The Story of a Gangster with a Heart of Gold

A Review of Man in Love (當男人戀愛時)

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Film Poster

MAN IN LOVE, adapted from the 2014 South Korean film by the same name, is an impressive first outing for director Yin Chen-hao. Yin notably entered the film industry after founding a production studio in graduate school, while studying chemistry. 

The film follows small-time gangster Ah-Cheng, a debt collector with a heart of gold. Ah-Cheng is reluctant to be too hard on individuals he is collecting debts from if they have extenuating circumstances, such as needing to pay for medical treatment for sick family members. Though the wild lifestyle of being a gangster suits him, the film quickly reveals that Ah-Cheng was himself originally pressed into working as a debt collector because of money that his brother owed and that Ah-Cheng often tries to give people he is collecting debt from more time or to keep other debt collectors from resorting to violence. 

Film Still

Ah-Cheng’s life changes, however, when he meets Hao-ting while on the job. Hao-ting, who works as a clerk at a farmers’ association, owes debt due to her hospitalized father. Hence her encounter with Ah-Cheng, who falls for her instantly. Ah-Cheng then tries to get closer to Hao-ting, offering her debt relief in exchange for going on dates with him.

Eventually, the initially cold Hao-ting warms up to Ah-Cheng, after seeing for herself that he is more than just a gangster. The movie takes care to show that Ah-Cheng is a filial son to his bus driver father, as well as to Hao-ting’s hospitalized father. As their relationship progresses, Ah-cheng decides that he wants to leave the gangster lifestyle behind and marry Ah-Cheng, but encounters resistance from the gangsters he works for. 

Man in Love is a well-executed film, not to mention a strongly performed one. The film is largely carried by Roy Chiu’s acting as Ah-Cheng, who he plays with aplomb, though Ah-Cheng’s character does not have the emotional depth that allows Chiu’s acting to shine as in 2018’s Dear Ex. Ann Hsu’s Hao-ting also strikes the right mix of a harsh exterior and a warm personality. The film’s other characters are surprisingly well-written—as a gangster boss that later runs for election, Chung Hsin-ling’s Madame Wang could easily be a caricature but Chung plays the role with suitable restraint—Wang ends up being a character with understandable motivations. 

If Man in Love is less than fully realized as a work, this is because it does not make a tonal shift that occurs midway in the film fully work. This occurs after Ah-Cheng is arrested and diagnosed with a cerebral aneurysm and realizes that he is at risk of dying. While some films manage to wring convincing emotional drama out of developing a charismatic character and killing them off or suggesting that they are dying, Man in Love does not manage this. 

Rather, Ah-Cheng’s diagnosis occurs simply to advance the dramatic action of the film, so that the film does not simply end with Ah-Cheng being released from jail and making up with Hao-ting in some way. This may not be a fault of the film, per se, seeing as this returns to the original source material. 

Film Poster

Nevertheless, some elements of the transition between the lighter, cartoonish, and comedic first half of the film and its serious second half are done well. For one, Roy Chiu and Chung Hsin-ling manage to achieve rather remarkable transformations in their characters, appropriate to the tonal shift. 

But the film’s second half fails to come together compared to the stronger first half, with much potential squandered for steering the film toward social commentary that would have cemented underlying thematics of the film. Indeed, despite some lines suggesting that an understratum of the film is that the characters are all disprivileged individuals struggling to make a living, burdened with debt in some form or another, this is never fully developed as an idea. Instead, the film seems to evidence a rather Confucian worldview, in which the redeeming characteristic of rough-mannered gangsters such as Ah-Cheng primarily is in their acts of filial piety. 

Though neither a comedy nor a tragedy, the film is not exactly a tearjerker, nor is it the funniest of films. Man in Love is not a perfect film, but it is a film with no glaring flaws, and which manages to get the job done.