Review: Tone-deaf MONSTER Exhibits Unusual Cruelty Towards Women

Ingenue Kim Go-eun gets her first top billing in director Hwang In-ho's uneven and sadistic revenge thriller Monster. Exhibiting the same irreverence towards genre as in his previous film Spellbound (2011) but with none of the panache, Hwang fails to keep things on track with a slow to start narrative, a young star out of her depth and a disturbing streak of misogyny.

Bok-soon operates a small vegetable stand in the countryside. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, she is prone to fits of anger when people rub her the wrong way. She lives with her younger sister who is kidnapped and killed by the cold-blooded Tae-soo, who commits the deed to cover his tracks for another slaying. Setting out to avenge her sister, Bok-soon goes on the hunt for Tae-soo, but he too is trying to find her.

Brutality against women is not hard to find in Korean cinema. Whether as a reflection of Korean society's still patriarchal nature or as fodder in genre material, it's an inevitable element of many Korean films. Director Hwang, lacing his latest with gratuitous violence, falls in the latter camp. Unlike local films that have attempted to out the oft-times despicable treatment of women in Korea, Hwang's film, for its wanton, sustained and unnecessary depiction of violence, seems surprisingly cruel towards the female body. The worst instance comes at the end, in a savage, blood-soaked finale that goes way beyond the pale.

The story is a pretty simple one, pitting a grieving family member against a remorseless killer. Yet, though the film's marketing suggests the narrative is a standoff between the two leads, with the tagline 'Murderer vs. Crazy Girl' (the latter a reductive and unflattering reference to Bok-soon), Monster takes a terribly long time to get started with a set up that is less build up than weary exposition. Much of this early drag is a result of Hwang's heavy-handed mashing of genres and tones. This tactic served him well in Spellbound but here his machinations seem almost schizophrenic. A handful of scenes are very effective, such as a brief attic-set flashback to Tae-soo's horrific childhood or a group of thugs demonstrating which instrument would be best served to dispatch their target, but these are lost within Monster's fragmentary melee of a narrative.

After her breakout performance in Eungyo (2012), young star Kim Go-eun has experienced a swift rise both at home and abroad. In Monster, her second feature, her character and performance share nothing in common with her debut. However, for all the attempts to show off her range and position as an exciting new actress on the Korean scene, Kim's latest turn hits all the wrong marks. She makes a valiant stab at a frustratingly over-caricatured yet threadbare character but her physical and manic performance quickly becomes exhausting.

Lee Min-ki, the affable lead of Spellbound who acquitted himself well in last year's Very Ordinary Couple, is tattooed and shredded as the icy Tae-soo, but his malevolent smiles, good looks and sophisticated gait, accessorized by a fancy, modern home in the countryside and his affinity for wine, add up to a wearily familiar performance. It echoes the many emotionless and cool villains in Korean cinema that tend to be played by young idols. Lee has proven that he can do better, so this dull turn does him no favors in his growth as an actor.

Kim Roi-ha, who you may recognize as the violent detective who injures his leg in Memories of Murder (2003), is given a less affected character and while his down to earth persona was likely designed to contrast with Tae-soo, his solid performance only serves to make the leads look silly. Also impressing in a small comic role is Bae Sung-woo (Way Back Home) as one of Kim's henchman.

With its strong stylistic overtones and willingness to experiment, Hwang's film is more of a disappointment than an outright failure as one can plainly see that he's capable of better, which he will surely deliver again in the future. But the one thing I can't let the film off the hook for is its cruelty towards young woman. The violence is not spurred on by a social agenda and its persistence is disturbing. At first a clunky misfire but ultimately an unpleasant creation, Monster leaves a bitter aftertaste, with little to show for it.

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  • KashSeff

    Andrew, I doubt anyone who saw the violence against women in I Saw The Devil found it titillating. In fact, it actually served Choi Min Sik's character well as an unrelenting monster (or Devil, if you like) that needed to be stopped at all costs.

