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Has it really been ten years since “Save the Green Planet”, still one of the best, not to mention wildest, Korean films in recent memory? There’s certainly been nothing quite like it since, and so it’s both a shock and a shame that it’s taken so long for director Jang Joon Hwan to follow it up, as he finally now has with “Hwayi: A Monster Boy”. Though on paper the film sounds like a kidnap and crime thriller, as expected from Jang, it’s far from straightforward, delving into dark and philosophical territory while packing in lots of graphic violence and surprises.
Upcoming teen actor Yeo Jin Gu (hugely popular after roles in television series such as “The Moon that Embraces the Sun” and “I Miss You”) plays the 16-year-old Hwayi of the title, who as a young boy was kidnapped by a ruthless gang of criminals led by the vicious Seok Tae (the award winning actor Kim Yoon Seok, “The Thieves”). Having been part of a ransom scheme that went wrong, the five decided to raise him themselves, training him in their ways and gradually involving him in heists and worse. Now coming of age and set to take on his first proper job, a strange coincidence throws Hwayi’s life into chaos, and sets him on a grim path of self-discovery that pits him against his surrogate fathers.
As he showed with “Green Planet”, where Jang Joon Hwan really excels is not just through his ability to come up with engagingly leftfield scenarios and strangeness, but in the way that he populates his films with characters who despite being delusional or borderline psychotic, are sympathetic and compelling to watch. That’s certainly the case with “Hwayi: A Monster Boy”, which for all its clever and unpredictable twists, wouldn’t be half as effective without its excellent character writing and fascinatingly flawed and monstrous leads.
Morally and emotionally it’s a tough and challenging film, its depiction of a teen criminal and killer raising questions about inherited evil vs. the influence of environment in brutal and unflinching fashion. Though at times reliant upon coincidences, the plot has enough substance to never feel manipulative, and Jang keeps the film rattling along at a tense pace through till the bitter end. Uniformly great performances from the cast also help, with both the young Yeo Jin Gu and veteran Kim Yoon Seok on complex, commanding form, their shifting, twisted bond making for several very powerful scenes.
The film also works as a gritty, action packed thriller, with lots of shoot outs, chases, fighting and assassinations scattered throughout, Jang skilfully escalating them in intensity to match the growing anger and murderousness of his protagonist. Right from the start it’s a gruesome and bloody film, and its hard edge may well be a bit much for some, showing a marked viciousness and boasting a body count that quickly spirals. Though there have been a number of other Korean films of late featuring trained teenage killers (generally spies), Jang’s effort is by far the most convincing and the only one to really attempt to get into the disturbing psychology of its young assassin, eschewing melodrama in favour of harsh truths. As with “Green Planet”, there’s ambiguity and humour here too, and this keeps the viewer guessing and off balance even after the credits roll, and though it comes to a satisfying and fitting conclusion, there’s much still to be pondered – always the sign of a great film.
Jang Joon Hwan really has been missed, and it has to be hoped that viewers won’t have to wait another decade for his next film, as on the evidence of “Hwayi: A Monster Boy”, he’s still one of Korea’s most interesting and original filmmakers. A gripping mix of bloody crime thriller and coming of age drama as well as an unsettling meditation on evil and the human condition, it’s one of the best Korean films of the last year, and will if there’s any justice will meet with the commercial success sadly denied “Save the Green Planet”.
Joon-Hwan Jang (director) / Joon-Hwan Jang (screenplay)
CAST: Yun-seok Kim … Seok-tae
Jin-gu Yeo … Hwa-yi
Jin-woong Jo … Ki-tae
Hyeong-seong Jang … Jin-seong
Seong-gyoon Kim … Dong-beom
Hae-jun Park … Beom-soo
Ji-Eun Lim … Yeong-joo
Ji-hyeon Nam … Yoo-kyung