[K-FILM REVIEWS] 슈퍼맨이었던 사나이 (A Man who was Superman)

[K-FILM REVIEWS] 슈퍼맨이었던 사나이 (A Man who was Superman)

I don't know if it's just a sign my "philosophical" leanings always end up coloring my thoughts about everything up to filmmaking itself, often in shades of boiling dark. But every time I hear of superheroes, along with a not so subtly disparaging "you have just about five minutes to impress me" grin and fits of wild skepticism, my mind instantly points to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment, paradoxically (?) mixed with Nietzsche's übermensch. That is, how come people all over the world find such charm in spring-summer collection pajama-wearing, breathing and walking cliches of moral dilemma who expound one liners to no end, when they could actually wonder the same thing about similar monsters with no supernatural powers, but the same exact dilemmas? You don't necessary need to dislodge webs from your rear end on top of a building, to make me ponder on the nature of human morality. You can add to that the immense array of local variations, such as the Chinese concept of 俠 (xia, the righteous errant hero), those wirefu supermen populating wuxia novels and films, moving in constant undercranking motions.

Of course, things are a little more complex than that, what with the 1970s deconstruction, the anti-heroes and dark knights. But, essentially, the problem is the same. No matter how much the canon of superhero culture has surpassed easy dichotomies, it's always a battle of grass root moral codes, how hard it is to stick to them, particularly when you start verging on the dark side for that final catharsis, right before Bubba spouts the oh-so--eagerly-awaited "maybe for this one I could buy the Blue Ray" thumbs up. But, übermensch, no no. They transcend any conventional morality and strip themselves of the system, reaching a sort of "over"-moral (hence the über) enlightenment, although Nietzsche would probably roll in his grave hearing that. It's where the "dark" and its polar opposite meet, where those shades of gray become the only color you need. Where one, along with the beauty of humanity, fully accepts its darker side and even embraces it, canceling the two poles altogether. It's too bad people like Uncle Adolf ruined that interesting meaning for his own petty games. Hell, before people stopped translating with their feet, someone even explained the term with that oh-so-familiar, pleasant moniker. Übermensch? Superman.

More than the west, where culturally the superhero has always been welcome, it would be quite interesting to focus on countries like Korea. Of course the xia and its various incarnations made its way there, but there always seems to be a certain barrier, a glass ceiling anything supernatural, or even escaping the boundaries of "acceptable realism," has to eventually face. It's the reason why wuxia never do incredibly well there, just like superhero flicks. Or better, If Hollywood superhero flicks end up doing well, it's usually for reasons that have very little to do with superhero culture itself: either it's just a pumped up Hollywood machine, with all the shiny bells of promotion attached to it, just like the 4 million plus admissions of Iron Man prove; or it could be a buzz-worthy "must see" event, regardless of genre, like The Dark Knight. When Koreans watch this new-age rendition of the Joker and Batman, do they ponder about how revolutionary it is vis-a-vis the history of superhero films, or just praise the film's cinematic prowess? It would be an argument worthy of a dissertation by itself, especially as the "download generation" is slowly turning the page for what concerns moviegoing practices in both cultural and business terms, compared to their mid 90s counterparts.

Yet, more interesting are homegrown superhero stories, or their lack thereof. Superheroes in Chungmuro were mostly a sort of cinematic salad dressing, which had its peak between the 80s and early 90s, when Shim Hyung-Rae's kids flick found decent popularity among their target demographics. But it was never anything which concerned itself with the moral dilemmas of their American of Japanese counterpart - perhaps the closest thing to that would be animation films like 로보트 태권 V (Robot Taekwon V), but more than moral problems, something pointing a little more at national identity seemed to be the key there. Much more popular were normal "heroes" doing something almost "super"-natural, particularly in the past. Wonder why Hong Gil Dong and Im Kkeok-Jeong, Jang Gil-San and the fictional Il Ji Mae are so popular, and the finger always points back to history, especially as things like Hong Myung-Hee's masterpiece, which gave life to the various incarnations of 임꺽정 (Im Kkeok-Jeong), was first and foremost a reaction to Japanese imperialism, in some ways beautifying the real historical figure.