    And if I remember correctly, a number of men were brutalised heavily in that movie too.

  • Andrew Hernandez

    I felt Drevil was teetering between being a serious crime movie like Se7en and being a trashy exploitation film. Some people say that was the intention.

    I figured if anyone was turned on by Devil, they were for the same reasons as with the older films where women are brutalized.

    If the intention was to make Min-Sik worse, I can appreciate that, but it's still a hard watch.

    Yes, men were brutalized too, but the camera didn't longer on their nude bodies or show them in sensual lighting or angles.

  • KashSeff

    Do you have a problem with the way it was shot or the actresses that were used? None of them were unattractive in the least, especially Lee Byung-Hun's wife at the beginning of the movie who served as the catalyst for his revenge and I recall only one such scene that kinda fits your description but I'd hardly call that titillating either.

    I'm not suggesting that Devil was an easy watch either (and the movie itself has other flaws) but the trailers I saw never suggested anything otherwise. It was not going to be a fun romp like Good Bad Weird and I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone with a weak constitution and this movie even made some of my staunchest gore fiend friends queasy. But it's a high tension thriller that also serves as an antidote to run-of-the-mill revenge thrillers that's churned out year on year. Many revenge movies use revenge to serve as a means to an end but Devil tried to take the concept a little further, and to me, tries to illustrate the difference between getting revenge and serving justice. They are not the same thing and many revenge movies are guilty of blurring those lines to serve some conservative wet dream.

    Now I've not seen Monster and it may be everything this review suggests but then what makes the violence against women in Korean movies any different than violence against women in Western movies? If it's the case that you don't want to see violence portrayed onscreen isn't that more to do with personal taste rather than a perceived flaw?

  • Andrew Hernandez

    What makes violence against women different between Asian and Western cinema is that too often, women in Asian films are not portrayed as assertive or confident.

    Yes, American cinema still falls several steps back in the overall treatment of women in film, but by comparison, especially with Korean serial killer films, the women are portrayed as defenseless, submissive victims.

    There are many exceptions to this rule, and both cultures have their own problems with sexism, but in Korean cinema, it's more apparent for me.

    I'm not a prude at all, and when a woman chooses to sex herself up for a movie and is empowered, I have no complaints. But especially when it comes to rape, I wish movies from all over the world would be more mindful.

  • KashSeff

    I have to disagree with you on a few points. Firstly, if you look at the breadth of Asian cinema and by that I mean including Hong Kong and Japan you don't have to look too far to find assertive, empowered or confident women in Asian cinema. Michelle Yeoh is the easiest example I can give you, the late Anita Mui has given her fair share. The character Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell fits your mold quite neatly too and lets not forget the classic Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.

    Secondly, in regards to the portrayal of the female victims in Devil, the antagonist is an aggressive serial killer who selects his victims which in itself is not implausible. In order to keep one step ahead of his pursuer it wouldn't make much sense for him to go after victims who would put up a fight and the movie suggests he has great experience in this area.

    Thirdly, every actress effectively makes a choice to appear in rape, nude or sex scenes. Monica Bellucci in Irreversible is a potent example of this and she has appeared in a wide variety of roles. I would argue that such scenes are exploitative if they didn't serve a purpose in terms of consistency, tone or plot. Devil is consistently brutal and dark in tone. Again, this all comes down to taste because we're all adults here, we know what we like and what we don't like.

    I'm pretty surprised that you are offended by the portrayal of women in Korean serial killer movies when there are other genres in Korean cinema, namely romantic dramas and comedies (which aren't really targeted at men, let's face it), that I believe do a far more effective job at sabotaging the image of women.

  • Andrew Hernandez

    Yes, I'm aware of those other actresses and movies, and those were the exceptions to
    the rule I was referring to.

    I'm also aware that serial killers specifically target victims who wouldn't fight back, but with Monster and Devil, I don't get the sense that assertive women exist in those worlds.

