The most extraordinary thing about My Wife is a Gangster isn’t how well it manages to balance its serious side, its comedy side, and its action side, but how effective the whole thing is. As Gangster opens, we hear someone telling a story about one rainy night when a legend was born. It’s the kind of story that may or may not be true depending on who’s telling it and how much faith you put in him. The story is about Eun-jin (Eun-kyung Shin) and how she became a legend in the South Korean underworld by taking on an army of gangsters and coming out on top.
We finally meet the real-life Eun-jin, who is now the underboss of a criminal empire, and who is a stoic figure with hard eyes and even harder fists. It doesn’t matter that she’s a woman — her reputation is sealed and she lets her physical prowess do all the talking. When Eun-jin finally locates her long-lost older sister, Yu-jin, it should be a happy time, only Yu-jin is dying and has only a few months to live, if that.
The kinder and gentler Yu-jin makes a last request of her young sister — she wants to see Eun-jin get married, something she herself has never done and now regrets. Not wishing to deny her sister’s dying wish, Eun-jin agrees, and soon picks out an average South Korean Joe name Soo-il to be the lucky groom. The two gets hitch and everything seems to be going fine, but as Eun-jin later tells Soo-il, no one leaves the gangster life. Will Eun-jin ever change? Will Soo-il survive Eun-jin’s lifestyle? Or better yet, will Soo-il ever get lucky with his wife?
My Wife is a Gangster is a very funny film when it allows itself to be. And just like that, it can shift into melodrama mode, straight drama, and action mode. In-between vignettes from Eun-jin’s gangster life, we laugh through her attempts to live with her new husband and her husband’s attempts to survive his new wife. The average Soo-il, slightly overweight and not all that handsome, starts to get the idea that he’s not “wearing the pants” in this house, as his first two attempts to touch his wife’s breast ends with him carrying a shiner at work.
If having to ward off her husband wasn’t bad enough (she considers giving herself to Soo-il the same as surrendering her independence and free-will), Eun-jin has to deal with a rival gangster name White Shark who is starting to make some hostile overtures. Things at work are beginning to look like they’re heading toward a violent confrontation, meanwhile things at home look like they’re heading toward a quick divorce.
The movie is bookended by two big action scenes, one at the very beginning when Eun-jin proves her mettle in the rain, and later towards the end when Eun-jin gets into a fight against all of White Shark’s men at a warehouse. In-between we get minor skirmishes between Eun-jin’s lieutenants and local punks, as well as Eun-jin herself having to battle a Japanese enforcer with knives.
As hard as it is to believe, the movie’s comedy really carries the bulk of what makes My Wife is a Gangster so good. The funniest moments in the movie comes in the beginning, when the tomboyish Eun-jin has to completely discard her toughness in order to attract a husband. She attempts to learn how to smile, to jiggle her breasts, and the toughest of all, to wear high heels! Yikes! Because Eun-jin almost never smiles, when she tries it in various situations it is the most hilarious thing you’ll ever see.
The acting is outstanding throughout. As the lead, Eun-kyung Shin strikes the perfect balance of toughness and vulnerability. She is both believable when she’s kicking ass (probably a stunt double) and sympathetic when she’s trying to please her dying sister. Shin’s scenes with her sister are genuine and heartfelt, although I would have liked to see more of the two sisters, since their scenes were just too brief and too few.
As Eun-jin’s embattled husband, Sang-Myeon Park does all the right facial expressions and pratfalls, shifting from confused husband to battered spouse to indignant man, sometimes all in the same scene! It’s not easy marrying a looker like Eun-jin only to find out she’s a high-ranking gangster, and Park is perfectly cast as the bewildered husband who isn’t quite sure if he can handle all of Eun-jin’s odd behaviors and cold shoulders. We root for the poor sap and hopes he can somehow win Eun-jin over before she kills him.
The movie sports a very strong supporting cast. The actor playing Romeo does very well as the cool and professional gangster who has a soft spot for his unpolished out-of-town cousin and his bargirl girlfriend. Another actor plays Eun-jin’s right-hand man, a fellow with a metal plate on his head who owes his life and his allegiance to Eun-jin come hell or high water, makes a good impression. He has unrequited love for Eun-jin and we get the feeling Eun-jin knows it, but chooses to ignore it because of their positions in the organization. The villain has very little to do, but it doesn’t really matter because Eun-jin’s gangster problems are only a background distraction, and the real story is her home life.
Not a lot of movies can strike the correct balance between comedy, drama, and action. My Wife is a Gangster manages all 3 and comes out shining like a pair of scissors flying through the rain.
Jo Jin-Gyu (director) / Jo Jin-Gyu (screenplay)
CAST: Eun-Kyung Shin …. Cha Eun-jin
Sang-Myeon Park …. Kang Su-il
Jae-mo Ahn …. Bada
In-kwon Kim …. Banse