My Wife is A Gangster (조폭 마누라, Cho Jin-gyu: 2001)

With a fearsome reputation proceeding her, Eun-jin is the boss of a criminal gang which shows her nothing but complete respect due to her no-nonsense attitude and incredible fighting skills. Eun-jin tracks down her long lost sister but discovers that the two of them won’t have much time together as her sister is dying. Unaware of Eun-jin’s position in the underworld, her sister tells her that, as one of her final wishes, she would like to see her married – Eun-jins response is to tell her gang to find her a husband, and that she doesn’t care who it is…

A big hit with domestic crowds on its release, My Wife Is A Gangster also seemed to arrive right at the moment when Western audiences were starting to look more closely at the output of the previously little noticed South Korean film industry. It would go on to become the first Korean production to sell the remake rights to a U.S. Studio*, and it’s easy to see why. With a genre-mixing concept and a simple story that travels well overseas, My Wife Is A Gangster is an action-comedy that works pretty slickly and effectively.

Blending two very popular cinematic genres – the (sort of) romantic comedy and the gangster flick, My Wife Is A Gangster manages to produce both a whole lot of very obvious – as well as a few left-field and more unexpected – laughs. With plenty of slapstick – i.e. people literally being slapped – mixed in with some action and a little of the standard romantic comedy structure, My Wife Is A Gangster is wise enough to throw in a couple of surprising approaches to its material to ensure it never becomes purely an exercise in conforming to expectation. For example there’s some pretty harsh moments of violence given that the the main emphasis is on comedy – and the film lurches between moments of super-stylised action incorporating wire-work (super-human jumps allowing multiple kicks to multiple heads for example) which is performed straight-faced but with a lighthearted tone to it, to brutal violence with grim consequences. It’s an unusual mix in that it works without detracting from the overall film itself – in fact it’s almost what defines it. My Wife Is A Gangster creates an uneven mix that pushes itself to appeal to both comedy, action and (although to a lesser degree) the romantic comedy, rather than simply producing a soppy rom-com with a gangster element to the storyline, and surprisingly its this unevenness that makes it stand out.

Along with this bizarre mix, the success of My Wife Is A Gangster is also due to the skills of its cast – all of whom are very good and manage to both work well with the strong material as well as wringing as much as possible out of some of the weaker comedy. The two leads Shin Eun-gyeong (The Ring Virus) and Park Sang-myeon (Hi! Dharma!) have excellent comic timing and work well with – and at times, against – each other. The deadly serious Eun-jin is a pretty nasty character but Shin Eun-gyeong manages to humanise her through some gentler moments tucked in behind the aggressiveness. Park Sang-myeon’s Kang Su-il is the direct opposite – a gentle man who struggles to understand his role in the relationship, given that Eun-jin dominates and seems to assume the traditionally male role. It’s not a subtle relationship between the two of them, but it does make for some amusing comedy. My Wife Is A Gangster never really commits to a typical ‘love’ angle (its focus is on relationships without tripping over a movie romance) but they’re solid as a central couple.

The supporting cast as also pretty good – Ahn Jae-mo is sturdy as a sensible gang member while Kim In-kwon hams it up about as far as possible as the simpleton new recruit (and gets both a great fight scene and a memorable moment with a cat), then there’s Jang Se-jin – who makes for a particularly slimy bad guy.

As you would hope for in a film called My Wife Is A Gangster, there’s a couple of nice action scenes here, which work well. Choreography and stunt-doubling for Shin Eun-kyung is performed by Kim Won-jin (The Scorpion King – not the version with The Rock!) and while the fights don’t necessarily rise to the heights of some of the action found in Hong Kong cinema, they’re effectively and slickly put together.

Like My Sassy Girl, My Wife Is A Gangster plays with male / female relationships in a way that probably doesn’t translate quite as strongly for non-Korean audiences (just register the number of times gender is referenced), but the general concept works just as well in any region. Arriving a couple of months before the similar gangster-as-a-fish-out-of-water My Boss, My Hero, My Wife Is A Gangster might be a little to lighthearted or silly for some, but its mix works well in creating a likeable bunch of characters and some unlikely laughs.

*Miramax bought the rights in a bidding war, but talk of a remake starring Queen Latifah arose to nothing. My Wife Is A Gangster is one of the few Korean films where a remake could potentially be an interesting prospect.

조폭 마누라 (My Wife Is A Gangster)
Directed by Cho Jin-gyu
Produced by Sub Se-won, Lee Sun-yeol
Written by Kang Hyo-jin, Kim Moon-sang
Starring Shin Eun-gyeong, Park Sang-myeon, Ahn Jae-mo, Kim In-kwon, Jang Se-jin

Aimless Bullet Image © Hyun Jin Cinema