Saving My Hubby (Hyeon Nam-seob, South Korea, 2002)

A former volleyball star Geum-sun (Bae Doona) whose dreams and spirit have taken a knock after a shoulder injury ended her career is now a married housewife with a baby daughter and a nervous husband named Ju-tae (Kim Tae-Woo) who’s about to start his first day in a new job. So when Geum-sun learns that her husband’s in-laws plan a visit the following morning it’s a frantic rush to get their small flat ready. But later that evening Geum-sun gets an unexpected call from the owner of a seedy clip joint in town. He’s holding Ju-tae, who’s completely drunk having run up a huge bar bill and would she please come and collect her husband and pay up or else. So, strapping her daughter on her back Geum-sun sets out to rescue her hubby.

A charming and utterly beguiling comedy that plays like a cross between the Coen’s Raising Arizona and Scorsese’s After Hours. As Geum-sun wanders into the seedier part of late night Seoul in search of the dingy nightclub her husband’s being held in it isn’t long before she’s inadvertently triggered a gang war thanks to a carelessly flung tomato, been chased around the block numerous times by gangsters, menaced by an ominous figure in a black trenchcoat who’s clearly after her for something and found much needed help from some of the area’s homeless. At every turn the then 22 year old Doona demonstrates both dramatic skills and expert comedic timing (including a truly epic smackdown of her husband’s obnoxious boss) that has us feeling every high and low of her nocturnal adventure. It’s a real star-making performance and one well supported by both Kim Tae-woo as the hilariously immature husband whose behaviour at the club drives even his captors to distraction and the adorable baby girl whom Doona carries on her back. Only once does the director use a close up of the baby smiling but he chooses his moment carefully and when he does it’s a crowd-pleaser. What could easily have been a shapeless knockabout comedy turns out to have substance and meaning. After establishing Geum-sun as immature and ill prepared for parenthood we see her character rise to the challenge and the real satisfaction of the film is in seeing this woman get her groove back. Director Nam-seob doesn’t make it easy for her and gives the comic scenarios a hard edge. He strikes realist notes in depicting the harsh treatment meted out to immigrant women at the mercy of exploitative employers during his heroines journey through the city’s dark underbelly and juxtaposes these with splendid impressionistic visual metaphors. The climactic showdown between Geum-sun and the nightclub manager he stages as a fantasy volleyball match between hero and villain complete with cheerleaders! It sounds bonkers but it works really well and makes perfect sense because by then we understand it’s the skills Geum-sun learnt in her former career that are going to see her through. Oh, and that menacing figure in the black trenchcoat? Well, it would spoil things to give away exactly what he wants but let’s just say that his eventual meeting with Geum-ja is as charming as everything else in this beaut of a movie.