    It sounds like if Monster is marketed as a female empowerment movie, it's about as much as one as I Spit on Your Grave, and most people know what a load that statement is.

    I haven't seen many Korean dramas or comedies, but if women aren't often strong in them, it's for the same reasons as in other dramas.

  • Hanajun Chung

    I'm curious to see what you all thought of Bedevilled. That film is deliberate when it comes to mistreating women, but I feel that its finale worked because of how brutal things escalated. I was quite horrified throughout most of that film, but I ultimately left Bedevilled completely breathless from the visceral and emotional experience.

    Personally, I've seen many Korean films that do this to female characters, and a few have left me quite disgusted (I'm looking at you, Missing). I'm being vague to avoid spoilers, but I'm curious to know what you all thought of Bedevilled and the end. Yes, it's exploitative, but I do believed it earned that right to be.

    Btw, I enjoyed reading this thread and the discussion it has created.

  • KashSeff

    I'm glad you enjoyed the discussion, I just merely want to challenge the notion that all onscreen violence against women (and other depictions of violence) is bad. In the case of Devil, if the violence fits within the tone and the plot is it really a requirement to get the sense of a world that inhabits empowered women when the movie is really about two guys playing an extreme and interchangeable game of cat and mouse? In my opinion? Not if it exists to serve and validate your OWN VALUES instead of serving the MOVIE.

    I've seen Bedevilled and yeah, it's pretty explicit when it comes to showing the abuse the lead character goes through when living in a secluded village with "traditional" values that would make even the hardest fundamentalist wince. Now I've seen it only once but though I don't consider it a favourite, I thought it was pretty good. The biggest surprise to me was not the abuse administered by the husband (whether his behaviour was a result of maternal pressure or nurturing is something I'm trying to remember) but the behaviour of the friend who would consistently deny or ignore any pleas for help until it was too late. If you felt it was visceral and emotional, the violence depicted served a purpose because upon viewing, no one in their right mind would want to treat someone or be treated the way the lead character had. I mean, how on earth could she find empowerment to rise against this abuse in an isolated village on a small island if she couldn't gain this from her city-dwelling friend? Her best friend, I might add.

    Sometimes when I watch these violent scenes I wonder if a different approach such as editing it to the effect of "leaving it to my imagination" would be as effective. I find that this would depend on your own imagination and that with Korean directors, their vision in this area trumps my imagination almost every time.

  • maikel

    where can i find this movie?

  • Andrew Hernandez

    Glad I read this article. I've always had a problem with the way females are sometimes portrayed in Korean films.

    I'm reminded of I Saw The Devil, where women were brutalized, but it was portrayed like we were supposed to find it titilating.

    And of course The Host, where a son is worth more than a daughter. Do actresses still feel the need to retire and be housewives?

  • Pierce Conran

    While I enjoyed it, I SAW THE DEVIL is a film that I have a very tough time defending, for the reasons you've outlined. Yet MONSTER's cruelty feels more hollow and callous, particularly as it is directed towards woman (mostly girls).

    I can't agree with you about THE HOST though. Bong is very deliberate in his use of gender roles and *SPOILER* the young girl's death in the film can be taken as a form of sacrifice which subtly criticizes Korean family dynamics. Despite its genre credentials, the film is really a very clever melodrama that lampoons traditional Korean melodramatic tropes.

  • Khaldrogo

    Where did you watch this movie?

  • Andrew Hernandez

    Your reply is very appreciated.

    That's a thing; I thought Devil was well made, and liked other parts about it too, but the portrayal of women is what did me in.

    If I'm wrong about The Host, I couldn't be happier. I was led to believe that the movie's message was that daughters aren't as important as sons, but if that's untrue, I shouldn't feel bad about enjoying the movie.

    What was the last Korean movie where a woman was not treated like trash with no commupance?

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