Science fiction is a genre that hasn’t gotten too much play in South Korean cinema. Outside of monster movies (The Host, 2006) and disaster films (Tidal Wave, 2009), there are perhaps only half a dozen films that could be categorized as science fiction. One, 2009: Lost Memories (2002), is set in the near future but in an alternate universe in which Japan sided with the allies in World War II and kept its prewar colonies, which included Korea. The only other prominent example, and certainly the one that is best known to Western audiences, is the delirious, deranged, and brilliant Save the Green Planet (2003). While not a strict sci-fi, as it is equal parts horror, detective thriller, social commentary, romance, and comedy, it plays with the tropes of sci-fi in a remarkably clever fashion. Another genre that has not been seen often in Korea is the superhero film, granted this is an American specialty and is a relatively recent branch of cinema. Examples in Korea include Descendants of Hong Gil-dong (2009), Jeon Woo-chi: The Taoist Wizard (2009), and A Man Who Was Superman (2007). Jeon Woo-chi: The Taoist Wizard was a remarkably successful action-comedy about a Chosun-era wizard who ends up in modern day fighting creatures from the past. On the other hand, A Man Who Was Superman is a comedy/drama that has a big emotional punch and features all the Superman imagery while featuring a protagonist who doesn’t actually have any powers. It acts as a a superhero film as only a South Korean film could. Comic book movies, however, are quite popular in Korea and include the immensely popular Oldboy (2003) and even different styles of film such as the recent romantic comedy Petty Romance (2010).
Haunters is all of the above and more, it is a clever sci-fi, an off-kilter superhero film, a stylish comic book movie, and an intermittently effective horror film. The story is relatively simple: it starts with a dark, brooding, and malevolent prologue that shows us a child in a broken home who has the ability to control minds and does so to horrifying effect. In present day, we are introduced to Gyoo-nam, a young man working in a salvage yard with his two foreign friends. After an unfortunate accident, he must find new work and does so at Utopia, an oddly-named pawnshop run by Jeong-sik (played by the brilliant Byeon Hee-bong) and his daughter. Meanwhile, the child from the opening, Cho-in, is now grown-up and uses his powers to live a quiet, but luxurious life. One day he robs Utopia, while everyone, including Gyoo-nam’s friends, are there. Suddenly he notices something: Gyoo-nam is immune to his power and then all hell breaks loose. The film then focuses on Gyoo-nam as he pursues Cho-in in a series of explosive set pieces.
It’s a fun, if somewhat thin, story and features a seemingly bottomless amount of plotholes and inconsistencies. However, with two engaging leads, strong supporting characters, and a terrific mise-en-scene, it can excused for most of its errors. As I watched it, I was reminded a lot of the Cinema du Look of the 80s and 90s in French cinema, a set of fiercely contemporary, visceral, aesthetic, and post-modernist works that came from young directors such as Luc Besson, Jean-Jacques Beinex, and Leo Carax. These films favored style over substance and spectacle over narrative. Equipped with visual flair, they featured young, alienated characters who symbolized the marginalized youth of Francois Mitterand’s France. I feel that Haunters emulates this brief movement of cinema (there were only seven films) and, as a result, could probably be excused for its flagrant disregard for logic as it seeks to win us over with style. One scene in the film that reminded me of the Cinema du Look appears early on at the salvage yard where all the multi-cultural workers sit down for lunch in a Last Supper tableau. When asked by the lunch lady who has produced their lunch ticket, it is the Jesus stand-in who gets up. It is an odd scene that doesn’t add to the narrative, but is a stylish visual reference that is in line with the aforementioned French film movement. Most of the film is also played out in seedy backwater Seoul locations, and most often at night. This mimics the Cinema du Look’s propensity for shooting in the Paris Metro in an effort to symbolize an alternative society.
While the film always looks great, if a little dark at times, it does begin to spin its wheels a little as Gyoo-nam always goes after Cho-in, who is clearly a superior opponent, without any plan. Since this blind and frankly stupid bravery leads to the death of a lot of innocent people, it is difficult to root for our hero at times. He is a simpleton who has a good heart, but seemingly little brains. Haunters features good performances from its leads (Ko-soo and Kang Dong-won of Woochi and Secret Reunion) as well as its supporting characters, especially from Abu Dod and Enes Kaya who play Gyoo-nam’s Ghanaian and Turkish friends. The film is Kim Min-suk’s debut work and exhibits a lot of promise for good things to come, but perhaps next time he will focus a little more on the narrative (previously, he collaborated with Kim Jee-woon on the script for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (2008), a delightful action romp which also suffers from some loose plotting). Haunters will infuriate a lot of viewers due to its inconsistencies, but if you can look past the plotting there is a solid Korean multi-genre film to be enjoyed.
Haunters will be shown at the Walter Reade Theater on Wednesday, July 6th at 6:15 PM and Saturday, July 9th at 9:30 PM. For tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s NYAFF website here.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.