Sunday, March 4, 2012

THE EAST IS RED #27: South Korea's HAUNTERS (2010)

From time to time I still see the occasional Asian flick that makes me think there are cultural divides I just can't cross. I'm not always comfortable with the way Hong Kong and South Korean movies mix-and-match genres in the same movie, butting scenes of extraordinary violence right up against Three Stooges-style yuck-yuck comedy. Or plots that seem to require some additional knowledge to make sense - imagine trying to watch, say, Disney’s HERCULES without having any familiarity at all with Greek mythology.

HAUNTERS is one of those movies that just left me scratching my head. This 2010 South Korean horror/action/comedy came highly recommended, with a slew of film festival appearances and rave reviews, but I'm afraid I just can't go there on this one.

Granted, there is a fantastic concept buried in this thing, and about forty minutes of a terrific horror movie. The movie starts by introducing us to the bad guy Cho-in (Kang Dong-won), a sociopath who has the psychic ability to control minds. The hero is Kyu-nam (Ko Soo), an amiable young man who lands a new job in a pawn shop just as it’s robbed by Cho-in, who uses his ability to paralyze everyone in the shop...except Kyu-nam, who is immune to Cho-in's powers. When Kyu-nam's new boss is killed in the robbery, Kyu-nam decides to go after Cho-in.

So far so good, right? Well, not exactly - because what I haven't mentioned is all the time already taken up by scenes of Kyu-nam and his two goofy best friends, the Turkish Al and Bubba, formerly of Ghana. By half-an-hour into HAUNTERS, writer/director Kim Min-suk has already spent half that time on pointless sequences of these three clowning around - at an amusement park, in a hospital, inside Al's red mini-van. If HAUNTERS is trying to make some commentary about multiculturalism in modern Korea...well, I didn't get it.

That's only one of the big problems plaguing HAUNTERS, though. Other reviewers have described this as a "superhero" movie, and I guess there's really no other way to explain the amount of punishment Kyu-nam takes and survives. Cho-in can't control Kyu-nam, but he can still control everyone else (including Al and Bubba) and turn them against Kyu-nam, which he does repeatedly. In the course of this movie, Kyu-nam is beaten, stabbed, shot (several times), hung, thrown into a marble pillar with so much power he cracks it, hit by trucks and trains, and flung from the top of a skyscraper, only to keep getting up and coming back for me. Why? Beats me. Maybe there's some sort of iconic hero in Korean mythology named Kyu-nam who can live through anything. Or maybe the director just thinks we'll believe that Kyu-nam is so driven he can simply will himself to survive. Or maybe there was some pivotal line that didn’t survive translation into English. Like I me.

And all of this really IS too bad, because there are some scenes of genuine horror buried in this mess. There's a fine sequence where Kyu-nam tracks Cho-in into a large apartment building, and Cho-in threatens Kyu-nam by having residents fling themselves over the railing from upper floors. Kang Dong-won is chilling as Cho-in, leering beneath his blue-dyed hair and looking truly eerie when his eyes turn to silver as he bewitches another victim. Ko Soo is appealing as Kyu-nam, but there's something inherently comic about him, and an actor with a more serious presence might have suggested possible answers to Kyu-nam's impossible resilience.
The film is also hampered by an annoying soundtrack that seems to have come straight from the dance floor of Seoul's hottest nightclub. The throbbing music occasionally works completely against the scenes, and really doesn't belong in the movie.

HAUNTERS may have the distinction of being the only Asian horror movie I've seen that I immediately thought would actually be improved by an American remake. Chip the humor and implausibility away and focus on the cat-and-mouse thriller of the two leads, and you'd have a fine little film. Unfortunately, HAUNTERS ain't it.

--Lisa Morton