In the fall of 2001, as a testament to the growing international recognition of South Korean cinema, a box office hit on the peninsula caught the attention of several major Hollywood studios. Despite only being shown a print without any English subtitles, several studios initiated an intense bidding war for the film's U.S. remake rights. Within a few days, Miramax came out on top, having closed a deal worth almost $1 million U.S. for the remake rights, as well as $150,000 for U.S. distribution rights on the original film. Thus, "My Wife is a Gangster (Jopog manura)" became the first Korean film to ever be sold to a U.S. studio for a remake. And if you have a chance to catch this film via the recently released import DVD, you can see why it got Hollywood's attention: "My Wife is a Gangster" is a laugh out loud mix of hyperkinetic Hong Kong-style martial arts and hilarious 'fish out of water' comedy that is not to be missed.
Meet Cha Eun-jin (Shin Eun-gyeong of "Ring Virus"), who is a bit of an anomaly in the Korean criminal underground. This scrappy 26-year old, orphaned and separated from her older sister when she was still a child, has fought her way up the food chain to become the leader of her own gang. Known in mob circles as Mantis, her skills in hand-to-hand and weapons combat are unsurpassed, and anyone who crosses her can expect a beating, her own men included. Having grown up in such a male-dominated and violence-prone environment, Eun-jin has adopted a tomboy lifestyle, walking, talking, and dressing like a man.
However, this is all turned upside-down when Eun-jin finally is reunited with her long-lost sister (Choe Eun-ju). Unfortunately, she is dying from cancer and asks a favor of Eun-jin: to get married and settle down. So what does the legendary gang leader do? She sends out her men to find a husband for her, as quickly as possible. Of course, this is easier said than done. Though they hire a professional to give Eun-jin a makeover and give her dating lessons, this ends up backfiring as she keeps lapsing back into gangster mode. Finally, Eun-jin settles on Kang Su-il (Park Sang-myeon of "Nowhere to Hide" and "The Foul King"), a civil servant who has no idea what is going on most of the time. Seeing Su-il as the quickest way to fulfill her sister's dying wish, Eun-jin gets hitched, which is when the fun really begins, as she tries to play housewife to the clueless Su-il while continuing to run her gangland operations. Unfortunately, matters are complicated as the leader of a rival gang tries to muscle in on Eun-jin's territory. And if that wasn't enough, the dying sister makes one more request: for Eun-jin to become a mother.
Imagine "Miss Congeniality" spliced with "The Godfather", with the fight sequences of "Charlie's Angels" thrown in, and you'll have a pretty good idea what to expect in "My Wife is a Gangster". As the eternally stern-faced Eun-jin, Shin carries the film as a tough-as-nails mob boss trying to get in touch with her feminine side. The film's first half is a laugh riot as Eun-jin is faced with things that the mean streets of Seoul never taught her, such as how to wear high heels, how to go on a date, or what to do in bed. The script also pokes fun at the conventions of the male-dominated society in Korea, as Eun-jin is frequently mistaken as a gangster's moll and treated as such-- something that she doesn't take very well. As Eun-jin's unwitting husband, Park is the perfect comic foil for Shin. In addition to sharing some chemistry with his co-star, Park is sympathetic and lovably dumb as a man whose ideas about love and marriage are almost as naive as Eun-jin's.
The film's action sequences are also quite impressive, using flashy cinematography and wire-fu to punch up the fight scenes. Standout set pieces include the film's opening sequence, where Eun-jin takes on an entire gang in the pouring rain, a hillside knife duel laced with humor, and the film's final battle, where Eun-jin takes on an entire warehouse of her rivals.However, "My Wife is a Gangster" is far from perfect. The film is most engaging when Eun-jin and Su-il are front and center. Unfortunately, director Jo Jin-gyu spends far too much time on the less-interesting antics of Eun-jin's lieutenants, such as Romeo (Ahn Jae-mo) and the dim-witted Boxers (Kim In-gweon), who like to pick fights, and not enough on the more interesting ones, such as a steel-plated thug (Shim Weon-cheol) who secretly holds a flame for his Eun-jin. With this in mind, a tighter script could have easily excised fifteen minutes from the film's somewhat sluggish second half without sacrificing the main story. Also, as in many Hong Kong films, the line between comedy and bloody action is sometimes very thin in this film, such as in the aforementioned final battle, which may make some viewers uncomfortable with how it brutalizes Eun-jin.
It will be interesting to see what Miramax does with the remake ("The Godmother", maybe?), given how the original film is deeply rooted in Korean culture and Asian gangster genre films. However, until that day, assuming that it doesn't fall into development hell, there's always the original "My Wife is a Gangster". Despite a few flaws, this comic gem from South Korea is a refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable romp from start to finish.