Foreign Releases: Man On High Heels (2014) - Reviewed

Korean films have a knack for combining some of the most unexpected elements in a film: slapstick comedy with an old-school monster movie; black humor in a serious crime drama. Or, in the case of Man on High Heels, directed by Jin Jang, a transgender coming out story within a hyper-violent cop drama.

This arthouse actioner/comedy follows the near indestructible Ji-wook, whose past police work has left him with so many scars and so much metal in his body that many call him the bionic man. He can take on a room full of mobsters with a jar of chopsticks or a take down a street full of goons with an umbrella. Man delivers all the violent confrontations one expects from the genre while also peppering in some blackly humorous ones, too.

Blended into the bloody mayhem is a plot about Ji-wook dealing with his body dismorphia. The transition from police work to getting hormone injections moves along so smoothly that the viewer might not question the change in tone during some more humorous scenes. Many of these scenes focusing on gender transitioning and various versions of masculinity. Perhaps the best conversation regarding masculinity takes place with a fully transitioned woman inside an empty church. Flashbacks to Ji-wook’s backstory are also nuanced and moving, with many moments designed to really pluck at all your heartstrings (a typical trope for Korean films).

So many scenes illustrate Ji-wook’s dueling identities through compassionate humor, but also bleak honesty, which keep the tone from becoming too campy.

Perhaps the best scene comes before a final confrontation. Ji-wook, returning to the city after prepping to leave the country on a trip to get his final transitional surgery, takes a cab back to the gangster's hideout. And, because he presented as a woman for his trip, goes through a process during the cab ride of taking off his earrings, wig, and high heels in preparation to eviscerate another roomful of goons.

So, this man on high heels also isn’t able to remove all his makeup before a final confrontation, perhaps hinting that a more campy fight is to come. However, like many other Korean films that combine humorous or slapstick tones with darker storylines, Man turns a corner and fully commits to darker, more merciless climax and tone.

Man was previously streaming on Netflix, but is now harder to find.

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-Eric Beach