There is about 30-odd minutes in the third act of “She’s on Duty” that would have made a great cop film. Everything is there: raw emotion, conflicted themes of loyalty and duty, and spirited fisticuffs thrown with meaning. Alas, “She’s on Duty” is your usual mish mash of Korean Jopok (gangster) action-comedy, with a healthy dose of slapstick mixed in with hardcore violence — two of the genre’s trademarks. When it’s not showing undercover cop Jae-in (Seon-a Kim) trying desperately to cheat on an exam by having her fellow cops give her the answers through a two-way receiver, the film’s villainous gangster is sticking butcher knives in people’s guts only to revive them again by means of blood transfusion so he can prolong the torture. Yep, it’s that kind of movie.
“She’s on Duty” stars the affable Seon-a Kim (who was without a doubt the best part of the overblown Korean sci-fi film “Yesterday”) as Jae-in, an undercover cop in her early ’20s. When we first meet her, Jae-in is posing as a schoolgirl to bust some Japanese white slavers. Besides being an introduction to the seemingly super abilities of our heroine (she’s endowed with the power of wire-fu!), this prelude also allows the filmmakers to indulge in some gratuitous rah-rah nationalism concerning a certain group of islands. Later, Jae-in is ordered to infiltrate a high school as a transfer student, cozy up to the withdrawn Seung-hee (Sang-mi Nam), and wait for the girl’s on-the-lam gangster father to contact her. The police needs Seung-hee’s father to testify against the boss of his former gang, and Seung-hee is their only link.
Played mostly for laughs in its first hour and change, “She’s on Duty” works surprisingly well, if only because Seon-a Kim is terribly appealing as the foul-mouthed cop with the hot temper. Then again, who could blame her for getting so exasperated? The school is filled with equally foul mouthed and violent girls and Jae-in’s police backup makes the Three Stooges look like Einsteins by comparison. There are other obstacles for Jae-in, most of all the stoic Seung-hee, who has closed herself off from the world, and it takes an out-of-the-blue rumor about Jae-in to get Seung-hee to finally open up.
In-between getting into trouble, avoiding trouble, and getting into more trouble anyway, Jae-in finds herself making doleful glances at No-young (Yu Kong), the dreamy new transfer student who also seems to have an interest in Seung-hee. Which leads me to this: the film doesn’t really do a good job of keeping No-young’s hidden agenda, well, hidden; it’s readily obvious that he’s more than he seems, and it’s only a matter of waiting for his true identity to be revealed, although you’ll probably be able to guess it much sooner than that.
If there’s a reason “She’s on Duty” works at all, it’s Seon-a Kim, who looks young enough to fit into the high school environment, but also pulls off the adult portion of her character just as well, if not better. This is especially true of the film’s third act, when “She’s on Duty” locks its comedy in the closet and pulls out the heavy melodrama for its grand finale. Which leads us back to the beginning: there is the making of a really good, serious cop film here, if the final 30 minutes are any indication. The highlight of “She’s on Duty’s” more serious side is an all-too-brief mano-a-mano tussle between Jae-in and No-young on the judo mat. The short scene is filled with conflicting emotion and intensity, and you can’t help but wonder how good “She’s on Duty” could have really been had it kept the narrative straight.
Clocking in at around an hour and 50 minutes, “She’s on Duty” is probably about 20 minutes too long, although curiously director Kwang-chun Park (“Soul Guardians”) unnecessarily crams about 10 minutes of very imperative plot points into the film in a matter of about 30 seconds. This sets the mood for the gritty conclusion, but it’s also jarring to the audience. How did it happen that the filmmakers were forced to rush through such important details when they had over 110 minutes to work with? The explanation seems readily obvious: the filmmakers were selling “She’s on Duty” as a comedy first and foremost.
Although nowhere as good as “My Wife is a Gangster”, which is currently the seminal “Korean chick kicks butt” movie, “She’s on Duty” is on par with some of its fellow Jopok action-comedies such as “My Boss, My Hero” and “Attack on the Gas Station”. There’s nothing overly original to be found here, and the over reliance on obvious wire-fu in the first two acts is a bit of a turn off. Most of all, “She’s on Duty” benefits from a charming lead, who although not completely convincing in the scenes where wire-fu is thankfully excised, cuts enough of a fine figure and shows enough range in the acting chops department to make “Duty” a worthwhile look.
Kwang-chun Park (director) / Yong-ki Jeong (screenplay)
CAST: Kap-su Kim …. Cha Young-jae
Sang-ho Kim …. Detective Kang
Seon-a Kim …. Chun Jae-in
Yu Kong …. No-young