensitive deconstruction of his macho image. In a small but notable supporting turn, Park Sung-woong gives the film two healthy shots of attitude and energy as Prosecutor Hong. Unfortunately, none of the villains have the same verve.

Jang’s script is all over the place, but at least cinematographer Lee Sung-je gives it an appropriately noir sheen. The ambivalent conclusion might even be problematic for American LGBT festivals, but it is quite daring by local Korean standards. While it earns credit on that score, the midsection is still a little draggy. Recommended for fans of Korean thrillers open to gay and transgender themes, but not an essential artistic statement on either front, Man on High Heels screens tomorrow night (11/22) at the BAM Rose Cinema, as part of this year’s NYKFF.