FANTASTIC FEST 2011: HAUNTERS Review

Deliriously mixing elements of Scanners and Unbreakable, with a comedic verve reminiscent of An American Werewolf in London, Kim Min-suk's Haunters is not just the best Korean genre film I have seen in years, it is a downright classic.


A maladjusted, one-legged psychic, Cho-in, roams South Korea inducing an epidemic of self-inflicted neck-snaps across an unsuspecting innocent populous, spurred on by a self-righteous superiority complex brought about by a childhood trauma and the monetary need to further his burgeoning hobby of painting miniatures in swanky hotels.  Enter then, our protagonist, the optimistic and outgoing Kyu-nam, who having just experienced a streak of nearly debilitating bad-luck, is ready to bounce back with his new job as a "security manager" of a decrepit loan shark office, run by an endearing old man and his "eyes in the skies" daughter. Unfortunately for Kyu-nam, his new job is also the latest target for our disturbed wandering psychic, but upon making his house-call an unexpected truth is revealed: Kyu-nam is unaffected by Cho-in's powers. 


With the dual epiphany of Cho-in's dangerous powers and his own immunity,  Kyu-nam thus resolves himself to stop Cho-in at any cost. Unfortunately, with Cho-in's psychic ability to render any human into a loyal and unflinching slave, Kyu-nam soon finds himself up against every conscious mind Cho-in get his eyes one. Thus ensues a psychic throw-down and one of the most entertaining genre films to come out of South Korea since Bong Joon-ho's The Host.


A confession: I never really warmed up to The Good, The Bad and the Weird, which was penned by Haunters' director. It felt like an over-produced posturing of generic cliches that left me shrugging, while audiences were cheering. But despite the presence of manga-style hair-cuts and obligatory posing, Kim Min-suk gets deeper then the superficial veneer of so many modern South Korean films with Haunters and actually crafts some damn fine characterizations to carry his rather brilliant spin on the superhero genre. You are not just watching these characters engage in high-flying action, you come to love them too, and Kim absolutely has you rooting for their survival and success, especially Kyu-nam's scene-stealing immigrant buddies from Turkey and Ghana who join him in his quest to vanquish Cho-in. 


Kim slams down on the accelerator early on and is consistently inventive in escalating the action. To be truthful, there comes a point where Cho-in's psychic tactics become rather repetitive, but the visual image of bodies emotionlessly hurling themselves at our hero never ceases to be compelling. And its strategic conceit is perhaps most brilliantly exploited in a climactic sequence that takes a cue from The Matrix Reloaded freeway chase, but employs some tangible stakes. 


What makes the proceedings even more compelling is the film's refusal to exposiate the character's powers and abilities, refreshingly letting the audience put the pieces together themselves as the movie bounds along. The true scope of one character's particular abilities aren't even fully acknowledged until the film's well-earned extraneous ending (a rarity in Korean genre cinema these days) and that the film doesn't drag on past two hours to get there is also a welcome relief. 


However, Haunters' secret weapons, what truly elevates it above recent Korean genre fare, are its wonderful eccentric details. Cho-in's inexplicable wooden-leg, the way Kyu-nam's van poppa-wheelies when it stops short, the charming hand-made weapons Kyu-nam's friends concoct to do psychic battling, an extended comic moment with a nebbish police officer, or the brilliant and completely out of left field gag involving da Vinci's "Last Supper". All of these charming details coupled with the frequently breathtaking supernatural violence and horror that effectively sobers the film's foray fluidly in and out of comedic reverie, are what make Haunters truly something special and are what mark Kim Min-suk as pulling off one of the most confident and impressive genre film debuts since Joe Cornish's Attack the Block. Sure that is pretty recent, but hey, 2011 is kind of the bee's knees, ain't it?


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