A tomboy gang boss tries to keep her day job a secret from her sappy spouse in "My Wife Is a Gangster," a likable comedy-actioner that develops in unexpected directions. Playing with role-reversal ideas in a way that still seems fresh even to blase Western auds, pic sports a striking central perf from actress Shin Eun-gyeong.

A tomboy gang boss tries to keep her day job a secret from her sappy spouse in “My Wife Is a Gangster,” a likable comedy-actioner that develops in unexpected directions. Playing with role-reversal ideas in a way that still seems fresh even to blase Western auds, pic sports a striking central perf from actress Shin Eun-gyeong and a gallery of strong supports, though non-Korean viewers may be put off by the relative lack of action and leisurely pacing. Since opening in late September, film has become the second biggest local grosser of the year, bagging a hefty 5.2 million admissions (close to $30 million) on a midrange budget of $1.5 million.

Pic also made headlines for its acquisition in mid-October by Miramax for remake and U.S. theatrical rights. However, any Stateside makeover presents a real challenge, as the movie is so grounded in Korean social structures and underworld genre conventions that a transplant would need to work on a completely different level.

Like another recent high-concept success, “Hi, Dharma“, pic opens misleadingly with a flashy, semi-abstract fight in the rain introing the hard-as-nails Cha Eun-jin (Shin), a 26-year-old orphan who’s fought her way to the top to become legendary gang leader Mantis. Thereafter, pic settles back into a routinely lensed character comedy, climaxed by a bloody set-to near the end.

Eun-jin, who favors mannish apparel and would rather break a leg than crack a smile, has her heart set on finding her long-lost younger sister. When she does, and sis turns out to have terminal cancer, Eun-jin accedes to her sibling’s dying wish that she find a man and settle down.

Efforts to “feminize” her with sexy clothes and coquettish training end in disaster when Eun-jin keeps slipping out of character and into rough street-talk. But one night, she meets Kang Su-il (Park Sang-myeong), a nebbishy civil servant who’s already flunked more than 50 blind dates. She decides to marry him and go for a quick divorce once her sister passes on.

The comedy of their wedding night — with her threatening to beat him up if he tries anything and him getting progressively drunk — is so well played by Shin and the experienced Park that the obviousness of the jokes hardly matters. It’s here the script takes the first of its unexpected turns, with Su-il morphing into a genuinely touching figure who asks only for minimal respect and Eun-jin showing small signs of her unease at taking the “male” role both at home and at work.

The comic stakes escalate, however, when the sister takes longer to die than expected and asks Eun-jin to make her happy by becoming a mother. This requires the sexually inexperienced Eun-jin to undergo tutorials of a more explicit nature, unlocking a torrent of repressed carnal desire.

The central relationship is played out against a background of growing aggression by a rival gang; the antics of two cocky country lads, Romeo (Ahn Jae-mo) and Boxers (Kim In-gweon), who’ve joined Eun-jin’s group; and the loyal service of her deputy, Mazzanga (Shim Weon-cheol), who has a steel plate in his skull and is secretly in love with her. These characters, and others, are given copious screen time, resulting in a virtual ensemble piece, with Eun-jin at the center — a point underlined in the crowd-pleasing coda, where equality triumphs and Su-il comes into his own.

Given the basic concept, the easy route would have been to make Eun-jin a strong, sporty type and concentrate on action set-pieces. Instead, Shin — hardly recognizable from her role as the reporter in the Korean remake of “The Ring” (“The Ring Virus,” 1999) — is lithe rather than buff, and she plays Eun-jin’s strength internally rather than physically, making her later personal conflicts quite touching. She holds the screen against strong competition from Park as the nerdy but dignified husband and Shim as her devoted sidekick.

Production values are pro but with no special style by first-time helmer Jo Jin-gyu, and pic would benefit from about 10 minutes’ trimming, especially one sequence of Romeo and Boxers taking on some punks that’s a pure diversion.

My Wife Is a Gangster

South Korea

Production

A Korea Pictures (in South Korea)/Miramax (in U.S.) release of a Hyun Jin Cinema production. (International sales: Cineclick Asia, Seoul.) Produced by Lee Sun-yeol. Executive producers, Seo Se-weon, Lee. Directed by Jo Jin-gyu. Screenplay, Kang Hyo-jin, Kim Mun-song.

Crew

Camera (color), Jun Jo-myung; editor, Park Gok-ji; music, Jang Dae-sung; production designer, Kim Hyo-shin; art director, Lee Jeong-hwa; sound (Dolby Digital), Jung Wuk-sung. Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (industry screenings), Nov. 14, 2001. Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Shin Eun-gyeong, Park Sang-myeong, Ahn Jae-mo, Kim In-gweon, Shim Weon-cheol, Choe Eun-ju.

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