July 7, 2017

Man on High Heels: True Identity

Occasionally, people tell me that Koreans are more conservative than Americans when it comes to LGBTQ issues but I sometimes wonder if that's the truth. Admittedly, my doubts are based on what I glean from my weekly screening of films but even so, I honestly believe that movies reflect our views as a culture, at least to some point. Which brings me to writer-director Jang Jin's Man on High Heels, a 2014 action pic in which the lead detective (Cha Seung-won) is a trans cop who would like to retire and fully transition to being a woman. To its credit, this neo-noir takes its hero seriously: Ji-wook is somewhat of an institutionally-sanctioned vigilante, a kind of Dirty Harry type who also happens to be struggling with gender identity. Unable to imagine continuing a career in the police department post-op, the department's fiercest officer has visions of escaping to a new life.

The catch, as everyone knows, is you can't leave your past behind fully. The sister (E. Som) of your childhood sweetheart could reappear; the brother of a crime boss you landed in the hospital could develop a bit of a crush on you; you might even suspect your young partner (Go Kyung-pyo) of loving you whatever physical form you take — male or female. As to that one potential mentor (Lee Yong-yeo) who's gone through all the surgeries and then some, she's hardly an enlightened. You might consult her about picking out a sparkly dress for the disco. Beyond that? Pretty doubtful.

Alongside this psychological portrait within in Man on High Heels, the hand-to-hand combat is fantastic; the repeated knives to the gut are repeatedly harrowing. I especially appreciated how the ex-marine Ji-wook's macho physical prowess is explained as overcompensation. Sure there are some weird gender-identity signifiers — like the raised pinkie glimpsed holding a tea cup — but this movie proved much better than I'd expected despite somewhat of a cop-out ending.

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