Hard-assed female crime boss, Mantis (Shin Eun-kyung), is a legendary figure in the Korean underworld -- infamous for her martial arts prowess and her unique fighting weapon: a large, ornamental pair of scissors, sharpened to lethal weapon status! From plush offices in downtown Seoul, Mantis commands over fifty devoted gangsters; but with her tailored black business suit and boyish fringe, she could hardly be mistaken for prime marriage material. However, after she tracks down her dying sister, Yujin, who is suffering from the terminal stages of cancer, that is exactly what she must become after her sister makes it her dying wish (she is unaware of Mantis' true identity) to see her new-found sister happily married!
This is the starting premise for Cho Jin-kyu's highly successful Korean comedy gangster flick, which has taken Asian markets by storm and is due for a Hollywood makeover after Miramax recently bought the film rights. It will be interesting to see how they approach the western rewrite, for the film works by playing on the extremely conservative attitude to women's social roles in Korean society; sometimes pandering to common prejudices, other times turning them on their head -- this is a society where women aren't allowed to smoke in public and that has a special seating position for the female sex designed to allow them to reach across the dinner table more easily in case they're required to pass items to their husbands! In the film's early stages, it proceeds rather like those early-eighties western comedies that expressed deep anxiety about the emergence of the female business executive. Shin Eun-kyung, effectively, plays the role of Mantis as that of a man trying to pass himself off as a woman, in a series of farcical scenes which play on her lack of femininity -- the subtext being that by taking on a "man's role", she has eroded away her feminine identity to the extent that she has to be taught (all the while expressing comical reluctance) how to dress sexily and how to act when the matchmaker from her dating agency takes her to meet potential suitors. Despite veering towards a rather reactionary attitude in these scenes, the joke is soon equally on the hapless male lead, whose masculinity is repeatedly undermined throughout the film.
Eventually, Mantis' right-hand men (which include a character charmingly named "Shit Face"!) come up with a perfect formula for getting their boss married-off quickly and painlessly: find the most inept, desperate male in Korea! This turns out to be Kang Soo-il (Park Sang-myeon) a chubby civil servant who has had over 58 dates at his agency without being able to find a mate. It turns out that Mantis has meet him before: first, after bumping into him at the hospital where her sister was being treated, and secondly, when he chivalrously attempted to step in on a gang fight between the lone Mantis (in red dress and high heels) and a group of street thugs. Unaware of her real profession, Kang is, indeed, only too pleased to marry his new beau, when she proposes on their first date; and after a bizarre wedding, where the guests have been gathered together by Mantis' gang by rounding-up all the hookers they can find to fill up the aisles! and even as a gang fight breaks out as the couple are exchanging their vows, Kang remains oblivious to his new wife's double life.
The film sounds like an all-out farce from this synopsis, but in fact, it balances comedy, tragedy and even some very brutal violence, with a constant finely judged dexterity. The cinematography has a very gritty, realist look to it -- quite unlike the bright, soft tones one usually associates with the comedy genre. In the central section of the film, scenes of very broad, almost farcical humour -- such as when Shit Face's stinking feet cause a rival gang leader's cherished white cat to pass out when it catches a sniff of them, forcing the hapless gangster to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the stricken feline! -- come next to poignant sequences where Mantis and Kang try to convince Mantis' dying sister that their marriage is a happy one -- which are in turn placed next to a series of scenes where, having been told by Yujin that she should have a baby, Mantis practically rapes the poor Kang Soo-il (who has, by now, assumed, totally, the traditional downtrodden role of the wife) in a variety of public places. Although, for much of the film, their relationship is marked by a series of misunderstandings, eventually Mantis is forced to reveal her true identity and her real reason for marring Kang. Ironically, it is then that a true affinity begins to grow between them. The film takes an unexpectedly ugly turn, however, when there is a showdown between a now pregnant Mantis and the rival gang lord, White Shark. In an earlier scene, Mantis had castrated one of White Sharks top men in a brutal fight in the countryside, and he now takes a brutal and cruel revenge on her which, I would imagine, we will be very unlikely to see replicated in the Hollywood version!
With its strange juxtaposition of varied drama, comedy and violence, "My Wife is a Gangster" plays like a very unlikely hodgepodge indeed. It's mainstream appeal was apparently looked down upon by Korea's more serious film critics, but to Western audiences it offers a fairly easy entry into Korean cinema. Cho Jin-gyu throws a few fairly well-staged fight sequences (that include some nice wire work) into the mix to add some visceral thrills to what is a lively, diverse and unusual take on the gangster movie.
Premier Asia's disc sports a very good anamorphic transfer and features Korean DTS and Dolby Digital audio tracks. The subtitles are clear and appear well translated throughout. The only extra is a commentary track by Bay Logan, who, although his main expertise lies in Hong Kong cinema, provides an informative, chatty track that contains plenty of information about the actors and the Korean film industry. However, there is no sign on the disc of the "making of" materials that he refers to throughout the commentary!