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Running and fighting with scissors
A UK region 2 DVD review of MY WIFE IS A GANGSTER / JOPOG MANURA by Slarek
 

I first heard about My Wife is a Gangster [Jopog manura] a year after its Korean cinema release, by when it had become one of the biggest hits in Korean film history, despite having received a serious critical drubbing. Word soon spread beyond home shores, the unavailability of the title on UK DVD promoting it to minor cult status. Word of mouth was good and I still can't justify my failure to import one of the film's Asian DVD releases. It wasn't just its reputation that peaked my interest – how could any devotee of cult cinema resist such a title? I have a particular fondness for film titles that unfussily spell out the basics of the plot, from the 50s science fiction classics like I Married a Monster From Outer Space and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman to – goddammit – Snakes on a Plane, despite my contempt for the film itself. My Wife is a Gangster falls squarely into that category. It not only provides the essence of the story, it neatly suggests the film's often humorous approach to its subject and characters.

The central comic situation is a well worn one, that of establishing a character and then introducing a circumstance that forces them to reluctantly behave in a manner contrary to their personality. But Tootsie this ain't. Here the protagonist is Cha Eun-jin, known in the Korean underworld as The Mantis, the hard-as-nails second-in-command of a major crime organisation. She has no interest in men (she's considerably tougher than those she commands), but is devoted to her cancer stricken sister Chu Yu-jin, with whom she has only recently been reunited. When Yu-Jin reveals that her dying wish is to see her sister happily married, Eun-jin charges her gang with the task of locating a suitable husband, one who knows nothing of her true nature and who will seem respectable enough for Yu-jin to believe that sis really has settled down for life. By chance they stumble on Kang Soo-il (Park Sang-myeon, who sharp viewers may recognise from Lee Myung-se's 1999 Nowhere to Hide) when he innocently comes to Eun-jin's defence and takes a brick to the head for his troubles. He's been looking for a partner for some time now and willingly accepts the Eun-jin's offer to wed. But married life is set to fall a little short of his expectations.

By establishing his lead character so vividly and quickly, director Cho Jin-gyu is able to get some effective mileage out of her search for a suitable partner, from her instruction in the ways of feminine charm by "professional man-melting machine" Sherry, to having to dress up in clothes she clearly detests in order to impress the parents of a potential husband. None of this would work were it not for how perfectly Shin Eun-kyung nails the role of Eun-jin, exuding a deadly authority without having to butch up the part beyond the short haircut and business suit, which she carries so naturally that the sight of her in curlers or shoehorned into a wedding dress seems as absurd to us as it does to her. Although much of the humour springs from the central premise, Cho has no problem broadening his scope to include scenes of knockabout silliness and even a moment of cartoonish absurdity, as Soo-il earnestly quotes from The Bridges of Madison County and the eyes of Eun-jin's companions glow in the dark behind him. Once Eun-jin and Soo-il are married, the latter's fruitless pursuit of sex provides its share of amusement, and it's to Park Sang-wyeon's credit that we sympathise so readily with his frustration (I realise I'm talking from a male viewpoint here), although when Yu-jin ups the ante and suggests a baby would be a good idea, he's ill prepared for what hits him.

It doesn't all work so well, with the gang's continual tolerance of the buffoonish new recruit known unflatteringly as Shit Boy a bit hard to swallow, even for a comedy. But for the most part the timing and energy carry even the basest of gags, as with the farts that interrupt gang member Romeo's singing, an intended insult that is given a snigger-inducing post-script when he demands to know who let rip. Elsewhere I was laughing in spite of myself, most memorably during the martial arts battle that disrupts Eun-jin's wedding, a scene whose comic effectiveness is as much due to shrewd camera placement and nifty editing as the juxtaposition of the earnest and the anarchic.

