The Daybreakers are a group of five men whose rap sheets include murder, armed robbery, assault and worse, but after trying their hand at kidnapping a three year old boy only to see the ransom drop go bust they decide to add something new to their repertoire – fatherhood. They raise the boy, now named Hwayi (Yeo Jin-gu), as their own. It’s a harsh childhood as five sociopathic fathers is no replacement for the love of a real parent, but he learns kindness and affection from his surrogate mother, Yeong-joo (Lim Ji-eun), who’s also a long-term captive of the men.
Hwayi is raised to fear and respect his fathers, but they’re also capable of bonding with the boy in an attempt to shape him into one of them. Over the years they teach him their various specialties until finally, twelve years after stealing him from his parents, they take him on a job and pressure him to make his first kill. Already affected by being forced to murder someone, Hwayi is thrown for a far bigger loop when he discovers the identity of the victim and the details of his own existence.
Hwayi: A Monster Boy is a rare example – and I don’t say this lightly – of nearly perfect genre cinema. Writer/director Jang Joon-hwan’s long-awaited follow-up to 2003’s Save the Green Planet is a deft and bloody melange of action, suspense, comedy, heart, drama and humanity that refuses to let your attention wander. (For the record, I also don’t use the word “melange” lightly either.)
Each of Hwayi’s five fathers have their own skill set – one’s a sniper, one’s the getaway driver, one’s the planner, and so on – and they each differ in their relationship with the boy too. Ki-tae (Jo Jin-woong) is a bit simple in the head, but he feels genuine love and concern for his adopted son. (His attempt to teach Hwayi about “the shocker” is priceless.) Jin-seong (Jang Hyeong-seong) feels similarly, but his concerns are fueled by the responsibility he feels towards the boy whose life they’ve irrevocably altered. Seok-tae (Kim Yun-seok) meanwhile is the group’s leader, the man each of the others fear and a strict taskmaster for both Hwayi and Yeong-joo.
One of the film’s many accomplishments is its mastery of tone. Korean cinema is generally far more adept than Hollywood at mixing the light and the dark without lessening one or both halves, and A Monster Boy continues that trend by effortlessly moving from moments of warmth and kindness to ones horrific and cruel. The fathers are constantly walking that fine line as we engage with them as playful and highly entertaining characters only to receive a stark reminder of their individual and collective evil.
We’re kept on edge throughout, frequently expecting the worst because we’ve already been made witness to the fact that no one is safe in this world. The resulting tension and suspense is masterfully cast out only to be whipped taut as the hook is set in our hearts and imaginations, but Jang is always ready with a moment of levity or action allowing us time to relax before the next dramatic hit.
The action scenes – shootouts, fight scenes and a wonderfully crafted car chase – are both frequent and excellent enough to qualify the film as a pure action thriller, but while it’s wholly satisfying in that limited frame the film succeeds as something far richer. In addition to fleshed out characters and sharply scripted events, the film gives thought to the psychology of violence on both the perpetrator and the victim. The idea of nature vs nurture, the strength needed to break free of fear and even the hold of Stockholm syndrome come into play, and it’s all paired with strong performances and highly visceral thrills. The movie can be enjoyed with only a surface appreciation, but those who want a meatier revenge thriller will also find satisfaction here.
Jang is orchestrating the entire affair behind the scenes, but credit is due to the entire ensemble cast. More precisely, Yeo, Lim and Kim deserve praise for elevating their characters. Yeo holds his own against a cast of veterans with a difficult role that sees him as both victim and aggressor, and he strikes just the right emotional chord as he faces the sensory overload coming his way. Lim is in a similar (albeit smaller) boat, but she manages to deliver heart and heartbreak amid the carnage. Kim, the most recognizable actor here thanks to his stellar work in the equally brilliant The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, uses his slumped frame and indifferently menacing gaze to incredible effect as the true monster of the tale.
At over two hours Hwayi: A Monster Boy features an abundance of crowd-pleasing moments that punctuate a series of dramatically compelling characters and rewarding sequences. A singular narrative contrivance feels unnecessary, but it doesn’t slow down or stop the film’s powerful drive towards its conclusion. This is pure entertainment… violent, sweet, cruel, joyous and remarkable entertainment that delights darkly with nearly every frame. Now if only we can convince Jang not to wait another decade before delivering a third film.
The Upside: Fantastic tonal balance; constantly engaging, frequently suspenseful, dramatic or fun; filled with crowd-pleasing sequences; beautifully crafted action scenes; strong acting and characters throughout; CGI use is sharp and effective; post-credits final note is emotionally satisfying
The Downside: Unnecessary plot contrivance; minor character misstep in third act
On the Side: Jang Joon-hwan’s only other credit in the eleven years between features is as director of a segment in the 2010 anthology film Camellia.