Korea (2014) Dir. Hwang In-ho
If Kim Jong-un is doing his damnedest to make sure North Korea is one of the most undesirable places on earth then South Korean filmmakers are doing their bit to dissuade visitors and holidaymakers with their frequent depictions of unbridled violence on their streets.
Hwang In-ho adds to this growing catalogue of anti-tourist films with this unapologetically violent black comedy which at least redeems itself with a touching and hopeful central relationship between two young victims who have lost their siblings to a raving sociopathic killer. The psycho in question is Tae-Soo (Lee Min-Ki), hired by his adopted brother Ik-sang (Kim Roi-ha) to retrieve a mobile phone with incriminating video evidence of their uncle Jeon (Nam Kyoung-Eub) abusing an employee Yeun-hee (Han Da-Eun). Tae-Soo hunts Yeun-Hee down and kills her for not having the phone then takes Yeun-hee’s younger sister Na-ri (Ahn Seo-Hyun) to his house in the middle of nowhere.
Ever the gentleman Tae-Soo tells her to escape and not be caught or he’ll kill her too. Na-ri ends up at the house of two orphaned sisters, Bok-Soon (Kim Go-Eun) and Eun-Jeong (Kim Bo-ra), who take her in. The latter is the youngest and at school while the elder sister is simple, earning a meagre wage selling vegetables. Bok-Soon has a reputation of getting physical when angered so when Eun-Jeong is killed by Tae-Soo, a raging and hurt Bok-Soon teams up with Na-ri to get revenge.
I’m not entirely sure if black comedy is an accurate description or if this was the intention of Hwang In-ho for this film but some scenes do raise a giggle or two. In his last film prior to Monster, Hwang gave us the horror-cum-romance-cum-mystery-cum-comedy Spellbound, a maladroit mixture of genres that resulted in a very messy and confusing film indeed. Thus it is hard to settle on a designated direction for this similarly multi-genre dipping outing although it errs much closer to violent thriller.
The central theme that is prevalent throughout is that of familial bonds and being part of that unit. It may not seem obvious but as the story unfolds it becomes a recurring motif and is critical to the relationships of the main characters on both sides of the bloodshed. Tae-Soo and Ik-Sang don’t seem particularly close yet Tae-Soo insists on having drinks with “mum” Kyoung-ja (Kim Bu-Seon) at her restaurant, which Ik-Sang feels uneasy about.
In the wake of Eun-Jeong and Yeun-Hee’s murder it befalls on Bok-Soon to look out for Na-ri but who is looking after whom, when the eldest one has the mental age of the younger one? They form a sisterly bond with Na-ri essentially taking over the role left by Eun-Jeong but the aforementioned mental age issue argue and cry on the same level which creates an interesting and heartfelt emotional dynamic to drive the drama forward but is a plot device which is sadly overused.
The story takes awhile to get going since Hwang’s introduction to the main players is rather haphazard, starting off with focusing on Bok-Soon and her idiot savant anger as people try to take her stall pitch. It is in fact Ik-Sang who is tasked with getting the mobile phone from Yeun-Hee but he passes it on to Tae-Soo, fully aware of his extreme violent methods but also his skill at covering his tracks which is revealed in a admittedly a rather unique twist.
But this leads to a mammoth plot hole – if Tae-Soo is so skilled at not being caught then they on earth let a young girl go who know where he lives but also witnessed the killing of her sister? It’s basically a lazy plot device to bring the deranged Tae-Soo in contact with the equally emotionally confused Bok-Soon in what you’ll forgive me for labelling a loony vs loony showdown!
This of course brings up another problem with Tae-Soo’s career if you will – the fact that he is allowed to get away with it. This isn’t helped by the fact that he is continually exploited by the likes of Ik-Sang and anyone else requiring his services and while Ik-Sang appals at this unfettered violence he doesn’t tell Tae-Soo that killing is wrong and is too quick to rely on him to solve his problems for him. Unfortunately Ik-Sang is the closest thing to a sane voice in this film what with the others being insane, mentally slow, immature and driven by power and greed.
It’s suggested that Hwang intended for this to be a tale of female empowerment, what with the two people to bring down this sadistic killer being two girls, and this is true to an extent. However the men are often painted as completely useless (a scene in a police station later in the film is quite a damning example of total ineptitude) or simply unsympathetic to the plight of our heroines (two taxi drivers are shown to be unashamedly greedy), or worse still, utterly complicit to the carnage which takes place.
Hwang may be an inconsistent writer but he can get exceptional performances from his cast – the two central female leads Ahn Seo-Hyun and Kim Go-Eun absolutely own this film. The younger girl may be required to cry too much but she is very capable in everything else; Kim Go-Eun follows up no the promise showed in her challenging debut A Muse as the mentally damaged Bok-Soon. The chemistry and interplay between the two is palpably touching. We never know what drives Tae-Soo to be a killer and as convincing as Lee Min-Ki is, he doesn’t give any clues away either.
Monster has many good ideas and nice touches but is unable to bring them together in anything other than a grisly blood soaked outing with little concern for seeking redemption or reasoning for its violent premise. It is still perversely engaging, well made and will satiate gore fans but suffers from being inconsistent, unfocused and unrepentant towards its exploration of its main themes.