Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fantasia 2011 Feedback: The Haunters

The Haunters (2011, Kim Min-suk)

After the onslaught of huge, mass-audience friendly superhero films cluttering the silver screen for over a decade, audiences have recently witnessed the arrival of a few off-kilter movies which tackled the issue of super heroism in a different light. Mathew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass and James Gunn’s Super were both grittier, meaner and never shied away from showing some things that would happen if masked avengers got into constant brawls with gangsters: people lose a lot of blood and possibly die. Now comes a Korean film from writer-director Kim Min-suk, who also helped pen The Good, the Bad, the Weird (check out the Shootout at High Noon marathon!), whose directorial debut, The Haunters, ups the ante by adding actual super powers to the mix of violence and destruction.

In the film’s prologue, we make the acquaintance of a troubled little lad name Cho-in, forced to limp his way around on a prosthetic leg with a bandana covering his eyes. Why so? Cho-in was born with a curse or a blessing, depending on who you ask. His sparkly gaze can pierce into the mind of any sorry soul who happens to look upon him. Complete control over a victim’s mind of course results in that person obeying Cho-in’s every bidding, including suicide if he so desires. Jump forward several years into early adulthood and Cho-in (Kang Dong-won) is a thief, robbing from banks and pawn shops. He meets his match in the form of Kyu-nam (Go Soo), a friendly, happy-go-lucky sort of chap who has the uncanny ability to physically recuperate from virtually any injury (similar to X-Men’s Wolverine).  It is one day while at his new job at a pawn shop that Kyu-nam discovers the existence of the vile Cho-in. Much to the latter’s surprise, Kyu-nam is impervious to his min control mechanism! Kyu-nam’s co-workers and friends are put into grave danger, he takes it upon himself to track down Cho-in and bring him to justice any way possible.

The Haunters is a film with many tremendous surprises and a lot of guts. Its inclination to embrace the fantastical proves to be a benefit, seeing as it opens the film to a great many possibilities with regards to suspense sequences. I use the word ‘suspense’ rather than action for neither character is skilled in any form of combat. Rather, whenever fists clash, it is usually for a brief amount of time and comes across as clunky, just as nay brawl between two people who do not normally fight would. Their encounters are punctuated with either quiet suspense or off-the-wall thrills which emanate directly from their god-given abilities. The tit-for-tat confrontations between the two are made all the more interesting for the fact that, in addition to harnessing no true fighting skills, they do not fit the mould of typical heroes and villains. Kyu-nam is simply a young man without much money, some decent charms and a bit of goofiness about him. He is an average guy who does not always succeed in keeping his cool under duress like most super heroes in other film’s would. Cho-in might be an even worse candidate for being considered a super villain. He is essentially a handicap, with a skinny, weak body and only one real leg remaining, the other being a prosthetic replacement. In that sense, director Kim Min-suk takes The Haunters even beyond the distance Kick-Ass and Super were willing to go. Whereas those films took ordinary people and thrust them into hero-status positions (which was part of the fun, naturally), The Haunters gives those people fantastical features yet still makes the point that they are not your everyday comic books central characters. The villain is not on a quest for world domination, nor is the hero the most competent or skilled of protagonists, but each fits perfectly into this world. 

How many times has Between the Seats written about a South Korean film and awarded said picture with praise for its delicious meshing of comedy and darker subject matter? I doubt there is any country whose director’s are more adept at such a filmmaking feat. There are other countries where one will find such remarkable directors, make no mistake about it, but Korea appears to be full of them. Now, The Haunters is not as dark as, say, Bong Jung-ho’s Mother, or Memories of Murder, but nor does it refrain from demonstrating how vile the character of Cho-on can be if pressed hard enough. One need only take into consideration the opening scene in which, as a child, he receives the scorn of his ashamed father, and in return, executes the latter in an outlandish, torturous and grisly manner if I ever saw one. Later in the story, when Kyu-nam races into a condominium lobby in search of Cho-in, he notices that several of the building’s residents, clearly under the control of the villain, are climbing over all the upper floor corridor balconies: collective suicide, unless Kyu-nam can prevent it! All the while testing the viewer with some dastardly behaviour on the part of the film’s villain, there is a host of scenes with comedic banter between Kyu-nam and his friends and co-workers. Many of the film’s laughs come from Kyu-nam’s closest buddies, a couple of Turkish and Ghanaian immigrants who used to work with him at a junk yard (in fact, there is a running joke about people being impressed with how well the duo speak Korean). The pitch-perfect balance is struck yet again. With the exception of Kang Dong-won, who must remain positively evil throughout, the charm of the cast is prevalent, meaning that little time is required before the viewer grows attached to the gallery of characters. When some of them are propelled into danger beyond their comprehension, the audience feels for them. 

There is a joyful inventiveness to how Kim-Min-suk delivers the punches. When dealing with two people who know nothing of fighting but must constantly butt heads, then the creativity must be felt in the utilization of their respective powers, which is a department The Haunters excels at. The locations where each successive round develops are as varied as the demonstrations of each rival’s skills. Subway stations, pawn shops, roof tops, police stations, Cho-in and Kyu-nam duke it out almost all around town, keeping things fresh and at a lively pace. Just when the viewer thinks things are under control or that these two characters can’t possibly get into yet another crazy situation, the director finds a way to extend the fun without it ever overstaying its welcome.

For all intents and purposes, for those who enjoy their comic book-style films with a dark twist while still embracing the a sense of wonder and fun, then The Haunters is most certainly a movie to look out for in the future.

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