Strangely enough, Korean "superhero" films often deal with how society sees their being different, more than the superhero's own moral dilemmas about his identity and the society around him. The reason why so many Korean "superhero" flicks eventually turn to reality after their denouement, or play around it like 지구를 지켜라 (Save the Green Planet), is exactly because they're a sort of bastard child of the social realism boom of the mid to late 80s. Using that sort of logic, even Lee Myung-Se's insane 개그맨 (Gagman) becomes a sort of superhero flick, in the sense Ahn Sung-Gi's character goes beyond the "lezte mensch" (last man, so we stick to Nietzsche) trappings that surround him. His dream of becoming a star director breaks from mediocrity; the apathetic, dispassionate reality which sucked every dream from people's psyche.

One of the biggest manifestation of such mentality are documentary series like KBS' 인간극장 (Human Theater), telling touching (?) stories of how people cope with their difference. Wonder why so many films took inspiration from such format? Exactly because that 인간 (person) pares in comparison to the 극장 (theater). That is, the shamelessly manipulative melodrama those "documentaries" become, a sort of cheaper alternative to TV dramas, cancels out any possible benefit, moral or not, the idea of telling such story might have. Think of the crew staying with a family, whose son carries some handicaps, for an entire week. One week in the life of Mr. Different. The family gets their 15 minutes of fame, while the Pds and cameramen hover around them like vultures, waiting for the tiniest problem to make a Yoon Seok-Ho out of it, complete with agonizing violin concertos. There, no matter how "heroic" certain people's deeds are, they are objectified, their difference used as a sort of pre-dinner superficial mea culpa, the effects disappearing the day after while the monsters go back inside the jungle. So you ask yourself the question, who are the real übermenschen? Those who slap their charitable ways all over TV, treating the people they help with the same slant of a king from the past, handing out sacks of rice to the lowborn to keep them from pestering his rule? Or are the only Supermen those who have the guts to act, do something affirmative about the world that surrounds them?

What's really regrettable about Jung Yoon-Cheol's 슈퍼맨이었던 사나이 (A Man who was Superman), in that sense, is how it deals with these themes, without even asking the only important question. Structurally, it's eerily similar to Jang Jun-Hwan's crazy masterpiece Save the Green Planet, enveloping the story around clever social commentary. What's different is that, while Jang sensibilities are very much in tune with genre cinema and B-movies, Jung seems more concerned with mainstream storytelling vehicles such as his too-cute-for-words final message. But, at the end of the day, the results are similar: a "non-superhero" film about those different men and their social environment, and what made them different. Or, better, the reason why their being different (not conforming to widely accepted moral codes or social demands) made them "super-human." Both Byeong-Gu and the "former Superman" of the title have pasts that explain their identity, more or less tied to real events (particularly Jung's film, with thorns pointing at the Fifth Republic's legacy), but more than something harming their life itself, it's society's reaction to their difference that segregates them. A quick look at Jung's filmography, and you'll find something to connect to: his debut 말아톤 (Marathon).

The 5 million seller from 2005 wasn't so much concerned with Jo Seung-Woo's handicap per se, but more on what that handicap meant to the people around him -- you could tie this to what I talked about in my 헨젤과 그레텔 (Hansel and Gretel) review, about the portrayal of children in Korean films. Replace kids with people with handicaps, or any difference of note, and you're there. That is what you find in ....Superman as well. Hwang Jung-Min enters the frame with his wild behavior, his 1980s Lee Ju-Il dance and assorted Hawaiian shirts, his corny "change the future, save the planet," and his fears about the "bald headed villains" (jee, I wonder who that might be. Gwangju. 1980. Rings a bell?) and evil kryptonite clouding his memories. But, from the exact moment he appears, he ceases being a human being (or one pretending to be a superhero. And don't tell me that's a spoiler, unless you have kindergarten classes tomorrow at 9) and becomes a symbol of something, a catalyst to convey certain themes, and a sort of mirror to ourselves. This is the biggest difference between the western counterpart and what would happen in Korea, regardless if it was a real superhero film, or something only feigning that. The moral dilemma is not something that belongs to the superhero, it's society's own view of the superhero itself that's the key.

