Seung-won Cha is Ji-wook, a hyper-violent, hyper-masculine metropolitan cop with little regard for the criminals who cross his path. But while he might be one of the best and most feared officers on the force, he’s also desperate to leave his entire life behind to become the woman he always dreamed of being…in Man on High Heels.
Written and directed by Jin Jang, Man on High Heels, much like it’s lead character, is a movie that struggles with identity. One moment it’s a stylish and fascinatingly shot and choreographed martial arts action movie about a tough-as-nails cop sticking it to the local mob. The next it’s this heartfelt struggle of a transgendered woman trapped in a body and life she loathes.
But whenever it seems the movie has these two sides balanced, a wholly unnecessary comedic tone is regularly injected into the mix. It’s a challenge to take such a personal and highly emotional struggle seriously when the performances become so unabashedly cartoonish. A fair degree of levity is usually a welcomed thing, especially in a movie with such a weighty story and themes. But there’s a smart way to handle such attempts at lightening the mood. There’s a fair degree of tact required. Unfortunately, there are too many instances where the humor in Man on High Heels is a detriment to a scene rather than some welcomed tension breaker.
SENSITIVE SUBJECT MATTER
That said, despite these jarring tonal inconsistencies, Jang manages to handle the movie’s sensitive subject matter with a deft touch. Ji-wooks struggles with his identity are never reduced to a joke, even when one might expect characters to react in such a way when they discover his secret. While there are some light-hearted moments had at Ji-wooks expense, it’s never intended to be mean or cruel.
For example, there’s a scene in which we see Ji-wook dressed as a woman for the first time. This scene is played for laughs, yes. But it’s not simply because Ji-wook still looks incredibly masculine even while in a dress, a wig, and full makeup. Instead, it’s a play on a moment seen in so many other movies. The sort of scenes in which a woman suddenly appears for the first time after a drastic makeover, presenting her like some sort of beautiful princess whose inner beauty has finally been exposed on the outside. We’re supposed to laugh because Ji-wook’s eventual transformation isn’t something that can happen with a few magic words. It’s a process, both mental and physical. It’s a somewhat bitter-sweet laugh at how uncomfortable the whole thing is.
Fortunately, Seung-won’s handling of the conflicting internal and external lives of Ji-wook is simply captivating. More impressively, he does so with a role that is largely devoid of dialog. This conflict shines through in every action scene just as much as it does quieter moments, such as when he speaks with the local transgendered madame who takes Ji-wook under her wing, teaching him what it means to be a transgendered woman in their society. And by the time we finally do see Ji-wook fully embrace their femininity, it feels earned. Seung-won goes through an emotional and physical transformation that feels like two drastically different takes on the same person. Both takes are strong, powerful individuals. But one is truly confident and happy, while the other feels incomplete and uncomfortable in their own skin.
A NEW KIND OF ACTION MOVIE
Man on High Heels isn’t a perfect movie by any means, especially in regards to performances from its supporting cast. But a strong story, beautiful action, and tight pacing makes this one of the most interesting and deeply human action movies you’ll likely ever come across. And that’s more than enough reason to suggest you CHILL with Man on High Heels.