Howling (aka Killer Wolf)
Korea (2012) Dir. Ha Yoo
Grizzled Detective Jo Sang-Gil (Song Kang-Ho) is not only given what he considers a fairly cut and dry suicide case when a man found burned to death in his car but he gets a new partner in rookie female detective Cha Eun-Young (Lee Na-Young), who is immediately outcast by her chauvinistic male colleagues. During the post mortem dog bites are found on the corpse and further investigation leads to rare breed a wolf-dog, a lethal beast in this case bred for violence. When another body appears savaged by the wolf-dog Sang-Gil and Eun-Young unravel a convoluted case of drugs, child prostitution and vengeance.
It needs to be noted straight away that despite the impression the title might give this isn’t a horror film, rather a regular police drama which admittedly is strong on intrigue, twists and character interactions even if it is low on actual gore and chills. Based on a 1996 Japanese novel Kogoeru Kiba (aka The Hunter) by Asa Nonami, former poet turned film director Ha Yoo at least knows how to create tension be it through the uncomfortable work environment for lone female detective Eun-Young or as a result of each new development in the investigation.
Sang-Gil is after a promotion but feels this suicide case carries insufficient kudos, which he certainly doesn’t want to share the kudos with Eun-Young, recently transferred from traffic patrol. The dog bites on the charred corpse open up the scope of the investigation, changing Sang-Gil’s mind about taking the case – even if Eun-Young is the one who has all the ideas – keeping the developments from his boss, since a solo victory will expediate his move up the ranks. The investigation leads the pair down many paths, each one with its own tangent which force Sang-Gil to share the case with his colleagues at the expense of Eun-Young. Red herrings galore are put in front of the detectives as much as they are for the viewer, while the central concept of a highly trained killer wolf-dog unfortunately ends up more of a conceit than a sinister plot element although the idea has some clear potential. Lassie it ain’t, but the wolf-dog does offer a fresh perspective to an otherwise standard crime drama.
While the investigation and criminal shenanigans keep the story moving along, it is the relationship between Sang-Gil and Eun-Young and the secondary one with their fellow detectives which is the central hook here. Whether this is the norm for Korean police operations or the writers themselves are sexist pigs but poor Eun-Young can’t catch a break from her male colleagues. Some think she is there as decoration, while others treat her as a skivvy to handle menial tasks. Of course Eun-Young is actually smarter and more on the ball than her male counterparts, so her suggestions and observations are openly shot down but secretly adopted. With a broken marriage to her name due to her police work, Eun-Young is keen to prove herself worthy of her new job, which parallels Sang-Gil’s quest for promotion, himself struggling to balance his job with a wayward teenage son – although these points are briefly discussed in the early going of the film.
Song Kang-Ho is one of the more well known Korean faces to international audiences through such classics as Memories Of Murder, JSA, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, The Host and Thirst but his more recent works have been largely disappointing. While his role as grumpy cop Sang-Gil is nothing new for Song, the film itself is the first step in the right direction towards rehabilitation on the film choice front. Despite sporting just one facial expression throughout the entire film, Lee Na-Young manages to convey the requisite pathos befitting an ambitious and capable women struggling to hold her own in a male dominated environment and makes for a good sympathetic heroine, seeing more physical action than the male cast. And the dog is a star too, handling some very well coached scenes both as a killer and a simple household pet.
Deceptive title aside, The Howling works as a solid, well constructed crime thriller which will disappoint if one believes the misleading promotional materials and expects a horror film. The story might end on some contrivances but there is plenty of meat on the main story to keep the viewer engaged and involved for two hours.