There’s something rather deceptive about A Man Who Was Superman. It opens as a comedy drama. Reality TV segment producer Jun Ji-hyun’s disillusioned with her job, sick of people, and longing for her absent boyfriend. In short, she’s basically a female version of any late twenties, early thirties male professional in a movie (well, movies until about ten years ago). She’s fine playing burnt out, maybe not deserving of the long time director Jeong takes to show her face (Jun’s a big star in Korea and this film is her first in a couple years).
The rest of the first act involves Hwang Jeong-min as a Superman of the street. He helps old ladies up with their bags, saves Jun from getting hit by a car and even finds missing puppies. Jeong frames these scenes as riffs on the Donner Superman, with Hwang occasionally cowlicked and frequently mimicking Christopher Reeve’s more famous physical poses. And it works. It’s kind of cute and it’s Hwang makes the whole thing a lot of fun. He has a great time in the role and he’s very likable.
It’s also somewhat interesting to see how the film gets around violating copyright–the music never even nears the John Williams realm, but there are a few times where it’s in a strangely identical neighborhood–and Lex Luthor only being referred to as “the bald villain” is good.
Eventually, the film veers into dramatic territory and never gets out. Obviously, if it’s not a screwball comedy and is going to actually examine why Hwang’s running around as a tropical-shirted Superman… it’s going to get into some dangerous (in terms of melodrama) territory. Somehow, A Man Who Was Superman so fully embraces that risk, it comes through clean.
The key is Jun. Her performance, restrained and passive, makes the whole film work as it progresses. It isn’t her ability to show the emotional turmoil the film’s events put the character through. Instead, it’s the way she let’s the viewer see the internal changes in her unmoving face. By the time she gets to have a big emotional scene, it’s entirely natural.
Jeong’s direction–and Choi Yeong-hwan’s cinematography–is unassumingly fantastic. Choi never gets glitzy, even in the more fantastic scenes, and Jeong keeps everything grounded. He mixes comedy and drama easily; where he excels is in his handling of the enthusiasm. A Man Who Was Superman could easily descend into goofy hyperbole, but never does. Jeong keeps it from flying out of control.
The film opens, rather amusingly, with a crystal starship much like the original Superman coming to earth. Combined with all those little moments, it’d be easy to see Jeong get carried away with the references (the non-trademarked ones). He doesn’t, even when it seems like he ought to run with them (he knows he shouldn’t).
I didn’t really know what to expect from A Man Who Was Superman–if only because the entire concept seemed like it couldn’t possibly work. It’s yet another quintessential Korean film, however. The beginning doesn’t let you expect the middle, much less the end. The film succeeds both because of Jeong’s script and Jun’s performance… it’s hard to imagine one without the other.
Directed by Jeong Yoon-chul; screenplay by Jeong and Yun Jin-ho, based on a story by Yoo Il-han; director of photography, Choi Yeong-hwan; produced by Yoo; released by CJ Entertainment.
Starring Hwang Jeong-min (Superman), Jun Ji-hyun (Song Soo-jung), Jin Ji-hee (Hee-jeong), Seon Woo-seon (Miss Kim), Seo Young-hwa (Hee-jeong’s mother), Kim Tae-seong (Bong), Park Yong-soo (Doctor Kim), Woo Gi-hong (Ha Soon-kyeong) and Kim Jae-rok (Lee So-ryong).