So the problem is not necessarily our Superman. Hwang Jung-Min predictably does a marvelous job, enough to call this a one man show. His spontaneity is truly scary, in some ways reminding of Shin Ha-Gyun in Save the Green Planet, and showing remarkable chemistry with little Jin Ji-Hee - another Hansel and Gretel connection. But... should I call her Gianna? Not in a thousand years. Yes, yes. The problem is Miss Jeon Ji-Hyun. The way she acts (or, actually, doesn't), the way her character was written, the way she interacts with Superman. The idea, if this really worked, would have been of this woman, who finally found a decent subject for her documentaries (reminding exactly of those tearjerking pseudo-docu I talked about) but also realizes she's just using this man, falling into a sort of moral dilemma about this entire matter. We do get sparks of that, but Jeon never highlights any emotional and/or moral struggle, even when the script gives her leeway to do that. Could it be the script's fault?

After all, Jung Yoon-Cheol never asked to direct this film. It was taken from 슈퍼맨 (Superman), a six-page short story as part of Yoo Il-Han's 어느 날 갑자기 (One Day, Suddenly), about a man who thought of himself as Superman. Min Gyu-Dong of 여고괴담 두번째 이야기 (Memento Mori) started the project, but quit after trying to work around an adaptation for six months, before Jung was handled the keys to the house. All the social commentary is more or less in line with what Jung has shown over the years (even in the molotov-like tirades against Hollywood and cultural imperialism he often shows through interviews), so he probably fit the bill as well as one could think. But while Superman's past and the reasons why he turned to such "reality," to compensate for whatever nightmare living had become, are more or less convincing, his struggle becomes just another melodrama. You never really get inside the man's psyche, exactly because he's just a model, a paragon of virtue to wake us up, show some kind of affirmative behavior, and allow us to become our own Supermen. Stop the North Pole from melting, fix the hole in the ozone layer, and help grandma cross the street. Save the planet, change the future! And stuff.

If Jeon's role went to a more experienced actress, one who could ooze the fatigue and shades of gray of a professional, then Hwang Jung-Min's role could have resonated even more. But all she represents is a pretty (although that's up to debate. This woman's popularity completely baffles me, just like it did when she first started with "that" CF) name tag who escorts Mr. Superman around, and sort of highlights the thought process we should go through. There's never any hint of humanity in her performance, which is more or less filled with "it's a CF about cosmetics but I'm looking perturbed" glares of doom. She's lucky, just like in 4인용 식탁 (The Uninvited), that the characters fit with her lack of expressive prowess, but it never really goes beyond that. If what you were getting were shades of gray, human compassion mixed with greed, boredom and cowardice, then it could have been quite a fascinating character. But all you get here is a misty mix of nothingness, pensive stares without any substance, which is the major reason why the film never engages you, unless Hwang Jung-Min takes the ball and runs with it alone.

I suppose it's a half success, as it eventually drives home its point - as cliched and superficial as it might be, especially in this age. But it just raises disappointment about Jung Yoon-Cheol's career, and the direction it's taking. A look at his short films, and the way he handled something like Marathon, and one couldn't help but expect great things from him. But both the outrageously insipid 좋지 아니한家 (Skeletons in the Closet) and A Man who was Superman point to a downward spiral. You kind of expect a Robbie Williams from him, escaping from the madness of boy bands to become a somewhat respectable artist, but all you get is the equivalent of an Eun Ji-Won. Someone who might have worked in his boy band trappings, at least for the intended audience, but who couldn't help but disappoint when he moved to real music (hip hop, in his case). Jung does have good ideas and he shows them through this film just like what he did in his past work. But the execution lacks any passion or drive. It's as if it's no longer a problem of the glass being half empty or half full. But the fact what's inside is not water anymore. And who's going to drink that?


슈퍼맨이었던 사나이 (A Man who was Superman)
Director: 정윤철 (Jung Yoon-Cheol)
Screenplay: 윤진호 (Yoon Jin-Ho), 정윤철 (Jung yoon-Cheol), 김바다 (Kim Bada)
D.P.: 최영환 (Choi Young-Hwan)
Music: 이한나 (Lee Hanna)
Produced by: CJ Entertainment
Int'l Sales: CJ Entertainment
124 Minutes, 35mm 2.35:1 Color
Release: 1/31/2008
CAST: 황정민 (Hwang Jung-Min), 전지현 (Jeon Ji-Hyun), 김태성 (Kim Tae-Sung), 진지희 (Jin Ji-Hee), 도용구 (Do Young-Gu), 선우선 (Seon Woo-Sun), 서영화 (Seo Young-Hwa), 김재록 (Kim Jae-Rok), 조희봉 (Jo Hee-Bong - CAMEO)

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