When it comes to body-swap films, there’s always that vibe of ‘been there, done that, bought the t-shirt’. Whether it is Freaky Friday, Vice Versa or The Change-Up, it relies on the same formulaic (and often predictable) principles to navigate its story. But if Hyo-jin Kang’s The Dude in Me proves anything, there’s still life in the body-swap genre.
It’s easy to be cynical about its expectations. The Dude in Me doesn’t pretend to ‘re-invent the wheel’ because you know exactly what you’re going to get. At times, it’s a hodgepodge of different genres mixed in together – comedy, drama, family, coming of age, romance and action (with an exercise montage to boot). But in its audacity, it has the confidence to pull it off.
After a slow, conventional start, it begins like a gangster movie. Pan-Su (Sung-woong Park) is a high flying CEO and ruthless gangster who believes every problem can be solved violently. He has meticulous living standards, is sharply dressed, and runs a tight ship.
So how does the change occur? Well, there’s no mystical McGuffin, magical wishing dust, an ancient arcade machine or a fountain. In something akin to Beauty and the Beast, there’s a mysterious lady, who happens to be in the right place and the right time serving ramen at the same time as the Dong-hyeon (Jinyoung Jung) and his uncontrollable appetite. One calamitous accident later and Pan-su wakes up in Dong-hyeon’s body.
This is where The Dude in Me starts to enjoy its complicated wackiness. Going back to school while managing a criminal empire and stopping a coup-like takeover by your brother is one thing. Fending off Dong-hyeon’s school bullies is another. But imagine attending the school with a teenage girl who happens to be your daughter! In all of its ruthless shenanigans, The Dude in Me treats its complication like something out of It’s a Wonderful Life – an opportunity to get to know the daughter he did not know he had and reconnect with the love of his life and mother of his child Mi-seon (Mi-ran Ra). And in true Korean classic, it gets awkward pretty fast in its punchline delivery and takes advantage of every situation so Pan-su can fix all the wrongs in his life.
Most body swap films are equally weighted, meaning the affected characters get a ‘taste of their own medicine’ in adapting to their newfound swapped circumstance. The Dude in Me re-jigs that balance by placing more of its narrative weight on Pan-Su as Dong-hyeon. Strange? Yes, considering that it massively affects the dynamics for the other character, treated more like a third act revival to quickly wrap up the film. But to counterbalance, the shared dynamic wouldn’t have offered anything new. By focussing on Pan-Su, it’s a small attempt to refresh the genre, and if we didn’t get that, we would have missed out on an excellent performance by Jinyoung Jung.
Going from a timid, introverted and nerdy high schooler to a confident and violently assured gangster trapped in a teenager’s body is not an easy transition. But Jung’s Clark Kent/Superman-like performance handles that significant change impressively. There’s no doubt that the film’s best moments belong to him, especially in scenes where he’s clearly the ‘adult’ in the room.
But no good comedy is without substance, and Hyo-jin Kang injects some heartfelt moments that shifts between melodramatic soap opera and reflective second chances. Balancing that shift doesn’t always work, especially when it’s already overstuffed with so many genre conventions, but at least it is an attempt to build some empathy for its leads.
But overall, Kang’s film respects the journey despite its guessable moments. It expects its audience to accept its mad-cap, silly adventure, even if it does lose momentum towards its end. But like all good jokes and sharp one-liners, the laughter comes in waves, and if there is one thing that is for certain, at least you will have an entertaining ride with it.
THE DUDE IN ME is screening as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. For screening details and ticket availability, please visit their website for more details.