Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Original Title: Gwoemul
Year: 2006
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Writer: Chul-hyun Baek, Joon-ho Bong, Won-jun Ha (as Jun-won Ha)
Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller

On 09 February 2000, the American military base of Yongson releases toxic chemicals in the drain to the Han River under the direct order of an arrogant coroner. Six years later, a mutant squid monster leaves the water and attacks people on the side of the river. The teenager Park Hyun-seo is carried by the creature and vanishes in the river. While grieving her loss, her slow father Park Gang-du; her grandfather and owner of a bar-kiosk nearby the river Park Hie-bong; her aunt and archery medalist Park Nam-Joo; and her graduated unemployed uncle Park Nam-il are sent by the army with all the people that had some sort of contact with the monster to quarantine in a facility. During the night, Gang-du receives a phone call from Hyun-seo telling that she is alive in a big sewage nearby the river. Gang-du tell the militaries but nobody believes on his words, saying that he is delusional due to the shock of his loss. The Park family joins forces trying to find Hyun-seo and rescue her.

OK, not my favorite synopsis ever. I'm too fucking lazy right now to come up with one of my own.

Here is another film that felt like a truggle for me to get through, and it really shouldn't have been in any way. Oh how I wish that the blockbusters here in the U.S. were like this one.

Kang-ho Song again is a stand out. I really think the man can do it all. He has comedic timing and even some slapstick skills, good dramatic skills, I've really become a fan. Here he is playing kind of a lovable loser, the somewhat slow Gang-du Park. He is a single father of Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) who owns and co-operates a riverside snack bar with his older (and also single) father Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon). He has his humorous moments throughout the film (even his blonde hair and saggy jogging pants), but also can be very driven or distraught, and is very believable in every case I thought.

The other members of the family were pretty good, but nothing really stood out for me except for Ah-sung Ko as the 13-year-old daughter. She was about 14 when this film was released, but is very mature in her portrayal. I grew to care for this character despite her somewhat limited screen time. The others are believable, but don't seem to display the range that a Kang-ho Song brings.

I think my favorite part of the film was actually the family interactions and growth during their challenges. The Park family ties seem a bit strained, but we don't get much background as to why outside of the father mentioning something about staying out at night when Gang-du was very small. Their mother was not present. Hyun-seo's apparent death has reunited the family, but when Gang-du gets a broken call from his daughter asking for help, they start working together bringing their respective skills to the table to help how they can: Gang-Du's heart, Nam-Joo's (Du-na Bae) reserve and archery, the unemployed but educated Nam-il's (Hae-il Park) technical abilities, and Hie-bong's fatherly love. There was an awkward moment near the beginning of the film as the family mourns Hyun-seo which I think was meant to be humorous, but just felt really awkward to me as the family roll around on the floor openly bawling. Maybe someone with a better understanding of Korean culture would get this, but I just wanted it to stop as soon as it began.

Another interesting element, and one I read about on the film's wikipedia page, was an anti-American military stance, as well as a portrayal of the Korean government and bureaucracy in general as being somewhat inept. There was an actual occurrence of a Korean mortician working for the U.S. military pouring large amounts of formaldehyde down a drain, and this seems to be what the film is referencing as an older American doctor orders his subordinate to pour old, dirty chemicals down a drain, which eventually leads to the growth over time of the fish squid monster of doom.

After the monster comes out of the water and runs rampant on the banks of the Han river, and a U.S. military man is injured and eventually dies, the U.S. government claims he died of an unnamed and very dangerous virus. Korean officials scramble to find everyone who may have come in contact with the creature, quarantining them and running tests and such alongside the U.S. military to find the virus. Seeing the images of the citizens now walking around with surgical masks is definitely reminiscent of the SARS scare from 2002-2003. The Korean police and military let our main characters escape and cannot find them, presumably letting the virus remain out in public. The U.S. military eventually intervenes with a plan to release an anti-biological chemical called Agent Yellow, obviously a reference to the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam.

I thought the film also could be seen as pro-demonstration... almost an urge to act out. The demonstrators in the film, while only a very small part, were the only outside force not really shown in a negative light. The overbearing U.S. military, the bumbling Korean government, the salaryman who has debt and doesn't care for his job. The educated son Nam-il is unemployed, envies his 9-5 friend for having a job, but really seems to find his true calling in a beautifully shot slow-motion sequence involving Molotov cocktails.

Maybe I am reading too much into this...

The plot was nothing outstanding, as it is definitely the side stories, ideas, and character development that were the driving force for me here. While being a different sort of monster film for these reasons, the main plot just felt kind of standard. This isn't really a complaint so much as an observation. If you've seen a monster film, the monster portions of the film will feel familiar in a way.

While we are on the monster, I felt like the special effects were very well done considering the budget constraints that a Korean film would have unlike a blockbuster US film. ou can see some issues in the animation when the monster swims or interacts with people, and some hazy lines around his limbs at times, but for the most part it looked great. At times, the monster's interactions with people could look really good.

The creature design itself looked awesome, realistic, and the layered mouth was great. I like that the monster was kept small in relation to other movie-monsters (he sits on a truck at one point and is about the same size as it) and shown in detail at all times. There was no real mystery as to what was causing the problems. Almost from the beginning we are presented this mutation and it is around for most of the film.

Joon-ho Bong returns as a director here to the blog, as I previously covered his film Memories of Murder. This film is very different, and shows definite promise of Bong being a very diverse filmmaker. He gets a fantastic performace from Song, although I'm not sure how tough that might be, and another from the youngster Ah-sung Ko as I mentioned as well. The structure here is more straightforward than Memories of Murder, but that probably comes with the territory. This is a monster film at heart, afterall, and not an introspective mystery. Still, he does very well in some fantastic shots, some nice tension created in some quieter moments with the monster and young girl in the sewer, and in showing the characters develop in their own ways. One little touch he has in there that I felt was really nice was an element with the daughter's hand being always out of reach. Bong keeps this theme alive throughout the film despite it not being really focused on. He has some well done comedic elements in there as well that stay understated as not to walk on the more serious elements of the film (The awkward grieving scene excluded).
This film was good stuff, and I would recommend it to anyone really. While it has a strong sci-fi element, the character development and underlying themes can make this more accessible for those that would normally shy away from this sort of film.

Score: 7.5 / 10

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