Monster: Filmart Review
Another polished entry into the Korean industry’s still growing revenge thriller sub-genre.
Reminiscent at various points of films like Hwayi and the far superior The Man from Nowhere, Hwang In-ho’s Monster is the latest entry into the bloody Korean revenge thriller canon, but one with little of the flair of the sub-genre’s best. Particularly brutal and inordinately misogynistic, especially where young women are concerned (including 10-year-olds) Monster shows a potential for stylistic creativity, but the tonally schizophrenic film is ultimately memorable for its untethered violence for the sake of violence. Nonetheless, as a polished Korean thriller it will generate interest for distributors that have found success with films of its ilk, but the scattershot storytelling and erratic tenor will restrict its exposure to niche markets and festivals.
The vaguely unbalanced (a neighbor literally comments that she was, “dropped on her head as a child”) Bok-soon (Kim Go-eun, the breakout star of Eungyo, taking a step back here) sells vegetables for a living in rural Korea and lives alone with her smarter younger sister Eun-jung (Kim Bo-ra). She’s prone to fits of rage and is quite the handful for Eun-jung to handle on her own. Meanwhile in Seoul weaselly overall life failure Ik-sang (Kim Roe-ha) runs into debt troubles and decides to clear it by double-crossing his uncle Jeon and having his estranged, psychopath of a brother, Tae-su (Lee Min-ki, in the now-rote chic murderer role) kill off his problems. The problem happens to be a woman called Yeon-hee who has incriminating video (of her rape and brutal beating) by Jeon. Bok-soon and Tae-su’s paths finally cross when he kills the woman, leaving her younger sister Na-ri (Ahn Seo-hyun) abandoned—at least until she stumbles upon Bok-soon in the woods.
That’s the short version. The problems with Monster are myriad, but chief among them are the aforementioned tonal shifts and Kim’s shrieking, histrionic performance that equates developmental issues (maybe?) with walking funny, violent temper tantrums and uncontrollable crying. For a character that is supposed to be the “hero” Bok-soon grates on the nerves too much to allow the suspension of disbelief to be effective. None of her mood swings come across as manic-depressive or bi-polar, and Hwang certainly doesn’t try to root Bok-soon’s state of mind in any recognizable disorder. When she spits in Eun-jung’s face in fit of pique, it pretty much kills any empathy the character may have engendered.
Monster’s brief forays into comedy (a gang of killers debating a bloodless murder, Bok-soon’s goofy defense of her vegetable stall), once again, just bring the jarring shifts in tone into sharp relief, and that’s not for the better. Hwang may be aiming for Memories of Murder-type black comedy but never reaches those sophisticated heights. The final, vicious throwdown serves as the visual representation of the story’s bickering, fractured families finally dealing with their resentments (on Tae-su’s side) and thirst for vengeance (on Bok-soon’s side). It’s one of the most gruesome sequences to come down the pipes in a while, but for all its squelching sound effects it’s also hollow. To that point Hwang never bothered giving his characters any real motivations (other than Tae-su’s seeming unfettered joy at committing murder), and his vision of Seoul is one that is so utterly mercenary it strains what little credibility the film has.
Producer: Kim Min-kyoung, Ahn Sang-hoon
Director: Hwang In-ho
Cast: Lee Min-ki, Kim Go-eun, Kim Roe-ha, Ahn Seo-hyun, Kim Bo-ra, Nam Kyoung-Eub, Han Da-eun
Screenwriter: Hwang In-ho
Director of Photography: Jung Yong-gyeon, Kim Ki-tae
International Sales: Lotte Entertainment
No rating, 114 minutes