Country: South Korea
Director: Jang Joon-Hwan
Producer: Lee Jung-dong
Screenplay: Park Joo-suk
Cinematography: Kim Ji-Yong
Cast: Kim Yun-Seok, Yeo Jin-Goo, Lee Kyoung-Young, Jang Hyun-Sung, Cho Jin-Woong, Kim Sung-Kyun, Nam Ji-Hyun
Runtime: 125 min
Film’s official website: N/a
Trailer: (Please note that the trailer reveals quite a lot of the plot – you may want to skip it.)
Seen at the 9th London Korean Film Festival. Special thanks go to the LKFF organisers for providing me with a press ticket.
Hwayi, an Oedipal action thriller that falls neatly into its genre as well as into Korean cinema (of the darker kind) more generally, comes as the long-awaited return of director Jang Joon-hwan, who last made a feature–length film in 2003 (지구를 지켜라!/Jigureul Jikyeora!/Save the Green Planet, 2003).
Its story does not offer anything especially new: kidnapped as a baby for reasons that have yet to be revealed, Hwa-yi (Yeo Jin-Goo) is raised by a gang of five men who run a plant nursery by day but really earn their living by much shadier means (brutal robberies and contract killings). Their de facto leader is Seok-Tae (Kim Yun-Seok), a ruthless man described by one of his (briefly surviving) victims as having eyes that are “not human”. While all five men function as father-figures for Hwa-yi, it is Seok-Tae that is the real authority – the abeoji (father) versus the rest of the appas (dads) – and who decides to bring up the boy in his likeness and turn him into a cold-blooded killer. Although we do not see much of Hwa-yi’s more innocent times, early scenes in the film hint that, at fourteen, he is a much more sensitive soul than Seok-Tae. He has an affinity for drawing and is currently harbouring sweet first crush on a girl in the neighbourhood. Still, Hwa-yi spends his afternoons in mad car chases with the police and sniper-shooting a hog’s head to bloody bits in the forest without so much as batting an eyelid. While some of his appas – particularly the more gentle-minded Ki-tae (Cho Jin-woong) – hope to send him away (to art school, for a different future altogether), Seok-Tae has other things in mind and has Hwa-yi join one crucial killer mission, which however doesn’t go quite as planned and sets off a chain of fateful events. More than this I won’t reveal, as the specific twists and turns that follow are already fairly predictable, certainly for anyone familiar with the myth of Oedipus, but also for those that have seen other Korean productions from the genre.
Indeed, within that genre, Hwayi generally does well. Its narrative is fast-paced, the story tightly plotted if without any real surprises. Visuals are stylish and overall rely on an atmospheric, gritty colour scheme and graphic display of violence as Jang has no hesitation to show it all (the film has certainly filled my quota for gushing blood and dead bodies for the rest of the year). Within all the gore, there are – also emphasised by the producer in the Q&A that followed the screening – deeper reflections about human nature and the heart of darkness (or monster) within all of us, although, again, none of the questions raised is really new. More impressive however is the cast, with the the five fathers all being played by well-known veteran Korean actors. While there were initially some concerns about whether a youngster like Yeo Yin-goo – fifteen at the time of filming – would be able to hold up against Kim Yun-Seok & co, Yeo’s performance is equally sensitive and powerful, winning him Best New Actor awards both from the Korean Association of Film Critics and the Blue Dragon Film Awards in 2013 and leaving viewers with a young and rising talent to keep their eyes on.
Fairly representative of its action/revenge thriller genre, Hwa-yi is sleek and stylish as it comes with a fast-paced narrative and plenty of gorily graphic fight scenes, yet does not offer much that is surprising or even new – except, perhaps, a young and rising talent to keep one’s eyes on.
- Alternative reviews: easternKicks, Hollywood Reporter, Film School Rejects, TwitchFilm.
- Fun fact: The name Hwayi is actually the name of a plant.
Images from the Q&A with producer Lee Jung-dong: