Directed by Jo Jin-kyu
Starring Shu Qi, Lee Beom-soo, Ti Lung
There’s a tropey thing in movies where the badass hero dude goes big-league, demonstrating killer skills outside his usual environment. Maybe it’s Ray Liotta pistol-whipping the guy in Goodfellas, or Jason Statham beating up the basketball court in The Expendables. We know they deal with bigger threats, so this one’s just for fun — applied badass. I went looking through the Goodfellas listing on TV Tropes and didn’t find anything, though the scene is considered, among others, an example of their trope “All Girls Want Bad Boys.” True enough, in both cases, the badass application makes audience of a woman (“I gotta admit, It turned me on,” says Karen Hill). Myself, I never appreciated this until one day musing about the video game character Samus, whose profession was mistranslated into English as “bounty hunter” back in 1986, when her trade is more so xenocide. In the case of Samus’s “Applied Badass,” wouldn’t it be so easy for her — so severe for them — to chase human quarry? “What if she actually was a bounty hunter, in a human environment?” I wonder, and I gotta admit nothing.
We have precious few examples to answer this question, but the ones I’ve encountered so far are dear to me: Zeiram and its sequel, and the J-drama Caution, Hazardous Wife. The latter is our non-trope made manifest, with its story of a secret agent retiring to the life of suburban domesticity. The joy of Applied Badass explodes in each scene, in each juxtaposition of her and the traditional underestimators, a thrumming promise or even safety net of her violence. I think I may actually prefer this zone to Regular Badass, those times she’s fighting equal opponents. Now, there’s a double standard here. I can enjoy the scenes from Goodfellas and The Expendables, but I recognize the latter example especially is playing upon an assumed male ego. Gender-bending fundamentally alters the text; we can play more with the underestimation, for example, even toward comedy. And gosh, in the search for woman-led action movies, comedy is inevitable. Perhaps there’s something funny about a badass lady, just as I think there’s always something funny about actors pretending to be gangsters — and thus we arrive at the gangster-comedy/action-romance My Wife is a Gangster 3.
This is a South Korean film in total, not a Korean-Hong Kong coproduction as I assumed. To address one’s first assumption, though, it’s standalone, bearing no plot relation to the previous two otherwise connected My Wife is a Gangster movies. However, because it features a Ti Lung sporting his exact look from A Better Tomorrow, we might say it rounds out that trilogy better. Indeed, the “gangster” of the title is a Triad princess, Lim Aryong, and she finds herself lying low in Korea after sparking a turf war at home. Korean thug Han Ki-chul is assigned to take her in, and the clash of cultures is twofold: they don’t speak the same language — resulting in an abundance of gags — and while Ki-chul is a bumbling dope, Aryong is a terrifying, deadly martial artist. Or I should just say, Aryong is played by Shu Qi.
Need I introduce Shu Qi? The film might play better with prior experience, especially her Hong Kong action movies. I don’t know that she’s considered a kung fu standby, but her fierce, internationally-renowned look and deep, internationally-recognized dramatic abilities make her perfect for a character like this. As Aryong, she’s intimidating and then friendly, emotionally open and enigmatic, bitten. And she sells the action, with a level of disaffected cool she could’ve landed the role of Spike in a live-action Cowboy Bebop. The reveal of her skills in a bar reminded me of Golden Sparrow, striking once and then sitting back down for a drink — reacting only, but subtly inviting her opponents’ aggression. By the end, she’s throwing knives into people and retrieving them as she walks by, not breaking her stride. At the start, none of this is known to Ki-chul and his equally bumbling gang of two, Catfish and Snapper. From the moment they meet in the airport and she flips their Chinese greeting sign rightside up, she’s a “brat” whose coolness is only annoying, not yet lethal. After punching Snapper in the back of the head, via headrest, Catfish tries to get revenge by stopping the car short but, oh, she had her foot braced against the front seat — revealed to Ki-chul only after face-planting.
