South Korea. 2008.
Director – Jeong Yoon-chul, Screenplay – Jeong Yoon-chul, Joon Jin-ho & Kim Ba-da, Producer – Yoo Il-han, Photography – Choi Young-hwan, Music – Kim Hyeon-bo & Lee Han-na. Production Company – CJ Entertainment.
Hwang Jung-min (Superman/Lee Hyun-suk), Gianna Jun (Song Soo-jung), Jin Jee-hee (Kee Jung)
TV reporter Song Soo-jung decides to do a story on a man who helps others around the city. She interviews the man where he claims that he is Superman but that he has lost his powers because a villain has implanted Kryptonite in his head. Soo-jung accompanies the man as he goes about doing good deeds. In the course of doing so, she learns that the man suffers from amnesia following an accident that claimed his family.
A few years ago, we had a spate of films about Superheroes with no powers. These include the likes of the Disney animated film Bolt (2008) and then gained strength in 2009-10, a period that produced the Canadian-made Defendor (2009), the mainstream release of Kick-Ass (2010), the Australian Griff the Invisible (2010) and James Gunn’s Super (2010), even Superheroes (2011), a documentary concerning true-life instances of people who dress up as superheroes to fight crime. This fad seemed to have been kicked off by A Man Who Was Superman, although there had been earlier precedents with the like of Hero at Large (1980), Blankman (1994), Orgazmo (1997) and Special (2006).
These superheroes with no powers films can be divided into two types – Hero at Large, Blankman, Orgazmo, Super, Kick-Ass and Superheroes featured individuals who were trying to be superheroes, while Special, Bolt, Defendor and Griff the Invisible feature delusional individuals who think they actually are superheroes. A Man Who Was Superman falls into this latter category. Of these, A Man Who Was Superman most resembles Griff the Invisible and the demented Special where the exploits of the person who believe themselves a superhero are contrasted with the more mundane realities the rest of the world sees.
Out of these films, A Man Who Was Superman is more of a realist work than a superhero film. Rather than a film about people trying to be superheroes, it feels more like a typical South Korean romance (even if that is something that never happens between the two characters) where the male half happens to have a peculiar quirk, namely having a fixed delusion in his head. If anything, the model to point to would probably be the character played by Robin Williams in The Fisher King (1991).
I did like the constant play between what Hwang Jung-min thinks is superheroic behaviour and the mundane reality – in effect a Rationalised Fantasy – where his stopping a car with his heat vision turns out to be his using a mirror to reflect sunlight in the driver’s eyes; where the bullet in his head is rationalised as a shard of Kryptonite sent by Lex Luthor (who is only referred to as ‘the bald-headed villain’).
The film specifically draws on the Christopher Reeve Superman films – Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980) – as opposed to the comic-book Superman. This is particularly evident in a fantasy scene that has been set up to emulate the Daily Planet scenes from the first film with Hwang Jung-min as Clark Kent and Gianna Jun playing Lois Lane where she is even outfitted in clothes similar to what Margot Kidder wore. At another point, the two of them emulate the romantic flight through the sky scene from the first Christopher Reeve film, although in another of the film’s rationalised fantasies this turns out to be them body-surfing across a crowd of people.
The film comes down on the mundane side of the fantasy. There is the image of Hwang Jung-min putting on a water-doused cape to run into a burning building to rescue a girl and appearing to be able to fly near the end, only for this to have fatal consequences. The following scenes seem to show him as a superhero for real getting up and flying off, although these are revealed to only be a dying vision.
The end credits reveal that the story is based on a real-life man Lee Hyun-suk who was shot in the head in May 1980 but survived, suffering from epilepsy, leading to the delusion that he was Superman.
Elsewhere, Jeong Yoon-chul has made Marathon (2005) and Skeletons in the Closet (2007), as well as the subsequent Warriors of the Dawn (2017), all non-gene vehicles.