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NYAFF: Bear Man, A Renovated Myth That Inspires And Amuses

Bear Man is part of the 2023 New York Asian Film Festival, running from July 14th until July 30th at Lincoln Centre and at the Barrymore Film Center in Fort Lee, the birthplace of the motion picture industry in America. The prestigious kermesse has now reached its 22nd edition with an impressive selection of films from Hong Kong, Japan, China, South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Singapore, Vietnam, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The film Bear Man is inspired by an ancient legend that is introduced with an enchanting animation. According to the Danggun myth, bears become humans after eating garlic and mugwort.

Comedian and rapper Park Sung-kwang convinced Park Sung-woong to act in this film, when he asked to direct him and presented the amusing script that was written especially for him, so he could play the two humanised-twin-bears. Thus, Park Sung-woong becomes both Woong-nam — a former cop who participates in a joint investigation to catch an international crime organisation — and Lee Jeonghak, a gangster within this very organisation. It doesn’t surprise that the entire operation is called “Mission Doppelgänger.” 

The live action of Bear Man begins in 1997, with two twin cub bears, who are managed by the National Institute Of Species And Life Sciences, and mysteriously disappear after eating mugwort and garlic. Cut to 25 years later, Na Woong-nam (Park Sung-woong) is in the company of his YouTuber friend Mal-bong (Lee Yi-kyung), who creates content with the intent of expanding his platform of followers. Woong-nam has grown surrounded by the love of his mother Jang Kyung–Sook (Yeom Hye-ran) and his father Na Bok-cheon (Oh Dal-soo). On the other hand Lee Jeonghak (Park Sung-woong again!) has been raised as a criminal machine by a Mob Boss (Choi Min-soo), who uses a threatening call to keep him under his thumb. It is clear that the twin-human-bears grew up leading very different lives. One day, Na Woong-nam will be reinstated in the police and trained by a policeman (Lee Jung-sik) and police woman Yoon Na-ra (Baek Ji-hye), to bring to completion a special mission that will allow him to rekindle with his long lost bear-brother.

Bear Man explores family themes and the importance of nurture, as well as showing that it is never too late to receive it. The film shares these values as it is sprinkled with a variety of amusing situations, mostly based on physical comedy. Just like bears, these two exceptional humans have enhanced senses of hearing and smell, which gives way to entertaining circumstances. They maintain bear habits, such as hibernation — which forces Woong-nam’s mother to  splash him with cold water in winter to keep him awake — and the ability to speak to animals — which leads Woong-nam to lecture some wild boars on behaving with the neighbours.

The Chaplinesque elements are further enhanced with the clowning stunts and mime gestures that are part of Woong-nam’s training in the police department, as if he were  learning a choreography. Through the entire action-comedy there is also an overtly mocking approach towards the pharmaceutical companies whose businesses have grown thanks to the vaccines for deadly viruses.

The rambunctious comedy can be seen as a Jekyll and Hyde re-interpretation, where good and evil are represented in two separate bodies and ultimately meet for a reconciliation. In this manner the goofy Na Woong-nam becomes fully-fledged, whereas the malevolent hitman Lee Jeonghak gives up crime. Hence, lawfulness, family and friendship get celebrated with fervour and merriment.

Final Grade: B

Check out more of Chiara’s articles.

Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
Works as film critic and journalist who covers stories about culture and sustainability. With a degree in Political Sciences, a Master’s in Screenwriting & Film Production, and studies at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, Chiara has been working in the press since 2003. Italian by blood, British by upbringing, fond of Japanese culture since the age of 7, once a New Yorker always a New Yorker, and an avid traveller, Chiara collaborates with international magazines and radio-television networks. She is also a visual artist, whose eco-works connect to her use of language: the title of each painting is inspired by the materials she upcycles on canvas. Her ‘Material Puns’ have so far been exhibited in four continents, across ten countries. She is a dedicated ARTivist, donating her works to the causes and humanitarians she supports, and is Professor of Phenomenology of Contemporary Arts at Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan.


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