I saw it at the Primus Theater in Jeonju with Mi Seok today. The film was pretty funny, and again I understood more than I originally expected, although I plan on seeing the film again once I have a chance to get a DVD, so that I can read the subtitles. Some of the jokes were just way over my head.
I remember when I first saw the cover of the DVD for part 1 of this series. My younger students had told me about a movie in which a female gangster is tougher than any of the male gangsters, and how this film was considered a popular classic. They didn’t exactly put it that way, but they did say that the film was shown on TV during the holidays, something akin to The Sound of Music during Christmas in North America.
But strangely enough, this movie is about gangsters. Not just about gangsters, but about a female gangster boss who, while she answers to a superior, is also tough as nails. Her male cohort of underlings call her “hyeong”, meaning, “Sir” or “Elder Brother”. There is of course a pun on this, but I’ll get to it in a minute.
In the first film, the female gangster, when she isn’t pounding the living crap out of her gangland enemies, is busy trying to find herself a husband. Yes, that’s right, the age of reckoning seems to have come and she is still unmarried. She must wed, and nothing, neither her commitments to “the business” nor her own reticence (understandable as even she thinks of herself as unsuited to the duties of wifedom and especially motherhood), nor even her frightening skill at both unarmed combat and with scissors (which she uses as a horrifically deadly weapon).
Of course, in the end she weds, and the end of the first film is in the midst of battle.
The second movie picks up where the first left off. The battle scene concludes with our Gangster Wife heroine falling off a high rooftop onto a passing chicken truck. She is badly injured, and suffers from amnesia.
Who rescues her? Why, your friendly neighborhood Chinese restaurant owner. That’s right, she becomes a JJa Jang delivery girl. She lives side by side with her boss and his daughter (he is a single parent of a rather tough, rought tomboy of a daughter, reminiscent of the heroine in her own youth), delivering fried pork and fighting off her bosses rather amusing and futile (though heartfelt) sexual advances. Although she is plagued by a desire to remember who she was – for she is keenly aware of her amnesia – life seems in the main to go along swimmingly, with the beginnings of a romance with her boss, and a rather heroic turn of events during a bank robbery that she finds herself in the middle of…
Yes, things go on pretty nicely until… yes, one day someone recognizes her. After all, she was one of the toughest gangsters in Seoul, so someone had to recognize her eventually. And when they do, they come after her full force, before she even knows who she is. She only remembers her own identity after being shown some photos about her past, and then, during a fight, suffering another nasty knock to the head. Sure, it’s a cheap gimmick, but this is a “Chicks With Guns” movie, not high drama.
Anyway, the rest is somewhat predictable… she whups ass, with a little help from her almost-lover and her new friends. And the ending clearly sets up a third film sequel, which is fine by me because this kind of martial arts fluff entertains me, especially the kind with tough pretty women beating the snot out of bad men. I like that sort of film.
But there are some things that surprised me about this series. Here are a couple of points that come to mind:
- The Gangster Wife is a moral person. She has standards and values and she stands up for them. This is probably true of some gangsters, too, in real life, but I’m certain it’s not representative of most. Why do we make criminals into heroes? What’s this Billy the Kid fascination we seem to have worldwide?
- The gender ambiguity of the Gangster Wife is very interesting. She wears suits, cuts her hair short, and has her male underlings refer to her as “Elder Brother”. There is a very amusing scene in the first film, where a Dabang Girl (ie. coffee delivery girl/prostitute) is being used to teach her how to flirt with men and act girly. She is to say, “Oh, Elder Brother!” with a pout on her face and then very obviously jiggle her breasts. (The Dabang girl has more to work with, but it’s supposed that this action is cute in any woman.) When she does this, it is outright parody, and she herself finds it ridiculous. And yet, by the end of the second film, regardless of how much ass she kicks, there is a sense of some form of feminized masculinity that she exudes. During her amnesiac stage, she was profoundly feminine with notable exceptions… well, at least compared to her original self. And when she remembers her past, the femininity does not disappear. In the last scene, she is wearing a silver hairclip in her bangs, and it’s a shocking little detail, at least to me. I suppose the question that comes to mind is the question of how much the Korean version of femininity is a role being played, and for the Gangster Wife how much of that role is something that she discards, adopting a more masculine role to better deal with her work situation as a Gangster? It seems like a silly, overanalytical question, but these days the work world in Korea is so tight, and women are so much at a disadvantage within it, that many young women I’ve met seem to think a profitable marriage is a better survival strategy than studying hard and pursuing gainful work. Surely those who persevere into the work world must fight hard to get treated better than simply “office girls” or what have you. The gender role and work role questions seem to be in the air here, and I think it’s not too much to wonder at how those issues show up in this movie.
- The Gangster Wife is sexually pure. This I just don’t understand. Maybe it’s a kind of Dragon Lady thing that she maintained as a gangster, a kind of self-desexualization that prevents other gangsters from merely sexualizing her. But it seems that this carries over into her amnesiac self, too… she fights off her boss’s advances for much of their relationship, and though he is willing to die for her in the end, the closest we ever see them to sexual intimacy is rolling dough together during an afternoon in the restaurant (a scene that must be a parody of the pottery-making scene in the 1990 film Ghost, which was popular in Korea under another title, I think something like Love and Death. I find this perplexing because her male gangster counterparts are all lecherous, quite happy to bed down with any available girl who is attractive enough to meet their standards (such as the Dabang Girl). And yet, just as much as Gangster, the Gangster Wife seems to show an aversion to sex. I can’t help but think it’s just an inherent limitation in Korean cinema (moreso than Korean culture) that refuses to grant sexual agency (that is, freedom to act as a sexual being) to female protagonists who are “moral” or “good people”. The one exception I can find to this is in the movie “Oasis”, but then of course that movie is about how culture and society can blind us to the sexual agency (and other forms of agency) that “good” people and indeed everyone (including the handicapped) actually have.
- The language in these films is startling, startling more because it’s one source of amusement. You hear all the standard Korean cuss words (including the very worst ones which I have been advised never to use and only occasionally say to people who really deserve it), and more insults than you can ever recognize… this, in a series of films shown on TV (probably in somewhat bleeped form, but the cusses are always still obvious)… yet there’s also a fairly clever level of punning going on. For example, in the first film, a little boy doing a crossword puzzle asks what the most dangerous kind of bird is. The Gangster Wife replies, Chapsae, a kind of bird the name of which is used as a euphemism for “cop” (it’s a bird that sits and waits on its prey, catching it when it finally is off its guard… supposedly like cops do). When the boy says the answer isn’t long enough, she adds a cuss to the word. All of which is normal for her as a gangster. Another scene is when the Dabang Girl from the first film, who taught her how to flirt, recognizes her and tries to strike up a conversation by reminding her. She says, “Elder Brother!” and jiggles her breasts… to the extreme arousal of a poor fool who is obsessed with the Amnesiac Gangster Wife and is convinced he is watching a lesbian scene in the restaurant.
In any case, I really enjoyed these films and I recommend them to anyone who wants a couple of light amusing hours of watching a very tough Korean gangster woman struggle to balance being a woman with whuppin’ asses that deserve to be whupped.