Action-drama-action-drama-action-drama. Given the choice of following a policeman on his last days before a sex-change operation or mind numbing mayhem, Man on High Heels offers too much tragic-action for my taste. Seung-won Cha is great playing the lead with as little irony as possible. It is overall a much more humane treatment of the transgender role than expected. But after awhile the burden everyone carries is too much, and the action too cruel for the movie to elicit more from me than a blank stare and a shoulder shrug.
Man on High Heels is probably going to be one of those movies that grows on me with time. It has been a while since I’ve watched a straight up action film. I’m not opposed to them per se. We all can use some excitement and a little kick-ass fun. But these days, I tend to get my action fix through super hero and fantasy films. The classic action-hero movies, such as the Taken series, just don’t hold the appeal for me that they did when I was younger. Action-comedy? Sure? But movies where I’m supposed to take a badass hero seriously? Hah! I’m not that easy to amuse, you know, and I don’t have so much pent up aggression that I need the catharsis.
With that frame of mind, I am going to try to make a little case for Man on High Heels. As an action film itself, it probably wouldn’t be noteworthy. It presents a typical police-killer drama. The Lone wolf policeman on the rampage against a gang. Act one opens with a fight in a private dining room at night club and establishes that the lead character, Ji-wook, is a badass fighter. And I mean that in the most technical definition of ‘badass’ I can think of. How badass is he? He goes into the club alone, doesn’t make wise cracks, closes the door behind him, throws his weapons away, and proceeds to kill a dozen men using table settings, with little regard to his own safety. How badass is Ji-wook? Well, about a half hour later, he beats another dozen men to death or near death one-handed, while holding an umbrella. He reportedly does not even get wet in a torrential downpoor. His colleagues on the police force call him “bionic” since he has so many plates in his arms and legs from the surgeries he’s had to endure as he recovers from wounds. His arms and torso are covered in scars from the fights he’s been in. Everyone admires him-gangster and police alike. Well, the inspector general of the police force probably doesn’t, as Ji-wook leaves a trail of bodies everywhere that probably aren’t following protocol and require paperwork. But yeah, if Ji-wook comes to arrest you, you’d probably best give up and not quibble about warrants and brutality. (I think he removed one poor fellow’s tongue with his bare hands late in the film. So, shut your sassy mouth.)
All of this mayhem is fairly standard stuff, and if I told you the movie ends with a final confrontation between Ji-wook and a few dozen goons, you probably wouldn’t be surprised. The catch of High Heels comes from the source of Ji-wook’s character motivation. What makes him such a badass? The answer isn’t standard. Ji-wook is a male-to-female transgendered person and High Heels follows her on her last few weeks on the police force before she leaves for the USA to complete transition surgery.
Director Jin Jang has taken an issue of transgender conflict and inserted it into a conflicted action hero movie to perform the motivational task normally taken by some more readily comprehensible issues that have plagued “badass fighters” in past movies. It’s in the spot normally taken by “gangsters murdered my family and now I want revenge” (Death Wish) or “crime is out of control and I want order” (Dirty Harry) or “my wife died from a disease and I just don’t want to live any more so I’m going to do dangerous things” (Lethal Weapon) or “We’re trapped and are going to die” (The Raid) or “Someone killed my dog!” (John Wick). Feel free to compile your list at home. Badass action-heros need motivation just like the rest of us, if not more. Otherwise they are just sadistic killers. What makes them heros, beyond the fact that they are fighting villians, is that the audience tends to agree with their motivations, even if we’d tend to try to accomplish things little differently.
When the film isn’t following police work or the events building to its final confrontation, it follows Ji-wook in the weeks before he heads to the US to have transition surgey. These sections of the film are an extended study in character motivation. Through a series of flashbacks about Ji-wook’s tragic love in high school, a few meetings with a psychiatrist and with a former marine who has completed MTF transition surgery, we are offered glimpses into the internal gender conflict which drives Ji-wook’s badass behavior. Ji-wook has experienced life as a violent conflict between masculine and feminine. The heroic acts that are lauded by the men around him are a way to silence the woman who is emerging. But through a few images of the cutting and self-harm Ji-wook practices, we become aware that the woman inside is attempting to break a body she doesn’t want. She is pushing that body forward into fights in which injury is assured. There is intense and barely controlled anger and self-loathing in Ji-wook and it isn’t a wonder why, pending surgey, she tells her psychiatrist that one of the benefits of transition is that she won’t have to go to the hospital to recover from the results of the violent fights any longer.
High Heels may not be the most straightforward presentation of transsexual identity ever put on film, but considering the tendency for action films to delve into exploitation, the film deserves credit for not inserting a transsexual character in for laughs or shock. Seung-wa Cha plays the lead with detached tension. In his calmest interactions with others, one can sense an agitation beneath the surface. Sometimes what lurks beneath is fear of discovery. Other times an undefined anger. But if one thinks the purpose of the movie is to see him in drag, think again. There is humor in the movie, but it doesn’t come from the dress. Cha and Jang are presenting a character who by subtle mannerism is already a woman and when Cha puts on a dress, he does not suddenly turn into Mrs. Doubtfire. Cha provides a consistent personality to the role. Dressed as a man, everyone fears and admires Ji-wook. Wearing women’s clothing and not wanting to scare people as a woman, she raises the pitch of her voice. The change in voice is obvious, but otherwise Ji-wook has the same personality. It is a very subtle performance, even if the net result makes Cha difficult to embrace. Ji-wook is cold, aloof, and depressed, which does give the audience much opportunity for emotional engagement.
Cha is good, the movie is stylish, and I liked most of the cast, especially the ensemble that made up the police force. High Heels is definitely one of those movies that I wanted to like more and could have if the action plot weren’t so predictable. Perhaps that’s the point and there is a commentary on gender and violence, and how transsexuals can be tough as nails action heroes, too. But I’m not convinced that there is a message to match the depth of Cha’s performance because the need to keep the action coming with a violent sequence every ten minutes seems to be Jang’s larger concern. There are a few indicators that one of the gangsters and a petty crook are romantically drawn to Ji-wook because of his very masculine badass actions (the crook actually admits to arousal), but nothing much comes of it. Once I realized that Ji-wook wanted to hurt himself, the depression of the character rubbed off on the fighting sequences. It was more depressing than tragic to watch Cha sacrificing his body again, even if it was for a good cause. One does not expect the burdens of even the most conflicted hero to sink an action film, but I was feeling a little numb.
The ending of the film itself made very little sense at all based on what I had watched in the previous two hours. The final scene was so unexpected, and represented such a change in trajectory that I felt robbed. Jang decided he needed to show the audience that Cha wasn’t really playing a transsexual after all in an epilogue. We seem to be missing thirty minutes of a story line in which Ji-wook meets a woman, agrees to marry her and seems to have decided not to go through with surgery after all. Hey, it’s possible. Ji-wook was injured badly in the last fight to the point where I assumed he was going to be another dead tragic hero. But he somehow found that strength to survive that all the badass people have. But to tack on one more scene where Ji-wook is living as a man and about to get married made me wonder if the film had a purpose at all.