My Wife is a Gangster 3 (South Korea, 2006)

In many respects, My Wife is a Gangster 3 delivers all the mediocrity that one would expect from a second sequel that has been produced with the intention of milking whatever commercial value is left from the audience goodwill generated by the original film.  The fitfully amusing My Wife is a Gangster (2001) is still one of the most successful comedies of all time at the South Korean box office, but its premise (female crime boss must balance breaking bones with domestic duties) was so slight that My Wife is a Gangster 2 (2003) had to add the narrative element of amnesia in order to keep things moving.  However, this third series entry is of interest as an example of pan-Asian star appeal as returning director Jo Jin-kyoo replaces series lead Shin Eun-kyung with the ubiquitous Shu Qi, a Taiwanese actress who is mostly associated with Hong Kong productions, but has also worked in China, Taiwan and on the fringes of the Hollywood mainstream.  Shu possesses what Kenneth Chan in his 2009 book Remade in Hollywood: The Global Chinese Presence in Transnational Cinemas terms a ‘flexible citizenship’ in that she is one of a growing number of Asian stars who are able to, ‘shuttle between Hollywood, Hong Kong, and wherever film production and promotion takes them.’  Chan uses such martial arts superstars as Jackie Chan and Jet Li alongside Heroic Bloodshed icon Chow Yun Fat as examples of this trend, but the term is also applicable to Shu, an undoubtedly alluring screen presence who has cried or kicked her way through films by directors as diverse as Mabel Cheung, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and the Pang Brothers.  Also, as the model for Kenzo from 2006-2009, Shu has transcended cultural barriers within the field of commerce, with her image serving to sell perfume to women who may never have watched any of her movies.

Although she has received above-the-title billing since the late 1990s, Shu has never quite achieved the critical adulation of such prominent Asian actresses as Gong Li or Maggie Cheung, and her rise to international stardom has not been as meteoric as that of Zhang Ziyi.  However, she has still featured in over sixty films since 1996, racking up credits across a variety of genres. Shu successfully escaped from the exploitation ghetto after making early appearances in such soft-core films as Sex and Zen II (1996) and The Fruit is Swelling (1997), winning critical respect for the Hou collaborations Millennium Mambo (2001) and Three Times (2005), and making a box office breakthrough with the assistance of Corey Yuen’s choreography in So Close (2002) and the English-language crossover The Transporter (2002).  In 2010 alone, Shu starred with Aaron Kwok in Benny Chan’s nonsensical science-fiction extravaganza City under Siege, while taking on love interest duties opposite Donnie Yen in Andrew Lau’s handsomely mounted period piece Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, then returned to mainland China to reprise her role of a lovelorn airline stewardess in Feng Xiaogang’s If You Are the One 2, the sequel to one of the biggest Chinese box office hits of 2008.  Shu’s ‘flexible citizenship’ has enabled her to gradually build a loyal audience around Asia and in the West, often alternating her screen identity depending on whether the taste of the primary market is controlled by a politically sensitive Film Bureau (China), allowed to be comparatively open-minded (Hong Kong) or interested in more artistic explorations of Asian exotica (the international film festival circuit, which welcomed Shu as member of the jury at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival).

