The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
The 22nd Annual New York Asian Film Festival takes place between July 14 and July 30. For more information, click here.
If one were to judge simply from the title, it doesn’t seem too improbable that people would assume Bear Man was a super hero movie, or at the very least a super hero movie parody. And though there aren’t necessarily the familiar trappings such as glossy costumes or big budget special effects… sure, you could make a plausible argument. What most likely wouldn’t immediately come to mind is any kind of cop thriller. And yet… it kind of is. But at the same time… no it’s not, not really.
Bear Man is and isn’t a lot of things, but if it has to be just one thing above all else, let’s go with…entertaining.
Fascinatingly, the nonsense seeming premise of Bear Man has its roots in actual Korean myth: the legend of Ungnyeo, a bear who became a human woman after praying to the gods and eating a lot of garlic and mugwort. It’s all laid out in a stylish little animated intro that signifies the films’ charm offensive right out the gate.
In this modern burlesque, however, it becomes the story of a pair of bears who escape from captivity in 1997, stumble upon enough garlic and mugwort to make the transformation into men (both played by Park Sung-woong in a dual role), and are then separated and raised by very different parental figures.
Woongnom is brought up by his eccentric yet loving scientist dad, Na Bockcheon (Dal-su Oh), to become an affable sweetheart with a bottomless hunger and abilities far beyond those of normal humans.
Woongbok, in the other hand, is found in the wild by business mogul Lee Jeongsik (Min-su Choi) during a hunting trip. Jeongsik is the CEO of a corporation called Big History, which happens to be a front for drug smuggling and (go figure) black market biological weapon sales.
And has exactly the sort of parental disposition one might expect from the sort of malcontent who makes his entrance by grilling and eating a rare steak while talking to a crony, which as we all know is classic bad guy behavior.
To that end, Woongbok is essentially thrown into a pit of brutal thugs and forced to fight his way out, day after day, until through years of pain and suffering, he finally emerges having been forged into Daddy’s Perfect Little Weapon. He is gifted a wooden knife (and also a legacy of soul deadening trauma), and takes the new Lee Jeong-hak name his place at his fathers’ side as the heir apparent to a criminal empire that the law will stop at nothing to take down.
With that sort of backdrop, it’s obviously only a matter of time before the two bear men are reunited. But the path to that reunion is… deliriously, delightfully odd..
But then… you’d have to work hard to come up with a premise like ‘bears turn into identical twins on opposite sides of the law and then proceed to make something… normal out of it. It’d be an impressive feat and a truly disappointing one, both at the same time.
While the brevity (the film clocks in at a little over 90 minutes) and a surfeit of gonzo energy, the film never flags, but in some ways its at its most charming in the opening act, where we acclimate ourselves to Woongnom’s world. Somewhat at loose ends after getting fired (and somehow his job history is even more convoluted than his backstory), he wiles away the days using his enhanced senses to sniff out troublemakers at the convenience store where his best friend Malbong (Yi-Keong Lee), an aspiring vlogger, works the counter.
Misadventures with Malbong lead to an arrest, which in turn leads to Yoon Je Moon’s Chief of Police noticing the resemblance to Lee Jeong;hak, which leads… more or less to where you’d expect and/or hope.
It has to be said that it’s a decidedly curious version of the ol’ double up; the secondary role of Jhonghok doesn’t give Sung-woong much more to do other than look impassive and bust out a flurry of brutal beatdowns, slicing up all comers with that trusty wooden knife. It’s not quite Nicolas Cage in Adaptation we’re talking about here, but he more than gets the job done, looks good doing it, and most importantly, is never less than a joy to watch.
So, yeah… in theory you’d think this would be your basic undercover/mistaken identity caper… with an ursine twist. But in practice, that aspect of the plot mostly takes a backseat until pretty much the very end; director Park Sung Kwang and the cast are far more interested in goofing around and scribbling in the margins, and that’s really what elevates the film from a good idea well-executed to a cult classic just waiting to happen.
There are so many fun runners, weird digressions, and tossed off visual gags that the actual plot almost starts to feel like an intrusion; Choi really chews the scenery like it was one of his steaks as Jeong-sik, but he’s not really in this all that much. And the stuff with his plot to smuggle a super virus is such nonsense that it starts to feel like yet another gag. But I get the choice: why waste time trying to pretend there are high stakes when it’s way more fun to have a detective side character be forced to constantly be squatting as punishment by his superior, or just randomly have a character who showed up for ten seconds at the beginning of the movie show up during the exciting finale to try and take over Malbongs’ livestream?
…Oooh, I should be more careful; Bear Man really is one of those movies where just describing it to people is nearly as much fun as watching it. Granted, it’s not perfect; the two female roles are well-assayed by Baek Ju Hye and Han Da Sol but given very little to do, comparatively speaking. Still, even that feels like a minor flaw in light of how much sheer entertainment the movie is able to squeeze into a mere 90 minutes. It’s more fun than a pack of CGI warthogs.
Which is also a thing that is in the movie.