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Friday, September 21, 2012

Howling (하울링, Hawoolling) 2012

In Korea, genre is a dish almost never served by itself. Rather than use tried and tested formulas, local cineastes tend to concoct more bizarre and seemingly unworkable combinations. One of the enduring appeals of Korean cinema is that they are often (but not always) able to make them work. Director Yu Ha is an interesting figure: he used to be a poet but for the last ten years he has been one of the country’s most reliable genre filmmakers. First impressing audiences with his successful foray into romance (though I use the term loosely) with Marriage Is a Crazy Thing (2002), next with one of the peninsula’s best high school films (Once Upon a Time in High School, 2004), following that he made, for my money’s worth, the best Korean gangster (or ‘jopok’) film (A Dirty Carnival, 2006) and most recently he produced a gay period epic (A Frozen Flower, 2008).

Following a slightly longer break than usual, Yu is back with his fifth feature and I was excited the moment I heard about the project. Not least for his involvement but also due to the participation of Korean thesps Song Kang-ho and Lee Na-young and the premise which was initially loglined as a procedural about spontaneous combustion. Though not an outright failure, the film did not find an enormous audience in Korea when it opened in February and has since picked up a number of detractors but as far as I’m concerned, though a flawed film, it is one of the best genre efforts of the year to date.

A veteran cop (Song Kang-ho) who has been passed over the promotion one too many times is handed a loser of a case of an apparent suicide when a man is found burnt to death inside his car. What’s more his superior gives him a new rookie partner (Lee Na-young) who doesn’t sit well with the all-male team. The case becomes much more complicated after wolf bites are found on the corpse and soon the unlikely duo finds themselves up to their neck in a larger web of murder and mystery.

Forgoing any pretensions the film begins at a crime scene and it is here that we meet our main protagonists and that their roles and relationships become clear. It’s rote in its staging and at first I was a little surprised by how flat it was but it doesn’t take long for Yu to start adding layers to this genre primer. As a procedural the film is effective but nothing remarkable. Howling’s real strengths lie elsewhere.

Let’s start with the performances from Song Kang-ho and Lee Na-young. No two ways about it, Song is the best man for the job here as it’s a character he’s played time and again. The role here does not require the subtleties that he displayed in Memories of Murder (2003) and yet he is still formidable. In the wrong hands his detective could quickly lose our interest as the character is constructed from an all-too-familiar set of generic devices but Song sells it well, his mix of bravura, tomfoolery and pathos is consistently engaging and adds much needed weight to a character that can seem a little thin at times.

Lee has a tougher job with her role as a rookie cop and I must say that at first, it’s a hard sell. I’m a big fan of Lee but the idea of her as a homicide detective trying to play with the big boys was hard to swallow at first. She has a diminutive and waifish physique and does not seem to be an obvious choice for the role. However, her performance builds a lot of momentum during the film’s running time and she’s much more convincing on a bike than Ha Ji-won was during last year’s woeful back-projectioned oilrig bike scenes in Sector 7. However, more than that, Yu’s choice to cast her turns out to be remarkably astute.

The most surprising element of the film and perhaps its most successful is its vicious, head-on exploration of chauvinism in the workplace in Korea. It was completely unexpected and may have had something to do with the film’s lukewarm reception. It doesn’t just brush with the topic but tackles it with both hands, the male detective’s treatment of the young rookie is shocking and extends all the way from simple putdowns, to misogynist barbs and instances of physical violence.

It’s the kind of balancing act that could only work in a Korean film. Granted, for many it didn’t but I think, approached with the right frame of mind, it actually succeeds. The films folds in many shocking elements and revelations in true genre film spirit but I always felt it had a sense of purpose and more than anything that’s what kept me engaged.

Howling has some strong set pieces but for me it was more of a mood piece, opting to explore the dynamic between characters rather than dazzle us with its action, thriller or horror elements. It’s not a patch on some of his earlier films but I think that Yu has once again managed to deliver an unlikely winner, which, despite its odd and rough surface, is teeming with ideas and subtext. This is how I like my genre cinema served: with a side of food for thought.


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