My Wife is a Gangster 3 casts Shu as Lim Aryong, the daughter of Hong Kong underworld figurehead Boss Lim (Ti Ling), but rather than simply enjoying a life of luxury and the protection of her father’s staff, Aryong has become skilled in both martial arts and swordplay.  When the head of a rival crime family is murdered, Aryong is incorrectly identified as the killer, so her father decides that it would be best for her to leave Hong Kong until he can clear up the matter, rationalising that, ‘a storm should be avoided.’  Aryong agrees to lie low, but only on the condition that she can choose the country; she picks South Korea and flies out to Seoul with the intention of finding her mother who relocated there when she was a child.  Boss Lim’s contact in Seoul assigns the task of hosting Aryong to Ki-chul (Lee Beom-su), an enthusiastic but inexperienced gangster who shares a house with two useless minions (Oh Ji-ho and Choi Min-su) and is belittled by his boss with such statements as, ‘It’s idiots like you who make people hate gangsters like us.’  Ki-chul claims to have previously been involved in trading (i.e. – smuggling) activities with the Chinese, but realising that his limited grasp of Mandarin is insufficient for dealing with the difficult Aryong, the reluctant host hires translator Yeon-hee (Hyeon Yeong).  However, the translator is so intimidated by working for gangsters that she turns negative exchanges into positive comments to avoid awkwardness, only causing more confusion and misunderstanding.  Matters become more dangerous when Choi Kuk Chong (Ken Lo), an arch rival of Boss Lim, hires a nameless female assassin (Lee Ki-yong) and her team to take out Aryong, forcing Ki-chul and his guest to hide out at his parent’s house before Aryong heads back to Hong Kong to settle the score once and for all.

After importing his star attraction from Hong Kong (both narratively and professionally) and establishing her character’s swordplay skills in a nicely staged opening sequence, Jo subsequently seems unsure what to do with her, as the mid-section of My Wife is a Gangster 3 emphases the antics of Ki-chul and his crew over the familial dilemma of Aryong.  Much mugging ensues as Ki-chul attempts to assert his authority over both his minions and his unwanted house guest, while Aryong simply sits around until the hit squad turns up to inject some much-needed action into the pedestrian proceedings. While the culture-clash comedy that results from Aryong and Ki-chul’s enforced time together is not exactly a model of commercial cinema, it does provide some amusing insight into the haphazard nature of translation once Yeon-hee has been hired; Aryong’s blunt refusal to explain the reason for her visit to Seoul is translated as a desire to make new friends and try the local food, while the threat of death if the task of finding her mother is not carried out successfully becomes a promise of reward, and ‘let me know if anyone bothers you’ is conveyed as the considerably more critical, ‘don’t get your asses kicked, chickenshits.’ Shu remains calm and cool while her co-stars chew the scenery, which is appropriate enough as she is playing daughter of a crime boss, but also indicative of the differences between Hong Kong and South Korean cinema with regards to this kind of the material.  The fact that neither Aryong or Ki-chul are romantically attached, yet are the leading characters in a My Wife is a Gangster instalment, is a fair indication of where their mismatched relationship is eventually heading, but Shu and Lee have little chemistry and the eventual marriage proposal is almost as business-like as the manner in which this project was probably assembled.

Jo has chosen to alternate between action and comedy, rather than to combine the two, which is an acceptable approach on a scene-by-scene basis, but one that ultimately undermines the entertainment value of the film as a whole; the one half-hearted effort to mix excitement and humour is a sexualised car chase with Aryong and Ki-chul bumping and grinding down the back streets of Seoul with the hired killers in pursuit.  The scenes that feature Ling and Lo as underworld bosses offer a fair approximation of the Hong Kong crime genre with the veteran actors trading tough talk in opulent surroundings, while the South Korean scenes are less stylised, leaving more room for knockabout comedy, such as Aryong instructing Ki-chul on the best way to inflict pain with a baseball bat.  This leads to an overall impression that two movies from different territories have been spliced together, with Jo unfortunately emphasising the differences between Hong Kong and South Korean cinema, rather than attempting a synthesis of the two styles.  Fortunately for the director, his leading lady seems quite enthusiastic about appearing in a South Korean film, and Shu gamely participates in a lot of local humour before turning on the waterworks when Aryong realises that her mother now has a new family, then slices and dices her way through an efficient finale which struggles to find room for Lee’s comic relief. My Wife is a Gangster 3 is not the slickest vehicle for Shu’s talents and the star swiftly shuttled back to Hong Kong to appear in Alexi Tan’s Blood Brothers (2007) and Danny Pang’s Forest of Death (2007).  However, by offering her a role that requires as much ass-kicking as emoting, this attempt to revive a flagging franchise does at least succeed in summarising Shu’s star identity, even if it is an otherwise painfully uneven pan-Asian package.