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Gangster comedies have been only too common in Korean cinema for more than a decade now, so it’s not too surprising that the genre has of late been running out of steam both in terms of audience interest and creativity. Attempting to remedy the situation is director Cho Jin Gyu, responsible for the first and third entries in the popular “My Wife is a Gangster” franchise, adding a wacky shamanistic twist with his latest outing “Man on the Edge” (a.k.a. “Gangster Shaman”). Mixing supernatural shenanigans in with the usual comedy and melodrama went down very well indeed with Korean audiences, the film exceeding expectations and pulling in nearly 4 million ticket sales, marking it as one of the year’s biggest hits.
Actor Park Shin Yang (“Miss Conspirator”) headlines as Kwang Ho, a top mobster and the right hand of his boss, feared and respected by his men. After one day injuring his hand in a knife fight with his sworn rival Tae Joo (Kim Jung Tae, “He’s on Duty”), his life undergoes an odd change, with a chain of strange events leading him to the door of fortune telling shaman Myung (actress Uhm Ji Won, “Romantic Debtors”). Myung informs him that the wound has changed his fate and that he is now possessed by the spirits and doomed to become a shaman. Plagued by visions, Kwang Ho eventually gives in and dons shaman robes, trying to juggle his gangster life with his new calling, while Tae Joo senses something is up and tries to expose his secret.
As a high concept means of freshening up the Korean gangster comedy genre and injecting a little imagination, “Man on the Edge” really isn’t too bad. Cho Jin Gyu certainly knows his stuff, and applies the same approach he took with his “My Wife is a Gangster” entries, successfully combining broad comedy, melodrama and the odd flash of violence here and there, and while it’s fair to say that the film doesn’t ultimately deviate much from the tried and tested formula, it’s familiar in a pleasing and comfortable rather than hackneyed fashion. Though Kwang Ho’s encounters with the supernatural are similarly nothing new, basically resulting in him having to help a number of friendly ghosts fulfil their last wishes, the expected heartstring tugging doesn’t really materialise until the final act, and there’s nothing too offensive on show. As a result, despite being far too long at over two hours, and bloated by a meandering and often meaningless plot, the film does manage to entertain for the most part and without ever pushing out the boat ticks the required boxes for a piece of unpretentious commercial fluff.
Wisely, Cho never takes any of it too seriously, and there are some funny and reasonably effective scenes as Kwang Ho tries to come to terms with things, thanks in no small part to a game and daftly deadpan performance from Park Shin Yang. Though scarcely credible, Park does a good job of making Kwang Ho a likeable protagonist whose many sufferings are amusing to watch, the film calling for him to be in female drag (Shamans in Korea generally being women) for most of the running times and having to undergo a long list of humiliations in the name of duty. Uhm Ji Won also does a decent job, and while her role kind of dips in and out of the plot, her usual brand of comedy fits well with the film’s easy going feel, and her scenes with Park are generally the most enjoyable. The film is all the better for not shoehorning in any needless romance between the two, and while some of the many subplots involving Kwang Ho and the ghosts don’t really have much emotional impact, none of it feels too forced.
All of this works to make “Man on the Edge” a pleasant, unchallenging bit of fun, which in its own modest and unambitious way does manage to offer a diverting twist on the increasingly generic Korean gangster comedy. Cho Jin Gyu clearly knows what he’s doing, and there’s plenty here for fans of the form to enjoy, so long as they don’t feel the particular need for anything new.
Jin-gyu Cho (director) / Gyoo-tae Park (screenplay)
CAST: Jeong-tae Kim … Tae-joo
Seong-gyoon Kim … Choon-bong
Shin-yang Park … Gwang-ho
Ji-won Uhm … Bodhisattva Myeong