As a comedy, there are more hits than misses, mostly coming from the inter-gangster banter. After hiding out in the countryside, Ki-chul reunites with his boys and frantically asks how things have been, and Snapper replies, “It’s been rainy in Seoul.” While these guys are funny because they’re low-level, unlike their stoic bosses, I’m sensing an intuition on the part of the filmmakers that a gangster parody is ripe territory for exploring cinematic gender relations. We see this most acutely with the translator character Yeon-hee, a young woman who tries to escape as soon as she arrives, clocking Ki-chul’s gangster den. Catfish and Snapper take advantage of her fear, pretending to be the guys they take orders from, telling her to cook and “Where’s my chopsticks?” and all that. Yeon-hee is also terrified for Aryong, who she sees as a fellow prisoner. Over a meal, she tries to reach out in Chinese, and Catfish interjects, “You seem to be insulting us.” This rings true of less-than-tolerant ears upon foreign languages, but also the inherent suspicion by men of women, so afraid of their laughter and other conspiracies.
Aryong reveals her talents to the entire crew on enemy territory, after which the bloody and bruised men rationalize that their efforts won the day, causing Yeon-hee to burst out laughing. The next morning we have a reversal, with Yeon-hee bullying Catfish and Snapper over breakfast. This is the film at its comedic peak, with performers Oh Ji-ho and Jo Hie-bong bugging their eyes out and running around, falling over. All the while Yeon-hee’s actress Hyun Young’s crisis-mode franticism has morphed into power-hungry mania. As she mistranslates Aryong to sound more aggressive — and benefit her — Aryong punctuates her usual cool with side-eye, and Ki-chul too stays above the fray. By this point he’s revealed his true colors: brave, but ineffectual. We’ve already seen he’s got a good heart, and so his transformation is different: when things get serious, it’s not that he changes, he becomes sympathetic.
Theoretically, then, we’re narrowing our cast toward at least one pairing; indeed Aryong and Ki-chul have an awkward, somewhat romantic drink under the stars. Clearly the film bends toward a love story, but it’s got several ingredients missing, ironically because other ingredients exist. I was reminded of The Debt Collector, starring Scott Adkins, which proceeds as a sequence of martial arts fights until plot intervenes. The premise, that Scott Adkins has to collect debts, is setup for what I figured would be that sequence and nothing else, ultimately making a statement by saying nothing. Introduce conventional structure where it might not be needed and things get predictable. The first half of My Wife is a Gangster 3 is a string of great scenes connected by what, upon closer inspection, appear to be leaps in logic and plot holes. It’s a profligacy with storytelling to which I suppress my closer inspection, because it’s Shu Qi’s Applied Badass and goddamn it, I love that. But such is the Debt Collector sequence before it gives way to a conventional narrative, and when certain dramatic beats need to be hit, suddenly the film’s characteristic contrivance can no longer be excused.
But — see? Goddamn it!
Combining rom-com with gangster drama and action flick, this is a genre mash with strengths in all the wrong places — depending on who you ask. If the mission is “Make Shu Qi look as badass as possible,” a goal I’m very sympathetic to, it succeeds, surprisingly making it a stronger action movie than anything else. She’s the coolest cat around, in the movies and apparently without. In response to netizens shaming her on Instagram for showing some white hairs, the then-44 year old simply said, “Please continue to watch me age gradually.” A year later, when asked why she’s still an actress at 45, she replied, “I can’t help it, I’m too popular.” While My Wife is a Gangster 3 would’ve worked better as a K-drama, given more time to spend on the important parts and then arriving at the multi-genre climax with everything clicked together, it’s a superb showcase for Shu Qi, here speaking so much with her facial expressions and body language, shifting within the frame like a predator. I’d known she was badass from films as disparate as So Close and The Assassin, so consider her visit to Korea a kind of vacation. No hassle to prove herself in the small pond; the flipside of cool. She can’t help it.