Are you a collector? Do you willy-nilly collect every piece of your favorite actor’s work without pausing to check if the piece is worth the collecting? Are you also an optimist? A movie title such as “Haunters” should stop you in your tracks since you shun anything remotely suggestive of horror, but now you pick up the DVD with an ear-to-ear grin, sure in your newly acquired bravado. Ghostly movie or not, I shall watch this just for you, Kang Dong-won!
Alas. At the one-hour mark I begin what the lizards in my room call The Thundie Wiggle. I stretch, I scrutinize the ceiling for cobwebs, I slap my face in four places.
It works. At no time do I actually fall asleep, thus keeping intact my record of never sleeping during a Kang Dong-won drama or movie. *sheepishly accepts a “You rock!” award from KDW’s unofficial fan club*
You can see where I’m going with this (loopy) preamble, right?
I want to like Haunters (2010) and at first it seems I will. The opening is dark and disconcerting, hinting strongly at a horror that’s more physical than psychological. A man abuses his wife; a mother tries to drown her son. (The former an act of violence, the latter an act of love.) Watching the second scene unfold, the rain accentuating the gloom and despair, I’m struck less by the pathos in that human drama and more by the sheer physicality of water and trees and grass. The scene is more painting-like than real.
And that’s really what I take away in the end—the experience of having watched, of having looked, but not feeling very much for the characters and everything they go through. I neither root for the hero nor revile the villain. I don’t dislike the movie, but I hesitate to recommend it, too. Were there an adequately developed backstory—for both hero and villain—how different might my verdict be!
The opening gives us a glimpse of Cho-in’s past. As a lad, whether out in the open or at home with his mother, his eyes are always covered. If the blindfolds come off, by force or accident, frightening things happen. One gaze from him and you are either paralyzed (like in a game of Freeze) or you become an automaton. Whatever Cho-in wants you to do, you do. He doesn’t even have to spell it out; he just needs to look at you to take over your mind. And oh, he also happens to have a prosthetic leg.
So even at a young age Cho-in is aware of his strange powers. But what happens in the intervening years between the past and the present? He leaves his mother and then what? He becomes a cold-blooded killer but why?
Kang Dong-won’s adult Cho-in lives alone in an uppity hotel room where he spends much of his time admiring the expansive view below. He also dabbles in a spot of painting, of toy figures and such. He doesn’t work but money is not a concern. Why should it be, when all he needs to do is walk into some shady loan company and help himself to the cash stashed there?
But one day he walks into a similar setup and discovers a new and troubling reality. One man is immune to his psychokinetic power. This man, after witnessing how callously Cho-in kills his boss, is now intent on revenge.
Go Soo’s Kyu-nam works in a scrap yard and counts two foreign colleagues as best friends. They hang out and do fun things, like squeal themselves silly at some amusement park. But one day Kyu-nam gets into a nasty accident and it’s a marvel that he survives but he does, except that bad luck comes in twos and he’s retrenched. Damn. No one wants to hire him but then someone does, except that this guy (Byun Hee-bong in a cameo-length role) is then ushered prematurely into the netherworld by some gangly chap with the buggy eyes. Shit.
The stage is set. A deadly game of cat-and-mouse ensues.
In this game, the chased sometimes becomes the chaser, the prey the hunter. In this game, you do not need fancy firearms; you also do not involve the keepers of law and order (because they listen to your tall tale and conclude that you’re either drunk or on drugs). Rather, you take a beat-up van and two buddies and off you go. Sometimes you take the subway and regret it, because the more people waiting for their train, the more minions at Cho-in’s mass disposal. Try charging toward your enemy when a hundred arms are holding you back.
This game is exciting but not terribly so. I’m not on the edge of my seat, heart pounding. I keep watching (because collectors generally like getting their money’s worth), but I also keep checking the clock, wondering if it has stopped. Beyond eighty minutes, the movie starts to feel repetitious, a sense of “Hmm, weren’t we here previously? So what else is new?”
For sure there are moments that stand out—moments that make me gasp or giggle. Take an early scene where the workers in the scrap yard are lined up at adjoining tables about to partake of their noon sustenance and suddenly the cook yells that someone hasn’t paid for his food. I rack my brain for a few seconds before it hits me. Ha, the biblical Last Supper! The object of the cook’s wrath—the guy who thinks he can get away with a free meal—is seated right in the middle of that thirteen-men row and even sports Jesus hair, oh my goodness.
I want more of that dark comedy, but there isn’t enough in Haunters to leave a lasting impression. I also fail to grasp the significance of those comedic moments. Since that “Jesus” guy is a nobody in the movie and appears in just that one scene, who is having that “last supper”? Kyu-nam? Does that mean he’s about to get “crucified” and then resurrected? Hmm, maybe, since he should have died in the accident that happens soon after but instead he miraculously survives. But is that reading too much into a scene whose sole purpose could be to simply make us laugh? After all, that scrap yard is merely a pit stop in Kyu-nam’s journey, a setting to establish a (flimsy) sort of context. How long has he worked there? How did he become best buds with a guy from Turkey and another from Ghana? What have they gone through together to make them an unlikely threesome willing to risk their lives for each other? Since I know so little of their past, I feel less emotionally invested in their present.
I guess I just want to better understand motives. I want to know why Kyu-nam feels so aggrieved about his boss’s demise—a boss that he hardly knew—that he sets himself on a collision course with Cho-in. Is it a sense of helplessness or is it the opposite—the sense of power that stems from knowing he’s the only one who can stop this psychopath?
But mostly I want to better understand Cho-in. I want to know why he’s so unfeeling and so bent on destruction. Just for the money? Just so he can be left in peace in a world where he will always be a feared oddity? Is there no vestige of a moral and emotional being left in him?
Unfortunately, the movie settles for appearances rather than depth and I fail to find the answers I seek. Not that the appearances are shabby, no. Writing may disappoint, but the directing is certainly deft and polished. Visually the movie is stunning, not all the time and not in a so-gorgeous-it-takes-my-breath-away manner, but there are plenty of scenes (such as my screencap of Cho-in and his mother by the river) where the composition of objects and color makes one pause for a second admiring look. In terms of acting, I’ve seen both male leads do better (there’s no female lead in this film), but that is not to say they fall short here; they don’t. The shallow characterization simply does not lend itself to acting that sears the brain.
In the end this is a movie that’s sufficiently entertaining. It could have been much more—more chilling, more suspenseful, more comedic, more sorrowful—but it decides to settle for a safe and middling place. Still, I won’t begrudge the one hour and 52 minutes that I spent on it. Kang Dong-won collectors aren’t calculating; they just move on with a cheery wave (to nobody in particular) and contemplate their next purchase.