Man On High Heels (Hai-hil)
Korea (2014) Dir. Jang Jin
The translated title is a little clumsy but it does signpost what the subject matter is of this Korean crime thriller, although maybe not as explicitly as you may think. The big question is whether the issue at hand is treated with sensitivity considering the genre or will there be too much testosterone getting in the way?
Detective Ji-Wook (Cha Seung-Won) is a feared cop, nicknamed the Cyborg due to the metal plates in his arms and legs and his ability to make an arrest using just his formidable martial arts skills. Even the criminals are in awe of his toughness and physical prowess – gang leader Heo-Bol (Song Young-Chang) was singing Ji-Wook’s praises moments before the man himself showed up to beat up him and his henchmen.
However this macho man has a secret – ever since he was a teenager he has felt uncomfortable in his body and has wanted to become a woman. Now he feels is the right time to make the transformation but first he has one last case to handle, involving the crime boss Heo-Gun (Oh Jung-Se) brother of the hospitalised Heo-Bol.
Jang Jin is a prolific writer-director notable for his comedies and crime dramas. With Man On High Heels he straddles both these genres while taking the bold step for a mainstream director to incorporate the contemporary issue of the transgender world. As you might expect a lot of the humour comes from the negative and shocked reactions of people around Ji-Wook when he is dressed as a woman – being a lean six footer with strong cheekbones and a deep voice he does cause a stir – or the gender bender gags, in this case a burly trans who claims “she” is actually an ugly woman and offers to let Ji-Wook have a feel for proof.
This may not sit well with the more liberal minded but this actually isn’t as mean spirited as it sounds. Ji-Wook is portrayed as a lost soul who throws himself into his work and lets his reputation do the talking without feeling the need to live the role. Instead he leaves that up to the others around him who idolise his butt kicking methods.
Ji-Wook keeping his gender issues to himself is less about ruining his image or being the target of abuse and rejection but more a confidence issue which he fights himself to overcome. Jang Jin is careful to not make Ji-Wook appear as a caricature in this regard and presents his conflicted life as something which is everyone’s else problem.
Being a transgender cop lends itself to the comic potential of an Adam Sandler film which Jang Jin avoids, instead making Ji-Wook rather sympathetic when he finally gets the courage to dress up and is then called out on a case, having to change back to a man again.
Another dilemma for Ji-Wook is worked into the main plot when Heo-Gun tries to bribe Ji-Wook into appropriating some vital papers of his brother’s that have been taken as evidence. Naturally Ji-Wook won’t break the law but the cost of the sex change operation abroad is out of his means so the money making the table an inviting prospect.
Elsewhere a love triangle of sorts is introduced to complicate matters further as Ji-Wook has an informant in the form of pretty young Jang-Mi (Esom) who clearly has the hots for him which he seems oblivious to, while Ji-Wook’s underling Jin-Woo (Ko Gyung-Pyo), who idolises his superior, might have a small crush on Jang-Mi himself.
Jang Jin isn’t done yet though as flashbacks reveal Ji-Wook’s troubled teenage years recalling his first male love (Hong Tae-Ui) and the hostile fallout of their relationship. A young Jang-Mi features but Jin neatly twists our assumptions as to what that role is, adding a further layer of intrigue to his already complex life. These scenes are handled with care and tenderness, again putting the onus on the dissenting voices and not the boys themselves.
There may not be much in the way of deeply researched education about the anxieties of transgender people or the intricacies of the change over procedure but we are given some little tidbits. When Ji-Wook visits a specialist surgeon (Kim Byung-Ok), he is told to stop working out and eating heavy foods so his body can soften up to accept silicone implants.
But this is a crime thriller first and foremost and while Ji-Wook is deciding between boxer shorts and silk panties, blood is being spilt by the gallon and the body count increases as the war between the criminals and the law and tensions within the criminal gang hierarchy gets out of hand. Naturally these problems are solved with typically unbridled violence building up to a glorious crimson soaked climax we’ve come to expect from Korean cinema.
While the tone of the film flip flops the one constant is the superb performance of Cha Seung-Won, who is every inch the tough guy cop yet has slender enough features to suggest an effete side to him. Cha essays Ji-Wook’s insecurities through subtle gestures when he first steps out as a female which slowly grows into a tentative confidence; his cop persona meanwhile is cool, stoic and in control, a stark contrast to the tumult that otherwise dominates his thoughts.
The support cast do their bit, with Oh Jung-Se making for a proficient Napoleon Complex driven villain in Heo-Gun, but some may find it a little cheeky that the other transgender women featured are played by females. That said veteran Lee Yong-Nyeo convinces as transgender Bada, Ji-Wook’s confidante/mentor, herself a former marine.
Man On High Heels may feel like a compromise by using the transgender issue as a plot device in a routine crime thriller but it is handled bravely and respectfully under the circumstances. As a thriller it provides sufficient entertainment but more importantly this is a step forward for Korean cinema in terms of mainstream attention for this topic.