Screens at CIFF: 10/14 & 10/15
World premiere: 10 November, 2010, South Korea
Haunters before arriving at the one it actually possesses: a man who can turn other people into his puppets just by staring at them squares off against the only person who is no susceptible to his powers, a daffy Everyman who can recover from incredible physical trauma in almost no time at all. It's sort of a paranormal thriller with the soul of a superhero movie, taking place in the world and tonal register of a robustly genial buddy comedy. With a dash of "man, this economy just absolutely sucks" angst, because you might as well, at that point. It is, sort of, the movie that Unbreakable might have been if M. Night Shyamalan was in possession of a sense of fun and a willingness to end his movies like a normal person.
The film opens with the implication that we're about to watch a fairly straight-up horror movie: a little boy with a blindfold is being guided along by his mother in the rain; his borderline-psychotic father tracks the pair of them, threatening to destroy the "inhuman" child; the boy pulls aside the blindfold and causes his father to march out into the town square and snaps his own neck. Sometime later, the mother tries to kill the boy, but he is able to send her to the edge of a swollen river before he vanishes.
It's some legitimately great, thrilling, intense stuff: the moment in which the father calmly and so, so slowly twists his head around is especially shocking and disturbing. It's also not remotely like anything else in the whole movie (or nearly so: there is one single moment when a handful of hypnotised zombies shows up from the darkness that's good for a little jolt), and I can't quite forgive first-time director Kim Min-Suk for the arbitrary nature of this particular bait-and-switch, though it fits rather neatly into the film's overall anything goes scheme, and that generally frivolous attitude, in which violence, flirting, parkour, and the deaths of characters we've rather come to like by that point all occupy the same heightened level, is very much the film's strongest point. Anything can happen, any kind of film can start up at any moment (Kim's only previous work in cinema was co-writing The Good, the Bad and the Weird, which is similarly untethered by a slavish attention to tonal or generic continuity), and it's pretty darn fun to watch it.
Anyway, that boy grows up to be Cho-In (Gang Dong-Won), an antisocial loner who breaks the law seemingly out of contempt for the rules as much as for any other reason. He's not our main character, though - another bait-and-switch, one that's quite a bit more effective. Our hero for the night is Kyu-Nam (Ko Su), who gets ingloriously fired from his construction job after being run over by a truck (apparently, wrongful termination is much harder to demonstrate in South Korea), a hideous accident that takes him apparently, all of a night to recover from. In hardly any time, he's managed to find a position at Utopia, a very weird & evidently disreputable pawn shop run by Jung-Sik (Byeong Hie-Bong) and his pretty daughter Yong-Sook (Jeung Eun-Chae) - the shop's dubious nature likely explaining why the position remained open for any length of time in a shoddy economy.
Soon enough, Cho-In breaks in, and uses his voodoo to steal Utopia's money; but Kyu-Nam is able to break free from the trance long enough to spot the thief. And from here kicks off a perfectly servicable thriller, punctuated by Kyu-Nam's misadventures with his bumbling buddies (the three make a neat little encapsulation of globalism: one is from Turkey, one is from Ghana, and these facts confuse everyone they meet), and given a veneer of artistic legitimacy via Hong Kyung-Pyo's lovely urban cinematography, capturing the Seoul streets with a gritty poeticism that recalls, in much diluted form, the '70s films of Martin Scorsese.
Entertaining genre smash-ups and agreeably silly sensibility notwithstanding, Haunters is not a tremendously durable film, nor does it seem very interested in trying to be. And of course, if it were striving for anything more, it might not have been so smoothly entertaining as it ends up. Still and all, it's not the kind of film you spend weeks afterwards talking up, not as great cinema and not as an elegant genre exercise (and Korean cinema's recent history has been rife with both). It's a diverting movie about two superhumans chasing across the city and meeting in nicely-executed stand-offs: nothing to be ashamed of, but nothing to write home about, either. But we've hit a point where even that puts it above the curve, superhero-wise.