No-one blends and bends genres quite like Korea, though even amongst the country’s most creative directors Hwang In Ho is making a name for himself as a man not afraid to concoct strange cinematic brews. Having combined horror and romantic comedy with his 2011 directorial debut “Spellbound” and horror, comedy and gangsters with his debut script “To Catch a Virgin Ghost”, his latest outing “Monster” sees Hwang attempting to mix gruesome serial killer thrills and twisted family ties with wacky comedy and melodrama – an odd and ambitious fusion to be sure.
The complicated plot opens with down on his luck hustler Ik Sang (Kim Roe-Ha, “Hindsight”) being hired by a rich property developer to retrieve a mobile phone containing evidence of him assaulting a young woman who gets in the way of his demolition schemes. Ik Sang promptly pockets the money, and calls on his estranged adopted brother Tae Soo (Lee Min Ki, who also worked with Hwang on “Spellbound”) to tidy things up for him. Being a sadistic psychopath, Tae Soo murders the unfortunate woman, though fails to find the phone and lets her younger sister Na Ri (Ahn Seo Hyun, “The Housemaid”) escape after witnessing his crime. On the run, Na Ri ends up at the rural home of the mentally challenged Bok Soon (Kim Go Eun, “A Muse”), known in the local neighbourhood for her violent behaviour, and her beloved sister Eun Jung (Kim Bo Ra, “Perfect Number”), where she tries to hide out. Enjoying the chase, Tae Soo shows up and kills Eun Jung, putting him on a collision course with Bok Soon, while Ik Sang decides to send a crew of gangsters after him, tired of his brother’s excesses.
Hwang In Ho has said in interviews that he wants to break free of genre labels, and with “Monster” he has certainly achieved this, as the film really is a curious and occasionally jaw-dropping synthesis of different themes and styles. While there have been a variety of serial killer comedies from around the world, it’s hard to recall one which threw together its less harmonious elements with such abandon, the film veering between daft slapstick, extreme violence and teary melodrama with little (if any) thought for tone or common sense. Hwang also tosses in fairy tale touches, much of the running time being taken up with Bok Soon and Na Ri wandering the wild woods and some dark and fairly depressing nihilism (some of which borders on misogyny when it comes to his treatment of his female characters), all of which amounts to a dizzying experience which may well leave some viewers utterly baffled.
However, for open minded audiences and those with a liking for bold eccentricity, “Monster” actually has a lot to offer, and Hwang wins points not only for trying to shake up the genre forms which have become rather standardised in Korean cinema, but for showing an impressive amount of craftsmanship in doing so. Though offbeat and frequently bordering on the ludicrous in its cavalier leaping from bloody sadism to sweet natured silliness, the film somehow remains coherent, partly thanks to a script which puts real effort into fleshing out its supporting cast and to suspend disbelief through to the leftfield though satisfying conclusion.
Despite there being no truly likeable characters, Tae Soo being an over the top movie manic (pretty boy looks, tattoos, clay pottery, wears black, does very odd things with his victims) and Bok Soon being unconvincing as a young woman with developmental issues, Hwang holds the interest through plenty of cat and mouse tension and plot twists, and through working in lots of action, fight scenes and gory nastiness. For such a mishmash of a film his direction is surprisingly tight and focused, keeping things moving at a fast pace, and the stylised visuals make for some impressive and imaginative imagery.
Though quite likely too weird and random for the average audience, “Monster” is a film which will hopefully still find its fans. Bucking the usual (and increasingly tired) genre trends with any degree of success is no mean feat, and while it’s still hard to see exactly why combining serial murder, absurd gags and family drama seemed like a good idea, Hwang In Ho definitely deserves respect for managing to produce something that’s as entertaining as it is bewildering.
In-ho Hwang (director)
CAST: Min-ki Lee … Tae-soo
Go-eun Kim … Bok-soon