Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Gender of the Past and the Future

What does it mean for a larger than life character to be transgender while not being a transgender stereotype? 2014's High Heel (하이힐, literally "High Heel" but marketed by the trans-insensitive and grammatically awkward title in the west Man On High Heels) is about a legendary cop, renowned by gangsters and colleagues alike for prowess in martial arts and a cool demeanour interpreted as the epitome of masculinity. But Yoon Ji-wook, while physically male, and presenting as male for most of the film, is in fact a woman. This isn't a realistic depiction of a cop in South Korea struggling with gender dysphoria. It's more as though Indiana Jones or James Bond were transgender which is certainly an interesting proposition for a film. And it provides fertile ground for a noir quality in the story. While the film treads somewhat cautiously, mindful of its potentially conservative audience, the film never denies the reality of Yoon Ji-wook's nature as a woman and we're clearly meant to root for her to create a new life as a woman, even as the action scenes when she's dragged back into presenting as male are truly exciting and impressively choreographed.

It could be argued that the movie's portrayal of starkly defined gender roles is more curious than its position on gender dysphoria. As Yoon is advised in various aspects of her transformation, she's told it will be difficult for her to make money--for some reason no-one suggests the possibility of Yoon remaining a cop and, indeed, there aren't any women among Yoon's coworkers.

There is the screaming and ranting police chief, one of many familiar cop movie cliches the film consciously indulges in. And it's interesting how well Yoon's story fits into the noir mould, her trouble not unlike Robert Mitchum's in Out of the Past or Ingrid Bergman's in Notorious as her attempt to assert a life for herself is repeatedly sabotaged by friends, enemies, and her own feelings of inescapable doom.

Cha Seung-won's performance as Yoon is truly beautiful and one of the primary reasons the movie works as well as it does. As an elder transgender woman, Bada (Lee Yong-nyeo), advises Yoon, she notes that before seeking hormone treatment Yoon had chosen a very traditionally masculine lifestyle and Bada herself reveals she had been a marine--Bada notes it's not unusual for someone experiencing gender dysphoria to run as far as possible from the truth in this manner. But even being the most feared gang fighter in South Korea doesn't ease Yoon's torment, whose scar covered chest isn't the sign of former fights, as the gangsters who've seen it presume, but Yoon's self-cutting motivated by self-disgust.

The subtlety of Seung-won's performance is great. Cold and tightly controlled when confronting her foes, she seems to relax in an almost imperceptible but unmistakable way when she dresses as a woman and is treated as one.

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