Country: South Korea
Director: Byeon Yeong-joo (변영주)
Adaptation from: Miyube Miyaki’s novel「火車」 (Kasha, 1992, translated into English as All She Was Worth in 1999)
Screenplay: Byeon Yeong-joo (변영주)
Cinematography: Kim Dong-Young
Soundscore: Kim Hong-jip
Cast: Lee Sun-gyun, Kim Min-hee, Kim Min-jae
Runtime: 117 min
Seen at the film’s UK premiere at the 56th BFI London International Film Festival.
Hwacha is, in essence, a longer, prettier version of CSI Seoul: it is a feature-length film with striking cinematography from the opening shots on but with a story we have been told in some form before, most likely while watching a crime television series. In this particular version of the tale Jang Mun-ho (Lee Sun-gyun), a veterinarian is on his way to visit his parents in Andong, a town outside the capital, to introduce his fiancée Kang Sun-young (Kim Min-hee) to them in advance of their soon-to-be-held wedding. They are a couple like any other, on a trip that is completely ordinary. The sun is shining. The drive is going smoothly. Mun-ho and Sun-young are chatting happily. Then they stop at a rest area by the roadside and Mun-ho goes to buy some coffee. When he returns, Sun-young has vanished. Although he does not realise it just yet, his life has changed forever.
Initially believing that the situation will be resolved quickly, Mun-ho feeds his parents a lie but does report to the police that his wife-to-be has gone missing. There, however, he does not get far: with nothing to suggest that Sun-young’s disappearance was anything other than a voluntary departure on her part, the case is quickly shelved as low-priority. Desperate, Mun-ho turns to his cousin Kim Jong-geun (Jo Sung-ha), a former police detective sacked for taking bribes, and persuades him to investigate the matter. What Kim discovers, however, is everything but what they expected. While Sun-young’s apartment is a complete mess – as if ransacked by burglars, as if someone had left in a hurry – there is not a single fingerprint to be found anywhere, a first hint that an experienced criminal was at work. When the duo digs deeper, even more disturbing revelations come to light: Sun-young, it seems, had no family and friends, but also a history of personal bankruptcy (all details previously unknown to Mun-ho), a possible connection to a murder case and, finally, an identity that is in truth someone else’s.
Unsurprisingly, the discoveries shatter Mun-ho’s reality, the life he lived until now and the future he planned falling to pieces. While he initially clings to the hope that Sun-young will be found quickly and normality will be restored, every new clue uncovered pushes the tale into darker territory, to a point of no return to what once was. Mun-ho’s increasing anguish and despair at these realisations is tangible as the script explores the emotional turmoil of a man that must come to terms with a truth more terrible than ever imagined in his worst nightmares, with Lee Sun-gyun offering a compelling and earnest portrayal.
Kim Min-hee’s character is more elusive as her story is told from somewhat of a distance. We learn about her indirectly as Mun-ho and Jong-geun investigate, catching but glimpses of this beautiful, enigmatic woman as snippets of her life are uncovered. While the film’s title – the English one only, the Korean one points to a mythological demon (see Bonus Bits below) – may allude to both Mun-ho’s and Sun-gyun’s experiences present and past, the filmmaker clearly tries to stir controversy by providing us with a backstory for the latter that is everything but black and white. Questions about guilt and innocence arise and cannot be easily answered, as there is evil but also an individual that has fallen through the holes of society through no fault of her own. And yet, the appeal to sympathy does not quite work for parts of the story, in particular the loan sharks that chase after a teenage high school girl, are not so convincing.
Hwacha is full of twists and turns. It is carefully layered and interspersed with subtle clues to create an unpredictable narrative. Its characters intrigue, its metaphors (a butterfly) terrify. Technically, it is well crafted in sight and sound, the cinematography being striking at times, the score quietly beautiful. And yet Hwacha is not a unique tale: by the time Sun-gyun steps onto the terrace, we can be certain of what will happen, the mechanics of the psychological murder-mystery thriller being all too recognisable. However, fans of the genre are unlikely to mind.
Rating: 7.5/10 (Note: It is the rather rewarding character of Mun-ho and Lee Sun-gyun’s fine portrayal of a man whose world has fallen apart, plus the film’s technical quality that keep the score this high.)
Overall verdict: Hwacha has many ingredients that make a good film: a strong cast that performs well, cinematography shot with care and plenty of thrill in unexpected moments. And yet, it does not quite deliver, presenting us with a story we have seen – somewhere, in some form – before, leaving us with what in the end amounts to no more than a longer, prettier version of CSI Seoul.
- The Korean title apparently is a literal translation of the Japanese novel, with「火車」 referring to a cat-like, corpse-stealing monster from Japanese mythology.
- The film poster that shows Kim Min-hee’s bare back (see Image Gallery below) was deemed too controversial and originally not used in the film’s promotion. It is widely available online of course.
- Other reviews: Hangul Celluloid, Film Biz Asia, Hollywood Reporter, Beyond Hollywood.