A staple of comic book superhero movies is the origin story, and even though Hollywood is convinced audiences like seeing the same damn ones over and over (cough Spider Man Superman cough) it’s always refreshing to see new and original creations onscreen. One of the best (and most under-appreciated) is M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. The film is a methodically paced exploration of both the hero and villain roles and features some powerful yet quiet scenes of the two men coming to terms with who and what they are. (The scene with Bruce Willis at the breakfast table silently acknowledging to his son his new found heroic nature remains one of Shyamalan’s greatest achievements.) Now imagine that same kind of fresh and creative take on the subject but infused with brutality, hope, and some stellar action and suspense scenes…
A little boy with a prosthetic leg and a bandage over his eyes stumbles through the rain. He falls and tries to remove the fabric, but his mom abruptly grabs his hand and tells him he has to wear it at all times. The boy’s father arrives and begins to berate them both, taunting them that “Wrapping him up won’t make him human.” And then he begins to physically beat the woman. The boy’s tiny hands begin to clench and shake, he lifts one up to his face, and he removes the blindfold. The man stands, exits the house, and walks backwards through the rain until he’s in the middle of the street… where he proceeds to slowly but forcefully snap his own neck. Overcome by guilt, fear, and love the mother tries to choke the life out of the boy, but he fights back and is soon heading out into the world alone, angry, and cursed with the ability to control peoples minds.
Say hello to Cho-in… super-villain.
Twenty years later Cho-in (Kang Dong-won) lives in a high-rise apartment and wants for nothing thanks to his ability to control anyone’s mind. Nothing that is except normal human contact. At the other end of the moral spectrum sits Lim Kyu-nam (Ko Soo) who has had a fairly average life by comparison until he’s hit by a bus and loses his job. His brief spate of bad luck seems to turn around when he gets a managerial job at a pawn shop, at least until Cho-in targets the pawn shop for a routine cash grab.
He uses his powers to basically “freeze” everyone in the office while he directs the boss to retrieve money from the safe, but something odd happens during the super-powered robbery… Lim starts to move. It seems he’s immune to Cho-in’s power, but when he attempts to stop the psychic bad guy Cho-in forces the others in the room to attack him resulting in his boss’ death. And just like that, the two men become mortal enemies.
The rest of the film is a series of face-offs between the two as Lim tries to bring the psychic madman to justice while Cho-in cuts a swath of murder through the city trying simultaneously to escape capture and punish the do-gooder for meddling. Their clashes are often violent, occasionally touching, and always taken seriously. Not to say the movie isn’t fun, because it is. Lim’s friends are foreigners, one from Ghana and one from Turkey, and the three share a strong and believable relationship. “You pay taxes right?” asks one of them after learning that Lim is set on capturing the killer. “Do you know why? So other people can take care of this for you!”
Lim himself is charming in the way he moves from aimless goof to man with a purpose as evident in his repeated exclamations that he’s “Manager Lim!” Ko balances the role’s need for both innocence and heroics well, and he is a solid foil for Kang’s murderous mutant. Kang’s turn here is equally impressive, and while his character isn’t shy about his evil actions the memory of that abused and abandoned little boy is rarely gone completely from his eyes. He’s on a great streak between Secret Reunion, Woochi, and this, and I expect solid and varied performances from him for many years to come.
In addition to two compelling performances and a storyline that builds subtly to a fantastic ending, the movie also benefits from a lively score that adds to scenes of suspense as well as it does to more energetic action bits. And there are some beautifully configured scenes here including an effectively creepy setup where Cho-in sends a mob of zombies after the three friends and another where he takes control of dozens of pedestrians in a multi-tiered courtyard… and then makes them start leaping to their deaths. His power may be useless against Lim, but it’s incredibly effective against Lim’s conscience. “All you have to do is die to save them all,” he tells the would be hero.
Something that may not work for everyone is the film’s extremely high body count, especially as most of the murdered are cops. Seriously, a lot of people are killed fairly casually in this movie. That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but the constant loss of life can be emotionally draining and may actually be a bit overdone. Another area that may bother some viewers is the lack of detail when it comes to the “how” behind the superhuman abilities. It’s never explained, but is that really a problem? Most heroes and villains with super powers not of the man-made variety are simply born with or develop them over time, and this is no different.
Haunters is the directorial debut of Kim Min-suk whose only previous film credit is as co-writer of Kim Jee-woon’s fantastically entertaining kimchi western, The Good the Bad the Weird. That’s not a bad place to start a film career, and he brings that same sense of solid pacing between spectacular action pieces to his new film. His script is about a constantly evolving battle of wills between the two men and their ideologies, and as a director he pairs that smart and creative writing with strong action, suspense, and scenes of real beauty and darkness. Plus, and this just may the most important part, the movie is damn entertaining and makes for a great double feature with Unbreakable.
Haunters is available on DVD and Blu-ray from YesAsia.
The Upside: Chilling opening scene; fantastic origin story; score is lively, energetic, and dramatic; great use of comic-book themes without obvious comic-book caricatures; several very cool set-pieces; strong dueling lead performances
The Downside: May be too much death (I know, it’s a stretch); no explanations of abilities; attempts at humor and melodrama don’t always succeed; title is bland and misleading (although better than the generic alternate, Psychic)
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