What would you do when faced with impending death? Would you cower in terror? Or would you kick death in the nuts, steal its gun, and demand its money?
Also known as Grandma Gangsters. Available online. Approximately 109 minutes.
Jung-Ja, Young-Hee, and Shin-Ja are women in their late sixties and early seventies…at least I am assuming that, we don’t really get their exact ages. Anyways, they have led hard lives and their current situations are not much better. The only upside is that Young-Hee’s cheating husband has finally died, though Shin-ja cannot help but cry anyways. That makes sense, though. Shin-ja, the youngest of the group, is rather soft and fragile, often prone to fits of panic. Young-Hee is the constantly surly one who is prone to anger, especially if someone calls her grandma aside from her actual grandson who cannot talk yet. Then there is Shin-Ja, whose somewhat happy-go-lucky demeanor is actually a sign that she has stopped caring.
For the past eight years, the three of them have been “saving up” money for a VIP tour package to Hawaii. Though some of this saving up involves menial labor, there is also shoplifting from stores and selling the stolen goods to other elderly folks. While, it seems at first that the three want to go to Hawaii simply to have one bit of fun in their lives, it turns out that the real reason is that Jung-Ja had a son who was given up for adoption (against her wishes) and sent to Hawaii. It is unclear how much Jung-Ja knows about him, but she wishes to meet him at least once.
Finally, they have managed to come up with enough money to buy the tickets, plus a tiny bit more just in case. They go to the…airport…travel agency…airport. Well, they go up to the Hawaii guy with a huge wad of cash and a bag of coins. Unfortunately, the company does not take cash; they will have to deposit the money in a bank and wire it.
The women go to the bank to deposit the money. Things are going well when a pair of armed and masked men (well, one of them is wearing a mask and the other has a gun) come in and rob the place, getting away with the women’s paper money and knocking one of them out in the process.
Well, nothing to worry about; their money is insured…or it would have been had the teller stamped the paper before the money got taken. The teller is embarrassed at her mishap, but all she can do is hand them back the coins, which constitute around 1.4% of the money. When the manager refuses to budge on policy, the women attack him and are subsequently thrown out of the bank. They consult a lawyer in hopes of suing, but he says that it is not a feasible case and then charges them for his time.
Out of options for getting their money back, they decide to look for the men who took their money. The only thing that they know is that he had a butterfly tattoo on his wrist. They consult Young-Hee’s son, who is in prison, and he asks around about the guy. Young-Hee eventually directs them to a certain area of the city. After some…trial and error, they track down the robber and tie him up in his apartment. Though he feigns ignorance at first, he eventually confesses that he was one of the robbers, but says that the other one took all of the money and ran off.
Jung-Ja suggests to her friends that they should rob the bank, but only to get the money owed to them. Shin-Ja, the youngest and softest of the three, rejects the idea immediately. Young-Hee is the coarsest of the group, but she also objects to the idea. Shin-Ja suggests that they just start over, and maybe they will be able to save up eight years later. And then, Jung-Ja drops the bomb: she recently found out that she has lung cancer and may very well not live another year. She will have no other chance to meet her son. So it is settled. They will have to force this man to teach them how to rob a bank and then rob the bank.
Not related to that Key & Peele sketch, this movie is supposedly a remake of a German movie from 2000 called Now or Never. I have not been able to track it down, but I would be interested to see how this compares. While I suppose that any country could theoretically make a movie like this, it takes a slightly different turn in East Asia. Confucianism has special significance in East Asian societies and there are specific ways that people are meant to interact with each other. With elders, it is not just a matter of showing respect, there is a code of conduct. Yet, it is not quite as ironclad as Westerners may think. The main source of comedy…and drama…from this movie is the complex nature of how the three women, and elders in general, are treated.
Privately, the women get little respect from their children, at least the ones who are not in prison. They get no respect in their workplace from men their children’s age. They get no respect from young people on the street who feel like they can get away with criticism. They most definitely got no respect from their late husbands. In public, however, people must show deference or get shamed. The women use this to their advantage at any opportunity that they get, sometimes exploiting it for all that it is worth. A slip of the tongue by a younger man regarding them can get him in trouble without them even knowing it. Confucianism has become an inconvenience to navigate around from some and an outmoded tool that can still have its uses for others. Like the elderly themselves, Confucianism is cynically misused, exploited, ignored and sometimes reluctantly obeyed. Thus, the women are tolerated until they die. Couple that with the tendency of the young to underestimate the will and abilities of their elders and that is a goldmine for comedy. And, believe me, this movie can get really funny. I realize that not much of the comedy is shining through in this post, but believe me.
Another aspect of the movie that may be specific to South Korea is the rather cynical and cutthroat nature of the society. If the women in the original Now or Never grew up in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, then they probably had tough lives that eventually got better. The women in Twilight Gangsters grew up in the 1940s South Korea. And that was a terrible time to be South Korean, which I had touched upon in my write-up on Parasite. When Japan had finally given up oppressing the country into modernity, the place was left in chaos and misery. Nevermind Confucianism, it was every man for himself. The brutal dictatorship fostered such cutthroat chaos, guiding such desperate hyper-competitiveness towards eventual national prosperity. That prosperity was not shared by everyone, though. The winners won a lot and the losers…they kept playing the game.
These three women grew up learning the value of crude, heartless survivalism at any cost. That is why they view the institutions around them as potential thieves and have little problem with stealing either. The overall conditions that caused their behavior may have largely disappeared, but the culture has not. Everything is a potential scam and everyone is prey and/or predator. No longer young, spry youths, these women are seen as weak and with little worth to society or anyone. They are burdens and victims. Even they have sometimes fallen into this mindset. Thus, while some of the funny parts come from them failing to act like badasses, the best parts are the times when they succeed.
Everything is a competition and the loser gets nothing but debts. Everything is fair game and nothing is fair. Rules are broken when convenient and enforced when more convenient. Family does not equal loyalty here. Confucianism does not enforce loyalty. Only loyalty is loyalty. These women have families, but those people are only family in the legal and biological sense. In reality, they have only each other. They can rely only on each other. With everyone else, it is give and take, with more take whenever possible, but more give being more likely. This robbery is their chance to get a big take after years of little takes and being taken from.
I highly recommend this movie. You will laugh, you will cry, you will smile, you will break out into laughter again. Seriously, this movie is great.
WTF ASIA 100: Parzania (India: 2005, approx. 115 minutes)
WTF ASIA 101: Heneral Luna (The Philippines: 2015, approx. 118 minutes)