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With the whole cops hunting serial killers plot having become increasingly popular in Korean cinema of late, such films now really need something a little different to stand out from the crowd. Thankfully, “Happy Killers” (also released as “Hello! Murderer”) from debut director Kim Dong Wook has just that, offering up an offbeat twist on the usual story as two very different detectives carry out their own investigations into a series of brutal murders. Having previously worked on the likes of “Kick the Moon” and “Attack the Gas Station”, Kim brings an enjoyably fresh touch to what might otherwise have been some overly familiar material, benefitting from a couple of likeable, amusingly contrasting lead men in the form of Kim Dong Wook (“Take Off”) and Yu Oh Sung (“Lump of Sugar”).
When a serial killer strikes in a quiet neighbourhood, laid back detective Jung Min (Kim Dong Wook) takes on the case, though without too much enthusiasm, not least since his own mother is currently heading up a local protest against police incompetence. While he and his colleagues flounder around, an unemployed man called Young Suk (Yu Oh Sung) begins his own far more successful, if unconventional investigation, for reasons known only to him. As the two men close in on the killer, they frequently get in each other’s way, leading to all manner of confusions and to Young Suk himself being labelled a suspect, not only by the police, but by his own wayward daughter (actress Shim Eun Kyung, “Possessed”).
Taking an offbeat approach to such potentially grim subject matter is obviously no easy task, though Kim pulls it off thanks to a skilled, cleverly unconventional balancing act. The film does manage to work both as an at times hardboiled crime mystery thriller, and as a comedy, thanks in part to the fact that the humour is not too overdone or wacky. Both Kim Dong Wook and Yu Oh Sung are on good form, each bringing something different to the table, and though they don’t meet up until later on in the film they play off each other very well and have an enjoyable chemistry when onscreen together. Of the two protagonists, Young Suk gets the most screen time and is arguably the more engaging, with the film fleshing out his character more and spending time exploring his depressing home life. Shim Eun Kyung is also good as his rebellious daughter, in a role that starts off as seeming like mere comedy relief before developing into something more substantial.
Most of the gags are of the deadpan variety, and come mainly from Young Suk’s rather inexplicable behaviour and strange methods for trying to catch the killer – chief amongst which is his dressing as a woman, something which he seems to enjoy perhaps a little too much. This does make for some very funny scenes, as do the many trials which the roguish but basically decent Jung Min faces in his own hunt. Having two protagonists allows Kim to keep things interesting by switching between their different lines of enquiry, and the film is well written and constructed, especially during the latter stages when things finally come together and Young Suk’s motivations are revealed – thankfully without too much fuss or melodrama.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the serial killer himself only pops up a few times during the film to help move things along and to ensure that the proceedings don’t get too caught up in the antics of the two detectives. The film does have a few bloody scenes interspersed here and there, and though these are at times a bit jarring and at odds with the overall tone, they do serve as reminders of the more serious business at hand. Although the identity of the killer is never played for too much tension, with the film focusing more on the question of what is driving Young Suk, things do wrap up in satisfying, if fairly conventional fashion.
All in all, Kim Dong Wook does a very commendable job with “Happy Killers”, and the film successfully serves up a twist on the usual cop thriller themes whilst still delivering the goods for genre fans. The film hits just the right mixture of laughs and thrills, with Yu Oh Sung in particular delivering a winning turn as an oddball amateur sleuth.
Kim Dong-wook-I (director) / Kim Dong-wook-I (screenplay)
CAST: Yoo Oh-seong, Kim Dong-wuk, Sim Eun-kyeong, Kim Eung-soo, Kim Seon-hyeok, Lee Mi-do