Gagman (1989) Movie Review

“Gagman” was the debut feature by Korean director Lee Myung Se, best known for “Nowhere to Hide” and “Duelist”, now finally released on DVD. Lee’s works have a tendency to divide critics, as many are arguably exercises of style over substance, being more concerned with the cinematic form than a coherent narrative. In this respect “Gagman” is likely to have the same effect, being relentlessly referential and quite consciously and indeed obsessively wrapped in the language of cinema.

The plot follows Lee Song Jae (Ahn Sung Ki, who went on to work with the director on several of his later films, as well as starring in the likes of “Silmido”), a low level stand up comedian who harbours dreams of becoming a famous film director. After repeatedly failing to get anyone to notice his script, he enlists the help of Mun Do Sok (Bae Chang Ho, himself a real life director), his barber and fellow film freak, as an actor and collaborator, along with an out of work actress called Oh Son Yong (Hwang Shin Hyae, also in the cannibal drama “301, 302”). Together, the trio hit upon the idea of holding up banks to fund their masterpiece, with wacky, though ultimately tragic results.

It is obvious from the start that “Gagman” is a film which revolves around cinema, beginning as it does with a bizarre conversation about Kirk Douglas’ style of eating chicken in “The Vikings”. Indeed, the film is peppered with such conversations throughout and almost every frame contains either old film posters or stills. The plot and characters are equal parts old Hollywood screwball farce and French new wave, and as such the film as a whole acts as a nostalgic love letter to a supposedly more romantic era of cinema.

However, whilst all of this is cleverly done, and as such is likely to catch the imagination of cineastes and film historians, it does come across as rather self-conscious, and at times feels as though the director is simply listing off references rather than attempting to weave them into the script. The film features a good few monologues, with characters frequently repeating their lines in later conversations, a fact which does become rather tiresome. Although the plot is frequently unpredictable, there is a definite sense that much of it was added as an afterthought to what amounts to a series of cinematic anecdotes and autobiographical experiences.

Although advertised as a comedy, “Gagman” is not particularly funny, with director Lee seemingly aiming for playfulness rather than out and out laughs. If anything, it most resembles Scorsese’s dark satire “The King of Comedy”, mainly due to its obsessed and slightly creepy main character, albeit in a less biting manner and with more in the way of physical comedy and light hearted slapstick. Most of the laughs do come from, or rather at the expense of desperately unfunny comedian Lee, who comes complete with a Charlie Chaplin moustache, of which he is fiercely proud, refusing to shave it off even in the face of police recognition. And although the film never depicts Lee in a mean light, it does make him rather difficult to like or sympathise with as a protagonist.

The main problem with the film is its length, which at just over two hours is far too long. With a meandering plot and little in the way of actual character development or motivation, “Gagman” lacks a solid core, emotional or narrative. This result in a strong air of self indulgence about the proceedings, with the director showing little desire to inject any heart into what amounts to an admittedly inventive and challenging, though ultimately empty cinematic puzzle. Although clearly from the director’s heart, “Gagman” is thus a film only likely to appeal to those who share his, and the main character’s obsession with older forms of cinema. For everyone else, despite being charming and even admirable in places, it makes for only sporadically interesting viewing.

Myung-se Lee (director) / Chang-ho Bae, Myung-se Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Sung-kee Ahn …. Lee Jong-sae
Sin-Hye Hwang …. Oh Son-yong
Chang-ho Bae …. Mun Do-sok
Mu-song Jeon
Bong Chu

Buy Gagman on DVD