July 04, 2007
Since the late 90s, cinema of South Korea has been experiencing an exiting resurgence that seems to point out to a second "Golden Age" in the near future, as not only the production of films in the Asian country has increased enormously, it is also reaching worldwide audiences thanks to the high quality of their craftsmanship and the special sensibility of this new Korean style. Of course, the horror genre is not exempt of this resurgence, as modern South Korean horror films have had a notable evolution from having a marked influence of 90s Japanese horror films ("Ringu" for example) to having a style and personality of their own, as movies like "Janghwa, Hongryeon" ("A Tale of Two Sisters") prove. Director Joon-ho Bong's "Gwoemul" is another testament of that growth, as it takes the old sub-genre of "monster films" and gives it a very unique and fresh spin.
"Gwoemul" (literally "Monster"), tells the story of the Parks, a very dysfunctional family of underachievers that is brought together by a strange tragedy that takes place in Han river. Park Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song) and his father Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon) are the owners of a little snack near the Han river, which is the source of income for them and Gang-Du's young daughter, Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko). One day, a large aquatic monster emerges from the river and begins to attack and eat the people near the shore. Without knowing this, Hyun-seo gets out of the snack bar, only to be dragged by the monster into the river as her father fails to save her. At the funeral, Gang-Du's siblings Nam-il (Hae-il Park) and Nam-Loo (Du-na Bae) show up to mourn their niece, but later that night, a phone call from Hyun-seo convinces the family that she is still alive. Now they only have to work together to save her.
A mixture of horror, black comedy and sci-i, "Gwoemul" was written by director Joon-ho Bong with the collaboration of Chul-Hyun Baek and Won-jun Ha, whom imaginatively reinvent the often overlooked sub-genre of giant monster movies with truly remarkable results. Like classics such as "King Kong", "Gojira" and "Them!" did in the past, "Gwoemul" uses its monster to explore deeper themes beyond the movie's action scenes. One of these themes is definitely the family, as the story is basically about the attempt of this highly dysfunctional family to stay together, work together, and save one of its members. The development of the character's relationships is remarkable, and the writers succeed in making them realistic and human despite the fantasy of the plot. Toying with black comedy and horror, there's also a not so subtle jab at the inability of governments to solve problems.
Director Joon-ho Bong makes everything come together with great skill, carefully toying with the genres without falling in cheap sentimentalism or plain silliness. It's hard to make a comedy about a tragedy (let alone one about a giant monster), but Joon-ho Bong succeeds in moving between genres with enough subtlety to give "Gwoemul" a heart that many films these days lack. However, what truly makes "Gwoemul" shine is probably the fact that Joon-ho Bong knows that while deep and a tad ambitious, his film is still a big monster movie at heart, and so he never betrays the genre with false pretensions. With Hyung-ku Kim's beautiful cinematography and the excellent visual effects by The Orphanage, Joon-ho Bong makes a series of action and horror scenes with one of the most formidable monsters that have graced the screen in the last years.
However, not everything in "Gwoemul" is about the monster, as being a study abut family, the cast is about as important as any special effect in the film. As Gang-Du, Kang-ho Song is very effective, portraying with great talent the excessive humanity of this dimwitted but lovable man. The highlight of the film is definitely Hie-bong Byen, who plays the head of the Park family with great talent, adding a sense of dignity to his character and practically stealing every scene he is in. Hae-il Park plays Gang-Du brother Nam-il, and he is very good as the always complaining young man who is unable to find a job. As their sister Nam-Joo, Du-na Bae adds balance to the cast, although certainly her role (like Hae-il Park's) is not really big. Finally, Ah-sung Ko delivers what's probably the film's best performance after Hie-bong Byen's.
It's really difficult to mix so many genres and succeed in the attempt, as it's quite easy to lose the focus and ultimately the point the movie is trying to make. Fortunately, Joon-ho Bong manages to come up victorious in this effort, and successfully makes everything work without many sacrifices (although that's doesn't mean the story is free of plot holes). However, it's easy to understand why those expecting a straightforward monster movie may feel a bit disenchanted, as the family drama that makes the heart of the film may feel out of place for those expecting nothing more than multiple scenes of man-eating monsters (although there's plenty of that too); and on the opposite side, those expecting a campy and lighthearted kind of comedy may find themselves confused by the dark nature of the film's humor.
Anyways, to those willing to accept that monster movies can have a heart, "Gwoemul" will feel like a breath of fresh air for the horror genre. While the mishmash of genres may be confusing at first sight, "Gwoemul" is an enjoyable movie that once again proves that the future of horror is no longer in Japan, it's now in South Korea.
Buy "Gwoemul" (2006)