London, Wednesday 4 September, 3pm. The stress of clearing the desk before leaving the office, of wondering if you’ve packed everything you need, immediately evaporates as you get into the taxi. There’s nothing more you can do, as you make your way through the rush hour traffic to Heathrow for the evening flight to Seoul. If you find when you get to your destination that you’ve failed to pack a necessity, you can always buy it when you get there. The only thing to induce stress once you are through check-in is the heat which causes more than a gentle perspiration as you load up with duty-free and other gifts for your hosts in Korea. Champagne, whisky (Blue Label is what they seem to expect), Earl Grey tea and presentation tins of Fortnum’s biscuits more than triple the bulk of your carry-on baggage, but once seated in the plane you can finally relax. Generous glasses of nice, buttery red wine, Korean Air’s very acceptable bibimbap, and the in-flight entertainment while away the first few hours.
The in-flight entertainment is a great chance to catch up with those Korean films that you’ve heard about – ones that have created box office buzz over the past few months – or an opportunity to explore some lesser-known ones. Sometimes nothing of interest catches your eye, in which case you can watch that Hollywood film you vaguely meant to see when it was in the cinema but never got around to. And every time, you curse that you forgot to bring your noise-cancelling headphones.
The viewing options on my flight in September 2013 included Berlin File (a star-studded spy thriller that had recently screened in London1 ), Masquerade (a polished and highly entertaining period drama2 ), Miracle in Cell 7 (which fell into the “box office buzz” category), and Man on the Edge (which was a completely new one on me). I’d seen the first two and enjoyed them both, but not enough to watch them again. And of the other two, Man on the Edge seemed to be more in line with what I needed at the time.
Regular readers of my website, London Korean Links, may have noticed that I’ve been somewhat grouchy about a lot of Korean film recently. Maybe I’m getting close to that stage in life where I become a grumpy old man and when nothing is as good as it used to be. But maybe instead it’s because I seem to have seen movies which are pointlessly violent, pointlessly dull or simply in need of some brutal editing. When I don’t enjoy a film, I don’t mind saying so on LKL. Often, though, I feel that the film is not worth wasting precious time writing about, so I don’t bother.
So let me make amends now. What could be better than a bittersweet, hilarious but tearjerking shaman gangster almost-semi-gay rom-com? Man on the Edge3 starring a brilliant Park Sin-yang as a gangster who discovers he is in touch with the spirit world, is all the above, and represents the best in unpretentious genre mash-up film-making that Koreans seem to do so well. It continues the string of light-hearted gangster films from director Jo Jun-gyu, whose debut feature was the popular My Wife is a Gangster (2001). Things can be just as good as they used to be after all.
Man on the Edge has something for everyone: romance, cuteness, humour, a bit of violence, camp cross-dressing … By no means is it high art, but it’s fabulous entertainment. Every now and then, that’s what you need. It was certainly what I needed at the time.
Maybe it was the red wine having its effect, or the sense of release at having escaped from the office, but I was laughing, crying, and cheering throughout the film, to the extent that the cabin crew must have thought I was slightly demented. I couldn’t think of any better way to spend two hours. Very contented and almost exhausted from the exhilaration, I drift off to sleep.
I emerge sluggishly into wakefulness to find someone apologising profusely to me. He’s an off-duty pilot who is taking a free ride in the seat next to me, and he is clearly flustered that he has offended me in some way. His arms are flapping, and in his confusion he knocks a glass of water over me. I find it vaguely puzzling that he was apologizing to me before he spilled water on me but I’m still bleary-eyed with sleep and nothing is making much sense. The thing that does register is that I am wet, and so I start mopping myself with the nearest thing to hand: one of the many superfluous items of bedding with which airlines insist on burdening you. Soon, two hostesses gather round to do the same. Pleasant as it is to have them fussing over me, I shoo them away once the worst of the spillage has been cleared, and try to get some more sleep, making sure not to lie on my rather damp back.
- On 8 June 2013 at the Prince Charles Cinema as part of the Terracotta Far East Film Festival.
- Masquerade was the closing gala screening of the London Korean Film Festival in 2012.
- Also known as Shaman Gangster, 박수건달, Dir Jo Jin-gyu, 2013.