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Despite its title and killer canine premise, “Howling” isn’t a werewolf horror, but a crime mystery based upon the award winning novel “Kogoeru Kiba” (“Fang Freezing”) by Japanese author Nonami Asa. The film is the latest offering from Korean poet turned director Yoo Ha, known for high quality character driven dramas such as “A Frozen Flower” and “A Dirty Carnival”, and features the stellar lead pairing of Song Kang Ho (“The Host”) and popular television actress Lee Na Young (“The Fugitive: Plan B”), with support from Shin Jung Keun (“Battlefield Heroes”), Lee Sung Min (“Troubleshooter”), Nam Bo Ra (“Sunny”) and Lee Min Ho (“Rooftop Prince”).
The film starts off following Song Kang Ho as down on his luck, promotion chasing detective Sang Gil, who is reluctantly partnered with rookie female officer Eun Young (Lee Na Young) in what looks initially like a straightforward suicide. It soon becomes clear that there is more to the case when the victim’s burned body is found to have drugs in his system, no fingerprints and several large dog bites on his thighs. Under pressure from their boss (Shin Jung Keun), Sang Gil and Eun Young start investigating on their own, and as more dog gnawed corpses pile up their search leads them into the dark world of sex trafficking and underage prostitution.
Given that Yoo Ha adapted the book for the screen himself, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that “Howling” is very much in line with his previous films, and despite the whole serial killer dog intrigue is basically more character drama than crime thriller. For fans of the talented director and anyone looking for something a bit different and more substantial than the usual genre fare this is definitely a very good thing, Yoo’s approach giving the film a unique feel and lifting it above what is essentially quite a predictable central mystery. While this isn’t to say that the plot is particularly lacking, as with “A Dirty Carnival”, it’s a fairly straightforward and slow moving affair that gradually connects the dots, clearly playing second fiddle to the film’s human elements and themes. Yoo does add in a few action scenes and flashes of bloody violence here and there, and the film is quietly tense as it builds, though some viewers may well be disappointed by the general avoidance of bombastic set pieces or hysterical drama.
Where the film really succeeds is in its highly engaging and sympathetic characters, Yoo again dealing with marginalised, loner type figures. Although the film initially seems to feature Sang Gil as its main protagonist, as things develop it subtly shifts the focus to Eun Young, a bold and fascinating move, the 30 year old divorcee making for a much less traditional champion than the standard, grizzled detective. Through this, Yoo explores gender issues and the often exclusionary nature of modern Korean society, gently drawing a link between Eun Young and the dog as outsider figures. As a result, Song Kang Ho comes across as far more of a supporting player, with a basic, though pleasingly unshowy performance, leaving Lee Na Young to take centre stage. Lee is on superb form, with an emotionally complex turn that without any fuss or melodrama gives the film real depth and a genuine punch, as well as making more grounded and believable than its plot gimmick might suggest.
“Howling” is another fine addition to the CV of Yoo Ha, who is unquestionably one of the most talented and thoughtful directors working in Korea today. Bolstered by a fantastic performance from Lee Na Young, the film is all the better for substituting the usual crime thriller elements for character development, storytelling and suspense, taking an offbeat premise and turning it into something surprisingly and rewardingly humanistic.
Ha Yu (director) / Asa Nonami (screenplay)
CAST: Kang-ho Song … Detective Sang-Kill
Na-yeong Lee … Detective Eun-Young
Jang In-ho … Lee Ki-Nam
Sung-min Lee … Detective Young-Cheol
Bo-ra Nam … Jung-Ah
Jeong-geun Sin … Chief detective