Man on High Heels delivers a “cop versus gangster” film experience like none other—perhaps because that isn't what it was meant to be. No doubt this can be attributed to the unique touch of writer and director Jang Jin; many of his scripts (particularly for anti-war fantasy Welcome to Dongmakgol) result in atypical genre pieces. Yet this one ventures a step further and uses the action genre as a weapon against itself. Not only is Man on High Heels a sharp satire of gangster movies and buddy cop pictures alike, it also explores questions of gender with the best of intentions, and more importantly, refreshing sensitivity. We follow Ji Wook, the pinnacle of ideal masculinity; he’s a bonafide bad ass with rock hard muscles and fighting skills enough to make two action heroes. As a cop, there can be no better example—he beats down mobsters with his bare hands, and they almost thank him for the privilege. That is just how manly he is. However, all of this is a carefully molded facade, a fabrication Ji Wook tries to force everyone (including himself) to believe. Deep down, he’s always felt like a woman. Our journey revolves on the fact that Ji Wook is ready not only to toss aside this violent mask, but also to move forward with transitioning. Yet it won’t be simple, just as it often isn't in real life. Many obstacles stand in the way, including deep-rooted fears, old scars, and personal obligations. What sets Man on High Heels apart is how well it utilizes basic action tropes in skewering the genre, rather than spend any time guffawing about transgender. Instead of being the butt of the joke, Ji Wook’s heart-wrenching predicament is illuminated in a sympathetic fashion. Though she longs to quit the force and undergo reassignment surgery, her hesitance remains strong; the fear and self-hatred in her aspect is palpable. Each time she slips into the feminine guise in which she is most comfortable, Ji Wook finds herself forced back to work and thus the fake world she’s built as the hyper-masculine action hero. She must wipe away her make-up, swallow her pain, and don the uncomfortable rags of her profession—and her lie. This is a powerful symbolism for the reality of those among us who find themselves desperately trapped between genders. My primary complaint is that the film sometimes makes unfortunate leaps in logic regarding a link between homosexuality and transgender; the two are not always mutually inclusive. I also cannot fathom how a person lifting their pinky finger while drinking ought to be taken as a sign of alternative sexuality for that matter. While such instances are irritating, Man in High Heels obviously has the best of intentions with its exploration and tolerance of gender. It represents a benevolent willingness to do so, which is an important step for Asian cinema—and an example, I hope, that will be followed universally. Cha Seung Won has my eternal respect for the sensitivity and power with which he portrays his complex Ji Wook. There is an informed vulnerability here, a supremely female aura that never delves into the comic. He’s very raw, almost fragile when not flaunting Ji Wook’s version of the big bad cop. So many times I wanted to reach through the screen and give him a big hug. And the way Mr. Cha wears women’s clothing leaves him looking beautiful and dignified, a stunning effect. I appreciated that these times were not played for laughs. You may not find as powerful a display of this actor’s talented skill, I think. So many other aspects of this film impressed me that I forgot to listen quite as closely to the music as usual. What I remember best were smooth and soulful sounds, nothing misplaced or unusual in either direction. Perhaps most memorable among these accompany flashback sequences.
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