I don’t know how to feel about Man on High Heels. Not because it has the complexity of a Silence or the mystery of a Mulholland Dr. but because it breaks new ground, and I’m not sure it does so in the right way.
One paragraph in and a good time to back up: Man on High Heels, or High Heel (하이힐), is a 2014 South Korean movie that no one really talked about. It tells the story of a police detective with a penchant for flashily beating up criminals, Yoon Ji-wook, who wants to put one more crime boss away before quitting the force. The reason for this early retirement is that Ji-wook is a transgender woman and wants to transition.
This is an action movie where the main character and the one dishing out the choreographed punishment identifies as transgender. I cannot think of any other action movies where the main character fits on the LGBTQ spectrum aside from maybe Skyfall. (Some people have said Deadpool’s lead was bisexual, but I don’t remember any scenes that confirm that, so I’m leaving that open for you to decide.)
That is a big cultural landmark, particularly in South Korea where, based on available surveys and current legal standings, the popular view on LGBTQ rights is about where the US was in the 1990s. So why do I not know how to feel about it?
For one, there is a dearth of trans viewpoints in the making of this movie. Yoon Ji-wook is not played by a trans woman. Ji-wook is played by Cha Seung-won, a fairly popular cis male actor and model in South Korea (and the narrator in the Korean dub of Minions). And Man on High Heels is written and directed by cis male Jang Jin. And as far as I have been able to tell, none of the actors in the film are trans. But throughout the movie, Man on High Heels takes a very detailed look at the life of someone in transition.
As I run through the plot, I will try to avoid using pronouns when talking about Ji-wook because I am not sure how to gender this character. For much of the movie, it is not clear Ji-wook identifies as a woman or identifies as a woman yet. Ji-wook takes hormones while working at the police department and is scheduling a series of surgeries at the beginning. But it is not until this decision that Ji-wook meets Bada, played by Lee Yong-nyeo, a trans woman who was a Marine, like Ji-wook. Through meeting Bada, she advises Ji-wook on how to be a woman, from attitude to dress. Bada even draws a starting point for Ji-wook, saying once Ji-wook feels comfortable out in public dressed as female, she will truly be a woman.
It is moments like these where Man on High Heels starts to pick at what it is like to be a trans person. There is less attention on the physical, though that is discussed, and more the emotional. Ji-wook talks about inner femininity and Ji-wook’s large physique and career choices are a way to embrace powerful masculinity to combat this. It goes a step beyond many cis people’s attempts to describe being transgender as just wearing clothes and changing one’s name.
In truth, Man on High Heels is more of a drama than an action movie. It starts with an amazing fight scene (save for the bad digital blood) and there are two more sprinkled in but the core of the movie is Ji-wook’s personal story. We also see Ji-wook flash back to a childhood romance with a male classmate which carries over as Ji-wook looks after that boy’s sister. This movie has a lot of solidarity and compassion for Ji-wook and the transition.
But it may have limits as a movie made by cisgender people. There is one joke about an ugly woman who insists she pretends to be trans because she is too ugly to be a “real” woman. Ji-wook cycles between pronouns and gender identification. Man on High Heels also tries to make a number of small winks to other matters of gender. Close attention is paid to how Ji-wook’s body is altered through surgical metal rods in bone. The main villain Heo-Gon, played by Oh Jung-Se, says he admires Ji-wook because he is a “real man” and multiple characters talk about threatening others by cutting off penises, breaking balls, and other male genital-related innuendo. Director Jang Jin is known for having a dark sense of humor and weaves in jokes and references but this straddles the line between laughing with and laughing at.
Now comes the larger goal of this article: I am not trans. The friends of mine who have seen this movie are not trans. No LGBTQ publications, that I have found, have either seen Man on High Heels or written about it. This movie makes a number of presumptions about what goes through the mind of someone in transition, and I don’t know if this is a novel, honest look at the issue on film, especially an action movie from a major studio, or just an attempt to be flashy. In other words, I do not know if this is “woke” or “problematic,” especially with the ending which I will not spoil.
No one should be forced to share their experiences or be a teaching moment for someone else. Here is a film that is one of a kind for its lead and tone and I think it deserves at least some analysis and discussion. And it is an entertaining movie, even if the details of the mob plot are a little hard to follow.
Featured Image: Lotte Entertainment