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[Herald Review] ‘Man of Men’ is a film that shouldn’t work but does, through power of character

Director Yong Soo’s first feature film, “Man of Men,” is a film that by all accounts shouldn’t work: It is far too familiar, far too obvious and far too sappy for a movie that came out in 2019.

Yet surprisingly, the buddy flick starring Sol Kyung-gu and Cho Jin-woong turns out to be pretty fun, buoyed by a mix of drama and comedy -- albeit pretty much by the book -- from the accomplished actors.

The film kicks off with gangster Yeong-gi, who embezzles his boss’s money to use in a stock investment that goes horribly wrong. Desperate for cash, he encounters Jang-su, a rich, terminally ill man who is paralyzed from the shoulders down. 

Man of men (Showbox)
Man of men (Showbox)

Jang-su offers Yeong-gi a deal in which he proposes handing over his life insurance policy -- worth more than enough to cover Yeong-gi’s blunders -- provided that Yeong-gi take care of him for the two months he has left to live. With the deal struck, the unlikely pair embark on a wacky journey.

The film reeks of the same odor as beloved films of the past. The plot is right out of the French film “The Intouchables,” while the idea of a wacky man setting out to fulfill his dreams before he dies smells like “Scent of a Woman” or the “The Bucket List.” The film is just covered in the fingerprints of others before it.

It is by no means a masterpiece, but it is pretty enjoyable based on a few elements that definitely work.

It starts with the cast. The supporting cast of Jin Seon-kyu and Heo Jun-ho is dependable, as always. Despite both of them having been stuck with one-dimensional characters, they manage to portray their traits effectively.

Sol was as effective as ever. By convincingly depicting someone standing on the edge while desperately trying to maintain his dignity, the veteran actor proved that his acting was not the reason for a series of recent flops.

Conflicted with the weight of his past sins, emotional scars from his loss, his character could very well have been predictable and dull, doused with sappy cheap emotions. But Sol’s presence and demeanor bring charisma and a relatable quality to the character.

While Sol is solid as a rock, it is Cho’s acting that I think will be the ultimate yardstick to measure whether the audience enjoys the film. While Sol -- who has had a tendency to erupt with emotion in his past works -- keeps it under control, Cho just lets it go. 

Man of men (Showbox)
Man of men (Showbox)

The part of Yeong-gi seems like it was made for Cho: an oversized thug from Busan who looks tough but has a secret soft spot. Cho is an actor with a face that can look threatening and friendly at the same time, and it helps that he is from Busan. Busan men have a reputation for being straightforward, bold and somewhat insensitive, yet kindhearted. Both Cho and his character are typical Busan men, which speaks to the Korean audience in particular.

The audience saw his potential in the 2011 picaresque “Nameless Gangster: Rules of Time,” in which he most convincingly depicted a Busan-based gangster.

On the downside, the character is extremely over the top and fairly one-dimensional. If viewers can look past this, I think they will find the film hilarious and be able to enjoy it. If it gets under their skins, it’s going to be a cringeworthy 116 minutes.

Regrettably, this film has no impressive female characters. The only one with enough screen time to warrant her name on the poster is Kim Sa-rang as Jang-su’s assistant, and her character is essentially pointless. Literally her only role is that of a loyal employee. Frankly, I think the filmmakers just wanted the presence of a gorgeous woman in an otherwise male-dominated film.

The director made some rookie choices, and some of the humor was very cheap and out of place. It is hard to say how much of the general public will enjoy the film, as it has definite ups and downs.

I’d say the people who will most enjoy the film are those with keen understanding of Korean culture who are not yet fed up with Cho’s acting, which has become pretty standard in the past few years. Speaking as one person, I thought it was pretty fun. Not awesome, but fairly OK.

“Man of men” opens in local theaters Oct. 2.

By Yoon Min-sik (