It's not just played for laughs, though, and it's the underlying drama that gives the film its substance, the relationship between Eun-jin and her sister touchingly but never mawkishly handled. A late-in-the-story death also proves disarmingly moving, particularly given how little we actually know about the character in question. There are Korean cultural references that the commentary track will help you appreciate (a loud mouthed motorist's anger at Eun-jin smoking in public, for example) and a few that even the more casual Asian cinema fan will pick up on (the relevance of gangland tattoos, used here for both comic and dramatic effect). I have to admit to being surprised just how much I found myself caring about the fate of the characters and their relationships, a sure sign that they have registered way beyond the level of comedy pawns.

The final layering comes with the action, impressively choreographed by Kim Won-Jin of Operation Scorpio (aka Scorpion King) fame. Highlights include the stylised opening fight in the rain (a clear influence on The Matrix Revolutions) and a climactic warehouse battle that throws an initially dark but welcome narrative curve ball, leading to a finale that does not follow the expected generic path and should have all true cult film fans hugging themselves with glee.

This puts the final stamp of class on this consistently entertaining and smartly handled blend of comedy, drama and action, elements that work here in rare harmony and are never allowed to dominate or undermine each other. My Wife is a Gangster shows that with a little imagination and a refusal to rigidly adhere to the expected formula, even the seemingly familiar can be made to feel fresh. There will thus be no exclamations of surprise, just a groans of dismay, that Mirimax are already prepping a Hollywood remake with (oh dear God, not again) Queen Latifah in the lead.

sound and vision

The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer is generally a good one – the detail is sharp and contrast is for the most part pleasing, although is a little strong in a couple of scenes. Black levels are always bang on. There is a greenish tinge to much of the film that may well be deliberate – certainly it doesn't feel wrong, and brighter colours, when used (some costumes, neon signs), look fine. There is some visible grain throughout, but it's never distracting.

The sound options are Korean 5.1 and DTS, and there's a 5.1 English dub for those not prepared to watch the film properly. In most respects the DTS and 5.1 are very similar – both use surrounds well and exhibit strong bass when appropriate – but the music is sometimes considerably louder on the DTS track, resulting a sizeable volume gap between that and most of the dialogue. The English dub relocates the soundtrack from Korea to South London and has its own unintentional comedy value.

extra features

If you don't count the promos for other Premier Asia releases (and I don't) then there is only one, although listening to it will make you think there's a disc missing from the box. The Commentary by Bey Logan and Mike Leeder provides plenty of background on the actors and the film itself, but there is a lot more anecdotal and good natured but superficial material than on Logan's solo tracks. The talk comes thick and fast, though, so when they do get sidetracked they're soon back on the case, and had I not listened to this track, I might never have heard about the Hello Kitty murder case. What is a little frustrating are the number of times Logan refers to deleted scenes, outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage that he has seen and presumes will be included on this DVD. They aren't. I appreciate that this was recorded some time ago (I'm estimating a couple of years), but to be reminded of all the material that could have been included here (they're on the Korean 2-disc release) can't help but make you feel a little short changed. Intriguingly, the disc artwork featured on Amazon is different from that of this release and contains the words "2 Disc Special Edition." So what happened here?

summary

If, like me, you've been hearing about My Wife is a Gangster but not got around to seeing it, well here's your chance, and yes, it has been worth the wait. It's one of those films that I thoroughly enjoyed on the first viewing, but whose craft and subtleties I better appreciated the second and third time round. Premiere Asia do fine on picture and sound, but have dropped the ball somewhat on extra features, something actually highlighted by the only one that has been included. Either way, I would make an effort to see it before the Hollywood remake stumbles along to tarnish that title.

My Wife is a Gangster
Jopog manura

South Korea 2001
103 mins
director
Cho Jin-gyu
starring .
Shin Eun-kyung
Park Sang-myeong
Ahn Jae-mo
Kim In-kwon

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
DTS surround 5.1
languages
Korea
English
subtitles
English
extras
Bey Logan and Mike Leeder commentary
distributor
Premier Asia
release date
12 February 2007
review posted
11 February 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews