Korea (2010) Dir. Kim Min-Suk
After miraculously surviving being hit by a van Im Kyu-Nam (Ko Soo) gets a job at Utopia, a run down pawn shop where he is made manager by owner Jung-sik (Byun Hee-Bong). While Im is hosting a lunch with two friends from his former job, Turkish immigrant Ali (Enes Kaya) and African Bobo (Abu Dodd), a weird trance like sensation overcomes everyone in the shop except for Im. He notices a scruffy man with odd looking eyes, Cho-In (Gang Dong-Won), startled at how Im is still moving. Jung-sik is killed because of the man’s actions and Im wants answers from Cho-in, who also wants to know why Im is impervious to his unique mind control powers.
From the screenwriter of Kim Ji-Woon’s madcap spaghetti western hit The Good, The Bad And The Weird, Kim Min-Suk, comes this super powered comic drama with a twist, marking his directorial debut. There are probably comparisons to be made between Haunters and M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable in that the protagonist and antagonist are at opposite ends of a particular spectrum. Whether Kim suffers the same downward career trajectory as Shyamalan does, however, remains to be seen. This film has been remade but fear not – it’s not by Hollywood but in Japan by Ringu helmer Hideo Nakata and is renamed Monster.
We meet Cho-In in a flashback prologue where as a young boy (played by Yang Kyung-Mo) with a prosthetic left leg, he is lead blindfolded by his mother Hyo-sook (Yoon Da-kyeong) to a rundown house to escape Cho-In’s abusive father. Unfortunately he finds them and lays into Hyo-sook forcing Cho-In to uncover his eyes and use his psychic ability to protect his mother. As an adult he is clearly angry and uses his powers to rob small shops such as Utopia pawn shop, a discrepancy in the books being the reason Jung-sik hired Im in the first place, since the other staff member is Jung-sik’s half-Korean daughter Young-Sook (Jung Eun-Chae). Before you think “obligatory love interest” Young-Sook disappears after her father’s funeral and doesn’t reappear until the final act.
In the mean time Im, along with Ali and Bobo’s help, try their best to hunt Cho-In down and stop him after the police are unable to stop him do to succumbing to Cho-In’s power. They have the CCTV tape from Utopia of Cho-In’s causing Jung-sik’s death which the police see before Cho-In uses his power and turns them against Im. Having stumbled upon the fact that his eyes are sensitive to extreme light, the hapless trio concoct a unique way to stop Cho-In but sadly stupidity isn’t much of counter for superpowers.
The conflict between Im and Cho-in comes from a similar place – wanting to live a normal life. Im isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, having left school very early and thus relegated to working the most simplistic of jobs. He is however a generous man who knows right from wrong and will stand up for the right cause. He also seems to have an abnormal tolerance to pain although he is far from invulnerable. Cho-In suffered greatly as a child not in the least due to his physical ailment and his mysterious powers. Kim Min-Suk doesn’t explain how Cho-In got this ability but the prologue suggests it was too much of a burden for his parents, hence his selfish brute of a father causing his wife to flee with the young boy. Hyo-Sook is also at her wits end having a psychic son and tries to kill him, which instils the hatred adult Cho-In has for “normal” people who can go about their lives without a care.
It’s a fascinating concept which is actually played out quite well through the various show downs between the two principles. What undermines it somewhat are the humorous distractions that are not just a few scenes of light laughs as you might get in a Marvel comic book flick, but flat out silly comedy. Forming something of a Three Stooges type group, the antics of Im, Ali and Bobo are the main culprits. Having a black man and a Turk playing the role of support heroes would be unusual in any film; the fact this happens in a Korean film is quite remarkable (and they speak the language fluently). Thankfully they avoid stereotypes and while they might aesthetically stand out they are accepted as members of the cast without condition.
After some pacing issues in which the first forty minutes are spent setting up Im as the hero of this tale, business picks up with the arrival of Cho-In, and it is due to the chemistry and stark contrasts of the two actors that gives the dichotomy of hero and villain its credence. Gang Dong-Won’s sharp nose, wide eyes and wild hair are rather obvious yet perfectly suited indicators that his character is the bad guy with no redeeming features other than being someone struggling to find his place in the world. Ko Soo is the babyfaced nice guy who provides the energy and moral centre as Im, balancing the cold nonchalance of his foe. Jung Eun-Chae makes her debut here and has gone on to TV stardom since as well as taking the lead in indie hit Nobody’s Daughter Haewon.
While his script has moments of unevenness, Kim Min-Suk knows at least how to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. Whether the abstract ending of this story satisfies will be a subjective issue. As a director he shows a lot of promise and Haunters is quite an ambitious project for a first timer, relying on creating many moods, unique shot compositions and coaxing the right performances from his cast, not to mention the special effects which thankfully don’t overwhelm.
All in all this is an engaging twist on the super power genre and a solid directorial debut for Kim.