Lee Myung-se’s (recently known for his visually stylistic film such as Nowhere to Hide (1999), Duelist (2005), and M (2007)) Gagman (1989) was his debut film, and is about the travails of Lee Jung-sae (Ahn Sung-ki) the titular gagman who has a thing for Charlie Chaplin and cinema. He wants nothing more to escape his current existence by directing a film but the only people he finds to help him are Moon Do-suk (Bae Chang-do) his barber and Oh Son-yong (Hwang Shin-hye) a young head strong (and good looking) female that he meets and ropes into his schemes. And schemes he does, and they turn serious (in a comic way!) when he comes across real guns and decides he will self finance his films. With various banks’ money.
This is not going to end well.
Honestly this is a hard film. On the one hand it is painfully unfunny and the various jokes within the film are very in-crowd, if that in-crowd is 1980s Korean film fanatics. Take it from me, that’s not a very big crowd. So either read Tony Rayns’ Seoul Stirring: 5 Korean Directors before watching, or watch it for someone who is well versed in Korean cultural history and particularly film rumors and goings on in the 1980s.
Jung-sae himself is also a tragic character, and yes lots of comedy comes from tragedy, but Lee is so misguided and lost in his own world you have to ask after his actual mental state. The interspersed scenes showing his comedy segments are not clearly spaced within the world and I have to think that it is just his own mind, playing to a crowd of one. He is uncomfortable in social situations, and his awkward interactions with Son-yong border on creepy. The Charlie Chaplin mustache doesn’t help anything either.
Lee Myung-se is known for his (tyrannical) attention to detail. And his later films have become visual love letters to cinema while leaving pesky things like sensible plot and decent scripts aside. The poor production value of 80s Korean cinema does him no favors here, but you can see bits of his visual brilliance poking out. The script and plot, like Lee’s other films, lack focus and sometimes coherence. This is by no means a bad film, in fact its a bit of Looney Tunes, a bit of Hollywood farce, a bit of film noir, and a bit of Taxi Driver all rolled into one.
This is a film about a man who loves film, and his growing dissatisfaction with his situation (and his love of his mustache) drives him further and further from sanity and deeper into tragedy. This is a film I am recommending, but only for someone going into it understanding that it is not a laugh a minute mad cap crime caper. It is a sad depiction of a man desperate to have his celluloid dream, because anything has to be better than the small life he is living.