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Back in 2003, filmmaker Jang Joon-hwan made an impression with Save the Green Planet!, ostensibly a film about a guy who knew Earth was under alien attack but which was really about a man suffering the lingering effects of childhood trauma. Jang’s debut was an off-kilter but largely effective mix of dark comedy and heady drama and great things were expected from Jang.
The Korean industry has changed in those 10 short years and for his return to screens, Jang tries his hand at the dominant revenge thriller to middling success. Pivoting on the story of a high school boy raised by criminals who begins to fulfill his own monstrous destiny, Hwayi: A Monster Boy flirts with familiar subject matter, but is overly complex on the narrative front and under-developed on the character side. However, that may not be enough of a disincentive for audiences, judging by the film’s success at home. Flashy car chases, the creative violence that defines the sub-genre and slick production should generate modest success in the region and with fans of the format in urban overseas markets.
For his second film Jang and writer Park Joo-suk aim to explore the ideas of what constitutes family and parenthood and the inheritance of violence through a crime thriller framework that eventually morphs into a familiar revenge thriller. At times, the disparate concepts conflict and muddle the message. It’s difficult to examine the influence of violence in the home while reveling in brutality and bloodshed in service of the narrative. It’s this kind of mixed message that ultimately sinks Hwayi, and keeps it from being the thoughtful actioner it strains to be.
The story starts with a daytime subway crime by a notorious gang — the innovatively named Day Goblins — who nearly get caught in a ransom drop. A cop on the scene, Jung-min (Kim Young-min) is shot and left for dead, and the Goblins get away. The victim of the kidnapping, a little boy, stays with the five Goblins, and years later, he’s a seemingly well-adjusted, slightly awkward high schooler with artistic sensibilities going by the name Hwayi (television star Yeo Jin-gu). The Goblins are still at it, though there is trouble in paradise. The pragmatic strategist behind the gang, Jin-sung (Jang Hyun-sung), worries their de facto leader, Seok-tae (Kim Yun-seok, kind of a Choi Min-sik lite), is losing control. A plan to fake a robbery and murder a middle-aged couple (Lim Hyoung-taek and Seo Young-hwa) that won’t sell their land to a developer is the first link in a chain of tragic and brutal events that turn the meek Hwayi into the monster of the title.
Among all the (predictable) revelations, screeching car chases and nefarious corporate shenanigans Jang tries valiantly to create a character in Hwayi that we can empathize with. The quieter moments where Jin-sung encourages him to attend art school in Singapore and the evasive maneuvers behind the wheel another Goblin, the stuttering Ki-tae (Cho Jin-woong), teaches Hwayi are meant to humanize him, but really just as act as filler between the action set pieces that dominate the film. After Hwayi makes his life-altering discovery Yeo does most of his acting by allowing a single, perfectly placed tear to slide down a porcelain cheek. While Yeo doesn’t deliver much in the way of performance, he’s not solely to blame. The script never really delves into the ideas it dangles early on and so leaves Yeo with little to do.
The Goblins are largely archetypes: the leader, the brains, the short fuse, and so on, and the bad guys are ripped straight from Mickey Spillane (corrupt cop, slick corporate henchman, evil CEO). Hwayi doesn’t serve its women well either, a problem seemingly endemic to Korean (and scads of other) cinema. Of the three female characters, two are suffering mother types, one of who is regularly abused by Seok-tae, and the last is an anemic love interest for Hwayi who serves a purely narrative purpose.
By the time the convoluted motivation for all the action is revealed (a ridiculous one) and Jang and Park circle back on the (now) deeply buried points about violence begetting violence and nature vs. nurture, the film is 30 minutes too long. Hwayi is polished, with well-mounted action sequences, suitably gruesome carnage and a subtle, propulsive score, but it’s also two films: a taut, serviceable actioner or an insightful look at crime and parenting. Jang’s tried to do both and has come out with half a movie either way.
Producer: Lee Joon-dong
Director: Jang Joon-hwan
Cast: Yeo Jin-gu, Kim Yun-seok, Cho Jin-woong, Jang Hyun-sung, Kim Sung-kyun, Park Hae-joon, Park Yong-woo, Lee Kyoung-young, Nam Ji-hyun, Yoo Yeon-seok, Moon Sung-geun, Im Ji-eun, Kim Young-min
Screenwriter: Park Joo-suk
Executive producer: Yeo Jung-hoon
Director of Photography: Kim Ji-young
Production Designer: Chae Kyoung-sun
Costume designer: Ham Hyun-joo
Editor: Kim Sang-bum
No rating, 126 minutes
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