Updated: Jul 2, 2021
Man in High Heels is a 2014 Korean noir-action flick starring Cha Seung-won in a bittersweet performance as transgender homicide detective Yoon Ji-wook. Baeksang-awarded k-drama favorites Oh Jung-se, Esom, and Go Kyung-pyo also star in this interesting twist on the genre.
Cha Seung-won plays transgender homicide detective Yoon Ji-wook.
After years of violently enforcing the law, she* looks forward to retiring and finally living as a woman. She learns the basics of transforming herself until finally she decides on gender reassignment surgery. But the dangerous gangs she has taken down in her long career as a detective are now threatening her life and the lives of those she loves, and so she must make difficult decisions—and great sacrifices—along the way.
Finding a movie with a fleshed-out LGBTQ character is still quite rare in Korean cinema, and having a trans character as the lead in an old-fashioned action film is even rarer. Although the film gingerly breaks some new ground, it is still quite refreshing to find a film about an LGBTQ person that does not use slapstick, comedic cross-dressing, or any form of bullying to arouse empathy for its lead.
Cha Seung-won is fascinating to watch as the transgender detective Yoon Ji-wook, and sensitively fills the range of his performance with care and intelligence. I found myself closely observing Cha's smallest nuances—the way he tilts his head or purses his lips—and he really doesn't let up. If he amazes you in the small moments, he'll equally amaze you in the big fight scenes as well. All you need to do is watch the first 10 minutes of the film where he takes down a whole room of gangsters in a karaoke room with only TWO bullets. Dinner knives, chopsticks, sliced fruit: nothing is spared in this bombastic entrance. Midway through the film, he takes on a bunch of gangsters in the rain without getting wet (the things we can do with an umbrella!). If you came here for the fight scenes, you'll certainly get the high you seek.
But when all is calm, it is the thought-provoking moments between fight scenes that show us that this movie is a drama as well. Man in High Heels allots a fair amount of time to giving us a glimpse of what Ji-wook's experience must be while transitioning. There is a bit more focus on Ji-wook's inner femininity, and the movie does take pains to show that her experience goes beyond putting on makeup and wearing feminine clothes. But some critics have lamented that while it is a film about the trans experience, it was made and written by a cis male Jang Jin, while Cha Seung-won, who plays the lead, is one of the more popular cis male models and actors in Korea. So is the movie a decent attempt by cis people at portraying and imagining the trans experience? I am not trans, and my friends who are trans have not yet seen this movie. So I will leave it up to them to decide if it was fair, or sensitive, or just shallow.
Ultimately, Man in High Heels does make the best of its simple plot, and doesn't flounder in the action or drama departments either. It certainly is an interesting contribution to the usually hyper-masculine genre. It might even provide cis people a small glimpse of what it may be like to transition, and how much the journey means to them, but whether that glimpse is accurate or problematic, will have to be discussed with our trans friends. I will say though, that this film may be a good place to begin such a discussion, especially about gender and what it ultimately means to be free and happy.
*Since the subtitles are unclear which pronoun Ji-wook prefers in the movie, I'll be using she/her in this article.
Available in streaming sites.
Stream if: The plot intrigues you, or if you want some pretty good fight scenes.
Skip if: You're not in the mood to watch anything violent.