Okay Madam

Korea (2020) Dir. Lee Chul-Ha

Never mind snakes on a plane, what about a group of armed North Korean terrorists looking for a defector? Which ones would you want to take your chances with? Never mind, there might be somebody on the flight who can deal with them without you having to lift a finger.

In Mongolia in 2009, a team of North Korean special operatives beak into a building to steal some sensitive plans when one of them, a female, learns from her father it is a trap and she needs to trust nobody and get out, which she barely does after shooting her leader. In modern day Seoul, a hard up family consisting of Mi-young (Uhm Jung-hwa), Seok-hwan (Park Sung-woong) and daughter Na-Ri hope to escape their penny-pinching existence and do something fun.

As luck would have it, Seok-hwan’s spending on a vitamin drink to win a competition pays off when Mi-young opens the winning bottle, earning the family a trip to Hawaii! Because they arrive late for the flight, they are split up with Seok-hwan in economy and Mi-young and Na-ri in business. Shortly after take-off, a group of North Korean agents hijack the plane, looking for a fugitive who is also on board.

The title Okay Madam might not give any suggestions of this being an action comedy with very subtle political overtones, feeling more suited to a British comedy from the 1930s starring the likes of Arthur Askey or Max Miller. The posters don’t give too much away either and thankfully neither does the script, in the sense or throwing a few twists in to keep us one out toes.

One of the lesser productive filmmakers in Korea at the moment, Lee Chul-Ha presents his fifth film in 14 years, the last being 2016’s mystery thriller Insane. Whether Lee took four years out to lighten up is conjecture but the evidence is there in this playful romp, a crowd-pleasing affair that ticks many genre boxes but has fun with them as well.

Despite the dark, action-packed opening, the light comedy tone of the film is established early on when introducing the protagonists. Mi-young runs her own twisty donut stall whilst Seok-hwan is an IT expert with his own shop, yet neither salary is enough to pay for a new washing machine or other luxuries. Daughter Na-ri is upset because she is the only kid in her class without a phone or never to have been on holiday.

How fortunate then that her prayers are about to be answered, although Mi-young is reluctant because of the loss of trade whilst they are away and the expenses of going on holiday. Na-ri’s strop helps change Mi-young’s mind and the next time we see the trio is at the airport dressed in Hawaiian shirts rushing to board the plane in an amusing scene where they work together to emotionally bribe the check-in clerk.

Meanwhile, the North Koreans seem to have intel that their former partner Magnolia has come out of hiding and will be on the plane. All they know is she has had plastic surgery to change her looks so the hunt will be difficult. They figure if they hijack the plane, her natural instincts will kick in and she’ll reveal herself – after all, they don’t care for the southerners so a few innocent scalps won’t bother their consciences.

But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Obviously, we know who Magnolia is – or do we? The script by Shin Hyun-Sung successfully teases us with a couple of possibilities first – for instance, a young woman hiding behind shades, baseball cap and face mask (Lee Sun-Bin) who shows some moxie when her cover is blown. We also learn from ground control a NIS agent is on board the plane but again, we don’t know who.

Secret identities is a recurring theme, with many people on the plane being not quite what they first seem; some are genuinely surprising, Shin doing a better job at swerving us than many serious thriller writers. The other side of the coin is bringing out the comic value of the support cast, including a male steward Hyun-min (Bae Jeong-Nam) who fancies himself as a secret agent but is in fact a walking disaster.

Lurking in the subtext is an observation about class with a self-absorbed congressman demanding respect for his position but finding no such compliance from the hijackers or the other passengers. Among them is a heavily pregnant woman and her interfering mother, a film director and his crew, and a man with a fear of flying who overdoses on sleeping pills. The pay off for this gag is rather funny actually.

Considering this is a comedy, the conventional line-up of characters aren’t too distracting since Shin’s script has found time to add a little depth to them, along with the history between Magnolia and her pursuers. And to show how tongue-in-cheek Shin can be, a reference about actors being replaced in film fights is made whilst Magnolia is having a punch-up elsewhere on the plane, her face conveniently hidden by a black face visor!

Uhm Jung-hwa is a thirty year veteran and has done a bit of everything in her career, yet is more noted for her heavy dramas, making this something a departure if that is all people know of her. She commits to playing it for laughs but can still get serious when required, bouncing off her amiable co-stars, especially Park Sung-woong as hubby Seok-hwan, with believable chemistry – more believable than the dodgy CGI effects.

Proving a little more than your average “unplug your brain” popcorn flick, Okay Madam’s biggest demand of its audience is to sit back and enjoy which is easy to do. Just don’t blame this film if you are suspicious of the person sitting next to you on your next plane journey. Unless they are a North Korean agent, they seem pretty easy to overcome by all accounts.