Of all the genres Korea cycles through the gangster flick is arguably one of the oddest. Romantic comedies, melodramas, revenge thrillers, and disaster films I understand (at least from a socio-historical standpoint), but gangsters? There are no iconic tommy guns, dastardly drive-byes, decaying dead horses, or even much history behind its inclusion as far as I am aware. When I think of gangsters my mind manifests either impeccably dressed Italians hanging out in the back of family-owned pizzeria, or the faceless masses of a Yakuza-style entourage, their bodies riddled with tattoos and scars. Korea gangsters, however, seem to lean more towards the Japanese stereotype as swarms of suits, skin art, and blades seem to be the preferred tools of the trade. But what almost all gangster films have in common is this unwavering subscription to inter-gang authority, a strict hierarchy that holds one man above all others, a phallocentric pyramid that one has to mount in order to become more than a mere errand boy with a bad attitude. Strange then, if not surprisingly refreshing, that in "My Wife Is a Gangster" the most feared, respected, and obeyed figured is woman.
Eun-jin (Shin Eun-kyung) is a legend. Her ferocious fighting, disarming stare, and terrifying intolerance for insubordination has seen her rise to the No. 2 position in her guild of gangsters. Lacking any feminine charm or grace, Eun-jin is thick-skinned tomboy who commands the respect and the allegiance of more than fifty male mobsters. Her only soft spot resides with her sister who is knocking on death's door. Determined to make her softer sibling happy, Eun-jin (aka 'Big Brother' or 'Mantis' -- the latter being an uncomfortable reference to the insect whose fairer sex devours the head of the male after coitus) has her cronies find a husband for her in order to please her dying sister. Her thugs almost swallow their tongues at the prospect of their fearless female leader submitting herself to the patriarchal punishment that comes with a traditional marriage, but ultimately a hopelessly useless groom is found. Kang Soo-il (Park Sang-myun) is a rather unattractive soft soul who agrees to matrimony. However this lacklustre loser is not aware that his bride to is a cold killer leading a marauding mob of suited gangsters. The film follows Eun-jin as she tries to continue her role as the heartless heroine while still doing her best to continue to appease her sister's ever increasing bucket list.
The film is stuffed with confrontational comedy, situational silliness, and enough action antics to appease fans of the genre without that hard-core gangster gleam. It's a spoof of sorts that hits what it aims at without the seriousness of drive-bys or pepperoni. Eun-jin is ultra cool and collected, and her uncomfortable demeanour and absolute lack of estrogen is worth a handful of chuckles as the male counterparts cower and flinch at her every move. Expect plenty of over-the-top tussles, gender-bending conflicts, and some soft-core violence with some serious unseen consequences (one poor Japanese gentlemen gets crushed into a eunuch, and kicks to the womb are never a pleasant sight).
"My Wife Is a Gangster" is an original concept that's fun and unburdened, a formula that was so attractive that it sprouted two subsequent sequels ("My Wife Is a Gangster 2" and "My Wife is a Gangster 3"; however Jo did not direct the second film but did return for the third instalment). This first attempt, although humorous enough in its own right, did not captivate me as much as I expected, but it was also not enough of a deterrent to prevent me from seeking out the next two films. I would have like to have seen a better balance struck between the gangster world and Eun-jin's married life, and even though I was convinced of Eun-jin's character I found it woefully one-dimensional. Our lead is given a human side via her desire to appease her critically ill sister, but that alone did not invite any real empathy or serious emotional attachments. The film also contains flecks of brutality that were less impactful due to the apathetic priming that came before, resulting in a few uncomfortable moments that shocked more than they probably should have.
Overall, "My Wife Is a Gangster" was a refreshing enough experience that entertained, but struggled to piece together an emotive tale beyond its intermittent brawls and questionable gendered gangsterism. Again, I love the concept of matriarchy in the mob, as well as the unique array of weapons on display (a horse's leg or giant scissors anyone?), but the film failed to leave much of an impression and sagged though much of its second act. Perhaps the next two chapters will possess a little more charisma and less chaff.
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