A Special Lady

The beautiful young women from the luxury whorehouse La Tête can represent the forbidden fruit for the Korean industrialists who frequent it – but this fruit turns out to have a bitter aftertaste when they are blackmailed, filmed by hidden cameras, by a criminal organisation specialising in loansharking. This activity provides the background for the lively action gangster movie A Special Lady, the writing and directing debut of Lee An-gyu.

While the gangland boss Mr. Kim is considering retiring, his right-hand lady Na Hyung-jung (the special lady of the title, played by Kim Hye-soo) also wants out of the gang. She has climbed the rungs of the organisation, going from mere prostitute to second-in-command under a different name, and she has a son living abroad who doesn’t know she is his mother; he only knows Kim to be his father. But there is no hope for escape. The henchman-in-chief of the organisation, the violent Im Sang-hoon (Lee Sun-kyun), has been in love with Hyung-jung forever, and he seethes with jealousy towards Kim; in addition, the corrupt district attorney Choi, also being blackmailed by one of their compromising videos, is willing to play everything to be out of their grip, interfering with the power play within the gang. In the meantime, a young rival boss, who has a score to settle, is plotting his revenge.

A Special Lady is an elegant and atmospheric neo-noir, in which we find two of the cornerstones of the genre. The first is the shadow of betrayal that always lies in wait in this world of ambiguous loyalties. The second is the one of desperate, ferocious, and bewildering loves. The relationship between the protagonist Hyun-jung and the gangster Song-hoon introduces a melodramatic romanticism which culminates in a finale vaguely à la Duel in the Sun. The melodramatic element in the movie is twofold, due to the issue of hidden and rejected maternity, linked to the presence of the secret son.

We are also witness to that constant of Korean cinema in recent years – a pessimistic gaze at the corruption that permeates the ruling classes in the nation; just think of films that have been released recently, like The Unjust and Veteran by Ryoo Seung-wan, Inside Men by Woo Min-ho, The Unfair by Kim Sung-je, The King by Han Jae-rim, The Mayor by Park In-je. In A Special Lady, the figure of the district attorney, Choi, provides the most dastardly villain of the entire collection.

Alongside Kim Hye-soo, her partner Lee Sun-kyun (the unforgettable policeman from Kim Seong-hun’s A Hard Day) shines. Externally civilised, but incapable of evolution, his Sang-hoon is a man trapped in a double loop, that of crime and love, his chest marked by a scar and a tattoo which are the two signs of love inscribed into his flesh. Lee Hee-joon (Sori: Voice from the Heart, FEFF18) brings to the character of Choi a convincing dose of down-to-earth evil. The young Kim Min-suk, who has won multiple awards as Best New Actor in various TV series, gives as much depth as possible to a character, the son, that would otherwise be one-dimensional.

But A Special Lady is Kim Hye-soo’s film in all respects. With short hair and bleached blonde, the diva (who was a guest at FEFF in 2007) delivers a stunning interpretation, in her coldness and self-assurance (“This isn’t a buy off or a negotiation. This is blackmail”) as well as in the pain which transpires from her tough and unlucky persona. A specialist in playing stark and dangerous ladies, Kim Hye-soo is not only the archetypal femme fatale, but she also portrays women capable of wielding power in the male-dominated world of Korean gangland (Tazza: The High Rollers, The Thieves, Coin Locker Girl). 

In well conceived action scenes, we see her eliminate reams of enemies in the most bloody of fashions, in one scene wielding a circular saw, and in another perpetrating a massacre that would make Kill Bill’s Uma Thurman green with envy – although without any of the latter’s invulnerability. And yet, it is most of all the love and the desperation we see in her eyes that leave the imprint on the spectator’s memory.

Lee An-gyu

Lee An-gyu worked as a crewmember on six films by Kim Jee-woon from 1998 to 2010, with credits ranging from script supervisor and art department staff to assistant director. He was also the assistant director on Lee Joon-ik’s 2010 feature Blades of Blood. He makes his directorial and screenwriting debut with A Special Lady, which won the Focus Asia Award at the 50th Sitges – International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia.
Giorgio Placereani
Film Director: LEE An-Gyu
Year: 2017
Running time: 91'
Country: South Korea