"I hate people! Especially crazy ones... That's why I'm a chain smoker and am losing my hair."
Soo-jung has spent the past three years working as a television programme maker, specialising in human interest stories, but her hatred of people, the long hours spent faking tear-jerking documentaries and not having been paid for three months have all pushed her to the end of her tether. She smokes incessantly, her hair is falling out and she has started to hear the voice of a narrator ringing in her head, commenting on her every move. To save her sanity she decides to quit her job (taking a camera in lieu of the money she’s owed), travel to Africa and earn enough money from filming lions to enable her to join her boyfriend who is in Mongolia helping the locals. However, after falling asleep at the tube station she wakes to find that the camera has been stolen and while chasing after the thief she is almost run over, only being saved by the intervention of a strange man in a Hawaiian shirt. When asked who he is, the man insists that he is Superman and claims that a bald villain has put Kryptonite in his head resulting in the loss of his powers - all of which leads Soo-jung to conclude that he is “a total nutcase” - but when doctors subsequently discover that there really is some foreign object in his brain she realises that she may have stumbled on the greatest story of her career...
Even though A Man Who Was Superman is dedicated to the memory of Christopher Reeve it is far removed from the superhero popcorn fest that the title suggests, and is instead a much deeper, more intricate and ultimately moving character study. In the early stages the film plays as a gently funny comedy which gradually shifts in feel to become a more serious, emotional drama as our Superman’s story unfolds. This transition is accomplished smoothly with the two genres complimenting each other and each, in fact, succeeds in making the other stronger and even more engaging. Scenes of Superman in action are shown both from his perspective as a superhero doing his duty and from Soo-jung’s view of a powerless man selflessly putting others before himself, and as these scenes present themselves as slightly wacky and endearingly funny on first viewing but have an underlying poignancy which can only truly be appreciated on subsequent viewings (when viewers are aware of Superman’s full history), A Man Who Was Superman is a film which really benefits from being watched more than once.
The idea that our perception of the world (and our place within it) is the cumulative result of our past experiences, our interactions with others and extraneous forces over which we have little, or no, control is a recurring theme within A Man Who Was Superman and this is shown to be the case for both of the main characters, albeit from different starting points.
When we first meet our Superman we find a happy, caring individual who sees himself as a friend to all humans and takes everything the world throws at him in his stride, as superheroes do, but as we gradually get to know him it becomes increasingly clear that although he cannot consciously remember his past it still plays a large part in shaping his psyche, his need to protect and "save" humanity and his desire to change the future for the better. As health issues increasingly affect him, again linked to his past (with direct reference to the civil unrest at Gwangju), our Superman's forgotten memories are brought crashing to the forefront of his mind and almost everything about him alters drastically as a result, right down to his personality - his happiness is replaced with despair and as his love of humanity and life itself is replaced with feelings of utter loss, helplessness and numbness. In his case ignorance really is bliss.
Conversely Soo-jung begins the film as a bitter individual who dislikes humanity intensely (once again past experiences are also implied here) and as such she is willing to do whatever it takes to get exactly what she wants. A perfect example of this is her on the spot decision to go to Mongolia simply because her boyfriend is too busy helping others to come home to her, and when she first meets the man claiming to be Superman she sees him as nothing more than a ready-made human interest story which will enable her to do just that.
However, as the two characters get steadily more involved in each others' lives their interactions affect each of them directly, with Superman's empathy and need to help others enabling Soo-jung to learn to care for perhaps the first time in her life and her caring about him, in turn, resulting in him being able to eventually rediscover what his "mission" really is.
No discussion of the main characters or themes present would be complete without mentioning the roles of Hee-jung and Ji-yung (Superman's closest friend and his daughter respectively). In having both parts played by the same actress (Jin Ji-hee) director Jeong Yoon-cheol expertly links Superman's past directly with his present in viewers' minds and, as such, both characters stand as metaphors for the humanity he is so desperate to protect and his efforts to make sure that Hee-jung is safe are equally a catharsis of his past failure to help and the trigger to the culmination of his present story.
Films which reference social commentary and plotlines which detail the necessity for connection and interaction, as alluded to in A Man Who Was Superman, are relatively common (certainly in South Korean cinema) but they are delivered here with such heart and genuine warmth (helped even more by exemplary performances from a talented cast) that they never feel forced or contrived. Though A Man Who Was Superman ends in a heartbreaking way it is also life-affirming and, in some respect, both of the main characters manage to find what they have been searching for (whether they realise that they were searching for it or not) by letting others into their lives and trying to make things better for those around them rather than living self-obsessed existences.
Hwang Jung-min, as the Superman character, gives perhaps the best performance that this reviewer has ever seen in a leading male role. His portrayal is stunning and infectious, from the first scenes to the last, in a way that is not easily forgotten. As a result it is almost impossible not to warm to the character and as his life begins to fall apart the empathy which has been built throughout the film makes watching him trying to cope utterly heartbreaking.
Jeon Ji-hyun, as Soo-jung, has a much less involved part to play than Hwang Jung-min and though she appears in almost every scene her place in the film is very much as a supporting character. That said, and in spite of the fact that she isn't given much opportunity to really flesh out the character of Soo-jung, her understated portrayal and her ability to convey exactly what her character is feeling with just a look or a tiny gesture makes for a great performance and on the couple of occasions that she is allowed to fly (please excuse my choice of words) with her portrayal – especially towards the end of the film – she succeeds in making the role totally her own.
Jin Ji-hee, playing the roles of both Hee-jung (Superman's closest friend) and Ji-yung (Superman's daughter) is, as always, right on the mark and the chemistry she has with Hwang Jung-min makes his need to help her at any cost beautifully bittersweet and completely believable.
A Man Who Was Superman is a moving character study showing the frailties of the human mind and the resultant effects of both physical and emotional trauma. A film which ultimately acknowledges that our perceptions and feelings about the world we live in are largely dependent on extraneous forces over which we have little control but that, whatever our past, we always have the ability to change the future for the better.
Both heartbreaking and heartwarming A Man Who Was Superman successfully reminds us of the things that are truly important in life.
Actor ... Character:
Hwang Jung-min ... Superman
Jeon Ji-hyun ... Song Soo-jung
Jin Ji-hee ... Hee-jung/Ji-yung
Kim Tae-seong ... Bong
Do Yong-goo ... Chief
Seon Woo-seon ... Miss Kim
Seo Young-hwa ... Superman's wife
Park Yong-soo ... Doctor Kim
Woo Gi-hong ... Ha Soon-kyeong
Director: Jeong Yoon-cheol
The DVD used for this review is the Korean Region 3, Limited Edition, Final Cut, which has an anamorphic transfer presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio for the main film and 1.33:1 full screen for the extras. The picture is incredibly clear with good colour balance throughout and is free of ghosting and image artifacts. The sound is a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0, both of which are crisp and compliment the high quality of the images beautifully. Excellent subtitles are provided for the main feature but English speaking viewers should be aware that there are no English subtitles available for any of the extras.
A Man Who Was Superman (DVD) (Final Cut) (Limited Edition) (Korea Version)
(Also known as: A Man Once a Superman)
Subtitles: English, Korean
Country of Origin: South Korea
Picture Format: NTSC
Disc Format(s): DVD - Single Disc
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic for the main feature, 1.33:1 Full Screen for the extras
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0
Region Code: 3
Publisher: C J Entertainment
Theatrical Trailers/ Promotional material