Hwayi: A Monster Boy (Hwa-i: Goi-mool-eul sam-kin a-i)

Korea (2013) Dir. Jang Joon-hwan

When children play up, our instinctive reaction is to blame the parents for not bringing them up properly. Some might argue this is a rather assumptive and generalist attitude to take but in the case of the young protagonist of this grisly and amoral Korean revenge shocker, the parents are directly to blame for his actions. Sort of.

An audacious and very dangerous criminal group known as Day Breakers – comprised of stern leader Seok-Tae (Kim Yun-Seok), martial arts expert Dong-beom (Kim Sung-kyun), strategist Jin-sung (Jang Hyun-sung), stammering driver Ki-tae (Cho Jin-woong) and gun lover Beom-soo (Park Hae-jun) – have kidnapped a young boy as part of a blackmail but end up raising him as their own.

Fifteen years have past and the boy Hwayi (Yeo Jin-Goo) is now a 17 year-old, having been brought up learning a different “skill” from his five fathers, yet he doesn’t possess their criminal tendencies. When the Day Breakers are asked to take care of someone on behalf of a corrupt industrialist, Seok-Tae takes Hwayi with them and makes him shoot the victim. Shortly after, Hwayi makes a shocking discovery about the man he shot.

Jang Joon-hwan made his name in 2003 with the cult classic Save The Green Planet, a heady mix of satire, gore, sci-fi and social commentary. Despite the decade gap between that and Hwayi: A Monster Boy, Jang’s second feature length film, he hasn’t been lazy, writing and directing short films and marrying actress Moon So-ri.

It’s fair to say that Hwayi isn’t like Jang’s beloved first feature, despite sharing some key ingredients like plenty of shocking violence but I doubt anyone wants Jang to repeat himself. Then again, with Green Planet being such a popular film, expectations for whatever Jang would produce next would be high, unfairly or otherwise, which may explain the decade long gap between features.

By way of introducing us to the Day Breakers’ villainous ways, the film’s prologue joins a showdown on a crowded train in media res in which two of the men we later learn are part of the gang, escape from the police after a botched ransom drop, leaving a young cop Jung-min (Kim Young-min) for dead. This, of course, would be the situation in which Hwayi as a toddler would come to be in the gang’s presence.

Post credits and we learn the true cold-blooded nature of their actions, especially Seok-Tae, who brazenly shows his face to the victim of a house robbery before nonchalantly filling him with holes. From this, it seems unlikely that any of the five could possibly have even the slightest trace of humanity in them to raise a child but they do, albeit with some superficial help from Young-joo (Im Ji-eun), a young woman they’ve enslaved in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with a twist.

That Hwayi grows up a shy and sensitive lad must be attributed to Young-joo then his five fathers but, as you might have guessed, the questionable skills he learns from them does indeed come in handy later on once his life has been turned upside following his first kill. One could say the gang had created a monster, explaining the title, yet Jang adds a different slant to this via a literal monster that appears but not as you’d expect.

Jang’s script is very busy but lacks any development for the characters, save for Hwayi’s thirst for vengeance, or significant background for the gang, whose ruthlessness is never put into any real context, let alone what bond they have beyond growing up at the same orphanage. Seok-tae gets to share a little history but it requires an expansion on it we don’t get, while the others just seem like minions doing Seok-tae’s bidding.

However, Jang does find an interesting way to tie in the gang with the man they had Hwayi kill, Im Hyung-taek (Lee Geung-young), a middle aged man with a prosthetic leg who is an ardent activist against shady property tycoon Jeon (Moon Sung-geun). Jeon’s previous bullying tactics haven’t worked on Hyung-taek or his meek wife (Seo Young-Hwa) so he calls in the Breakers to put the wind up them.

A subplot featuring a corrupt cop Detective Chang-ho (Park Yong-Woo) is another convention thrown in for good measure without any real explanation, along with Hwayi’s other chance at redemption, schoolgirl Yoo-kyung (Nam Ji-Hyun) who he falls for and recruits as help, but not involving her in the frontline action, making her the only female in the film not to suffer the usual upsetting misogynistic violence of Korean cinema.

Sadly, Jang faltering script will have fans of Green Planet wondering where the originality went – it is a veritable by-the-numbers K-thriller with a curious and fertile premise but not enough fleshing out of the main ideas. By the end, we wait for that killer twist to justify or contextualise the gang’s behaviour that never comes, painting them as one-dimensional sociopaths, undermining the notion of them capable of raising a boy whose moral compass is pointing in the opposite direction.

The cast, especially heartthrob Yeo Jin-Goo as emotional fulcrum Hwayi and veteran Kim Yun-Seok’s scarily effortless insouciance as Seok-Tae, are compelling enough to distract the audience from the plot cavils, a huge boon in preventing this film from failure. Jang’s direction is taut yet busy, creating pervasively dark and unsettling moods as a prelude to the next bout of wanton bloodshed and visceral gore, but psychologically it lacks depth.

What could have been a fascinating character study into the devastating and deleterious effects on a boy learning his life has been a lie is compromised to compete within the milieu of progressively violent outings that emerged in the decade between Jang’s films in Korean cinema.

That isn’t to say Hwayi: A Monster Boy doesn’t work within the latter parameters or fails to deliver this kind of entertainment – it does so with gusto – but what it could have been stands out much more.