Korean actor Kim Jeong Hoon tries something a little different to the kind of romantic leading man role he made his name with in the likes of “Princess Hours” and “I Need Romance” with “Wild Dogs” (a.k.a. “Stray Dogs”), in which he plays a shady reporter caught up in sinister secrets in an isolated mountain village. Marking the debut of writer and director Ha Won Joon, the film is a gritty indie thriller, with shades of other recent rural set suspensers, primarily Kang Woo Suk’s “Moss” and Jang Cheol Su’s “Bedevilled”.
Kim plays Yoo Joon, a reporter going through a tough patch in life, his job going nowhere and being hounded by vicious loan sharks to pay off gambling debts. After the married woman he’s having an affair with decides to put an end to their fling, he heads off to a small countryside village called Osori deep in the mountains to try and find and confront her husband, getting stuck there after his car breaks down. Though it seems peaceful enough, the village is hiding a hideous secret, and when Yoo Joon comes to the aid of a tormented young woman called Eun Hee (Cha Ji Heon), he puts himself on a violent collision course with the locals and their chief (Myung Kye Nam, “National Security”).
Anyone who’s seen “Moss” or “Bedevilled” should have a pretty clear idea of where “Wild Dogs” is going from the above synopsis, and Ha Won Joon doesn’t offer anything new when it comes to boondocks menace, most of its plot developments and twists being lifted directly from Kang Woo Suk and Jang Cheol Su’s acclaimed thrillers. The same is true of its social commentary, the idea of taking an isolated community and its extreme misogyny and corruption as a dark reflection of Korean society having been done several times before.
To be fair, Ha does give the film a few differentials, mainly through the character of Yoo Joon, who is himself not a very pleasant character, possibly plotting to kill his love rival and taking a painfully long time to decide to help Eun Hee despite being aware of her plight. This moral ambiguity adds some welcome depth, as does the gradual sharing of narrative focus between Yoo Joon and Eun Hee, which gives the film an interesting mix of redemptive and vengeful character arcs and themes. Though the script isn’t particularly substantial, thanks in part to decent performances from Kim Jeong Hoon and Cha Ji Heon it does engage, and builds to a reasonably powerful, if unsurprising climax.
Ha Won Joon does a solid job as director, and though obviously fairly low budget the film benefits from a rough and gritty indie look and feel that fits its aims and ambitions. Ha makes great use of the local scenery, finding some occasional moments of bleak beauty here and there and suggesting depravity and decay lurking beneath the quiet blanket of omnipresent snow. What it lacks in originality the film does make up for on a more basic genre level, Ha subtly building the tension throughout, from the disquieting early scenes of the male villagers telling monstrous war stories in a jovial manner through to graphic rape, violence and bloodshed. The film does get more unpleasant as it progresses, and though thankfully Ha just about manages the difficult balancing act of making it shocking without being actually exploitative, there are a few sequences which are pretty difficult to watch without feeling uncomfortable – though it’s fair to say that certain aspects of the film do work well to put the viewer in Yoo Joon’s shoes, they likely won’t sit well with some viewers.
Of course, no film that deals with this kind of subject matter should really be guilt-free enjoyment, and with “Wild Dogs” Ha Won Joon is clearly aiming for hard-edged and challenging. To his credit he largely succeeds, and though not really in the same league as “Moss” or “Bedevilled”, the film is an effective piece of suspenseful rural nastiness in its own right.
Ha Won-joon (director)
CAST: Kim Jeong-hoon