Kim Hye-soo stars in Lee An-gyu's debut feature.
Two years after Coin Locker Girl, Kim Hye-soo returns as a woman gang boss with a bold wig in Lee An-gyu's debut A Special Lady. Unfortunately, the freshness of her earlier gang saga makes way for an abundance of hollow flash in this tired and frustrating genre pic.
Kim plays Hyun-jung, the number two in her crime organization who harbors a wish to retire from the life of crime and reunite with her son, whose existence is a secret to her colleagues. When the power structure at the top of the gang begins to crack, her hot-headed underling and a prosecutor she's been manipulating attempt to take her down through her secret family ties.
Compelling women-led action films or thrillers are no longer a rarity in Korean cinema but this half-baked effort is two steps back rather than one forward. A Special Lady opens with a figure monitoring several screens in a hotel, before cutting to a shot that swoops down over a bath of naked woman before settling on a buxom Russian prostitute. Thus begins a sequence in which several men are being entrapped in the hotel's rooms, which is replete with women's nude and oiled-up behinds. It goes on much longer than it needs to as it lingers on these faceless women.
Even though Kim has played several similar roles to this and seems fairly at ease as Hyun-jung, she can't rise above the material she's given. Her shock of blonde combover wig and flashy costumes, which seem as they were picked from a Blade Runner-themed runway show, do her no favors, as they only reinforce the artificial nature of the production.
As her violent subordinate, Lee Sun-kyun of A Hard Day swaggers and sneers through every scene but never threatens to comes off as a real character. Other co-stars, such as Lee Hee-joon (Sori: Voice from the Heart) as the prosecutor and Choi Moo-sung (Intruders) as the gang's boss fade quickly into the background in their familiar parts
Lee used to work in the directing department of genre auteur Kim Jee-woon and it shows in the film's use of sleek locales and their stark and often dark primary colors, but there's little inventiveness to the mise-en-scene. Sets, locations, lighting and costume design all add up to slick and angular frames without significantly adding to the characters or story.
If the visuals are a just little vacuous, however, the film's true failing is its rote scripting. Lee tries to foist a strong female lead into a genre typically dominated by men, yet Hyun-jung is a two-dimensional creation whose strength is undermined by her melodramatic behavior. The Villainess did a similar thing earlier this year, but Kim Ok-vin's protagonist was afforded a stronger backstory to back up her actions, and her action scenes were badass to boot.
Lee also tries to offer up Hyun-jung as an action lead, but after no indication of any fighting prowess, she suddenly overpowers a swarm of foot soldiers in a humdrum set piece and aside from a few gunshots later on, that's the sum total of the film's action quotient. If there's anything remarkable about A Special Lady, it's the film's flashy wigs, utter shallowness and dreary scripting.