After directing and writing few coming of age and young adults love plots, thirty something director Lee Byeong-heon moves his target a notch up in age with this grown-up comedy rated 18+, “What a Man Wants”.
Seok-geun (Lee Sung-min) is a middle-aged taxi driver with a past of roller coaster designer, an omen of fun and turmoil rolled in one. He is in fact an incurable womanizer with an excess of testosterone and an unquestionable charm. Women looking for the kind of fun that isn’t related to roller coasters seem to inevitably end up in his gravitational area. Surprisingly, his sweet wife Dam-deok (Jang Young-nam) is allegedly oblivious and happy to believe any lie and story he makes up. Moreover, their sexual life doesn’t seem to suffer; on the contrary, Seok-geun is convinced his infidelity helps to spice up their under-the-sheets activity.
Another married couple lives very close to them; Seok-geun‘s sister Je-ni (Song Ji-hyo) and her husband Bong-soo (Shin Ha-kyun) share the same building, but in terms of couple dynamics, could not be farther away. She is a strong-willed woman and knows how to convince (or manipulate) her husband, while Bong-soo is a gentle man with a strong sense of loyalty but also very frustrated and unhappy. He has a passion for Chinese cuisine and has been studying and practicing his very personal fusion touches. The problem is Je-ni has the power of money and is stubbornly obsessed in keeping their unsuccessful and impersonal Italian restaurant and its young Chinese cook (Go Joon), as handsome as untalented. Poor Bong-soo works reluctantly as a waiter, getting more and more frustrated and dreaming of taking over the business.
Enter the beautiful and sexy bombshell Mi Yeong (Lee El). Seok-geun has his eyes on her but unpredictably, she chooses Bong-soo and is determined to work her way into his bed and his heart. When a terrible karma catches up with Seok-geun, things start to get messy and complicated with both comic and dramatic results, and in the end the protagonists will be forced to a long overdue introspection and re-assessment.
Director Lee Byeong-heon is familiar with the genre and directs with confidence this light and easy comedy – more Sexy than Romantic – that addresses married couples dealing with the symptoms of marital fatigue. To be honest, the film’s answer to that impasse seems to lie exclusively on cheating each other and the characters don’t restrain from exploring all the modality of it, serial cheating, committed cheating, fun cheating, consolatory cheating and so on. But let’s not take it too seriously and think of it as a McGuffin for comedy and considerations about marriage. At the centre of the film, as the title suggests, is the couple of brothers in law. They are two stereotypes we have already seen other times in other movies but their interaction and opposition is genuinely funny; they are a good comedy duo and they – together with stunning-and-smart Lee El – carry the whole movie on their shoulders keeping it entertaining along the way.
The slick and modern set is – refreshingly – miles away from predictable Seoul. We are in Jeju Island, a location that is often seen in films that involve endless canola fields and women fishing abalone. It makes a nice change and the bright light of the island sky adds a cool and contemporary aura to the film. Moreover, the confined setting helps to detach the story from a harsh reality of a busy city and enhances the quirkiness that is typical of islanders, aided by a pleasant jazzy score. The original title translates “Wind Wind Wind” and refers to the characteristic gale of Jeju Island. It is a much better title in my opinion, as it also winks at the uncontrollable impulses that drag the characters, but I guess a title as assertive and didactic as “What a Man Wants” is more box-office-oriented although, in #metoo times, it risks of sounding slightly off-putting (it was for me before watching it).
All in all, despite playing heavily with stereotypes, “What a Man Wants” manages not to sink in the rom-com predictability pond. With its many intriguing twists and turns of the plot, relatable characters and a decent script, here you have a film part “buddy movie” and part French comedy of errors with a distinctive Woody-Allen-esque flavour.