What a Man WantsReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/04/19 22:03:39
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Somewhere in "What a Man Wants" is a really delightful farce that knows what to do with its female characters and plays with the dissatisfaction that everybody feels in a way that heightens both its screwball nature and possibilities. Instead, it bogs down for a while before getting to the really fun parts, and reduces interesting women to a way for the male characters to come around to something conventional.It takes place in Jeju, an island town known for its strong winds (the film's Korean title, "Ba-lam-ba-lam-ba-lam", translates to "Wind Wind Wind"), where Seok-gun (Lee Sung-min) drives a cab, though he once traveled the world designing roller coasters, in part because his wife Dam-deok (Jang Young-nam) was tired of the infidelity. They live next door to Dam-deok's brother Bong-soo (Shin Ha-kyun) and his wife Mi-young (Song Ji-hyo), who run a not-terribly-successful restaurant together. Seok-gun hasn't so much stopped cheating as slowed down, with his latest target Jenny (Lee El), a gorgeous new arrival to town who finds herself drawn to Bong-soo instead - and Bong-soo is stuck in enough of a rut that he's willing to be tempted. Circumstances, therefore, find Seok-geun in the strange position of trying to serve as his brother-in-law's conscience for a change, but Jenny is determined, even getting Mi-young to hire her at the restaurant to get close to her man.
"Circumstances" kind of does a lot of work in that description; screenwriters Bae Se-yeong and Jang Gyu-seong move the story from one lane to another with such a sharp turn that it smashes through the median, at which point the movie feels like it should absolutely fall apart. The plot advances in a cruel enough way as to make the viewer question director Lee Byeong-heon's ability to turn things around and get back to being funny. On top of that, the film becomes somewhat unbalanced, even with bits added that seem designed more to fill in the gaps rather than actually add to the story. Fortunately, director Lee is able to temper and use that choice to create a good feeling of melancholy rather than wallowing; the tragedy is not enough to make things mainly sad, but instead seems to spur people to more actively seek out happiness.
On top of that, there are some genuinely great comic bits. The opening sequence could be popped out and used as a great short on its own, for instance, as well as laying out the rest of the film in miniature. Other scenes are flirty and full of both innuendo and racy jokes that are a bit more direct than that. It's the middle segment when things start to really click into place that truly excels, to the extent that it probably should have been more of the movie. You can see the filmmakers playing with a toy or puzzle box that shifts into new configurations that are all funny without ever getting locked in, not necessarily trapping the characters in any position they can't recover from but still getting them in deep.
The filmmakers' ability to manipulate the situation is greatly abetted by a cast that can handle comic situations with sexy aplomb and also shift to something serious without losing what makes them funny. Lee Sung-min and Shin Ha-kyun switching up their expected roles early on proves both amusing and revealing - Lee playing up Seok-geun's inexperience at being the sensible one and Shin portraying Bong-soo's initial reluctance to be bold creates a feeling of guys playing against type no matter what the actors' other films may say, and they're able to play up how the infidelity and enabling of same are the flip sides of a certain masculine entitlement with just the right sort of lack of malice and honest confusion that lets the audience laugh in the hopes they'll get somewhere better. The ladies playing their wives don't get quite so much to work with - Jang Young-nam especially doesn't get much chance to be more than the killjoy spouse, although Song Ji-hyo gets more opportunities to be entertaining and playful as the movie goes on.
In a lot of ways, though, the movie hangs on what Lee El does in a part that in a lot of ways is built/cast to represent the film's English title. Jenny is sexy, smart, good at practically everything, and flirtatious enough to use her panties as a scrunchie while playing pool, but apparently not particularly filled with ambitions of her own beyond landing a middle-aged man who is already married. The film wouldn't be nearly as entertaining if Lee wasn't able to make Jenny feel so certain of her own desires and self. Ms. Lee makes Jenny more than the plot device that the movie needs her to be, to the extent that it actually hurts the movie a bit in the finale, when the audience may be more inclined to care how things wind up for her than Bong-soo and the screenplay has trouble accommodating that."What a Man Wants" is an entertaining romantic comedy despite that; the cast is charming and the story plays out better than it has much right to. If it was just as interested in what its women wanted as its men, it would be even better that the quite entertaining diversion it is.
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