It’s hard to imagine a tougher man than Ji-wook Yoon (Seung-won Cha): a police officer whose preferred work method is to simply beat everybody up, preferably heroically on his own. But Yoon is not only at war with the criminals around him – a gang in particular has sworn revenge after he all but decimated them – he is also at war with himself. Because what he would really like to do is to live as a woman. He even tries to quit his job to start tranisitioning, but his plans don’t work out the way he wants it.
It’s weird writing this plot description/the review calling Yoon “he” throughout, but it’s also rather emblematic of the film that doesn’t really get into the gender politics of the premise but uses it as a gimmick. Thus, calling Yoon “she” would feel completely off, legitimating a very problematic approach. For the rest of this review I shall resort to “they”, even if that doesn’t sit right with me either.
Nevertheless, Hai-hil doesn’t only have strong (and pretty gory) fight scenes, but it’s engaging exactly because of the ambivalence it shows towards (trans*)gender issues. Though that engagement doesn’t come without pain about the often bad representation (at least judging from my pov as a European, cis woman and – hopefully – ally to trans* people).
Every once in a while the film touches on things that resonated well with me on an emotional level. I did buy into Yoon’s struggle with their own identity, Seung-won Cha really manages to transport the pain they feel, having to live life never able to express themselves accordingly. There’s also the moment where the film describes how you become a woman: “You’re a woman when you’ve grown immune against stares.” (And that in a film where the physical transition becomes the be-all end-all goal.) I found that sentence really striking, although I’m not sure I’d agree. But there is a lot to unpack there and it would be interesting to do so in more detail.
Other things were a little too clichéd for me, especially since the film never really gets into the depths that could be explored. And then, at the end, after watching Yoon fight for their place in the world, there’s a return to simple heteronormativity. That return reads more as a tragic loss for me than as a step back into the way things are supposed to be, but you could read it as either, I guess – making the entire thing highly problematic and not only because it’s yet another film where the trans* person is not allowed a happy ending.
I was also hoping that in the end, Yoon would be allowed to fight in the dress and eponymous high-heels they like to wear, reconciling their tough, hard-hitting “male” side with their female identity, but it was not to be. The film comes so close to subversion, but it never really gets there. Even when it is shown how much more rules women have to obey than men (no smoking, no drinking, no cursing, no eating too much, …), I never trusted that this was a deliberate call-out by the film or just something that they showed as the facts of life.
Put all together, Hai-hil poses interesting questions, but mostly through its failures in allying itself with the trans* community. And I’d much rather have a clear alliance that could be equally interesting without throwing the people it uses to make itself special under the bus.