They say every man has his own daddy issue to deal with, and the adolescent hero of darkly riveting South Korean thriller film “Hwayi” has a particularly overwhelming one. He has been raised, taught, and influenced by five men who have taken care of him since he was taken to their dark criminal world, and, as he comes to furiously resist against them in his twisted oedipal journey, he struggles with his own darkness inherited from his ‘fathers’. He hates them more than before because of that, but they are still a part of his life and his identity no matter how much he resists, and he eventually finds himself becoming more like them – will he become the very monster he has feared since his childhood?
Hawyi(Yeo Jin-goo) looks like a normal high school student on the surface, but he has a dark secret shared with his five ‘fathers’ in a nice house located in some country area outside Seoul, and the tense opening sequence shows us how his life got involved with these people when he was very young. I will not describe it in details, but let’s say this taut moment has some good surprises under its suspenseful mood including where young Hawyi is kept by Seok-tae(Kim Yoon-Seok) and his gangs.
They could kill young Hwayi after their plan to collect the ransom was botched in the end, but he was instead taken under their wings, and that was the beginning of a strange alternative family. 14 years have passed, and Hwayi is now their loving son, and all of them are his dads while Yeong-joo(Lim Ji-eun), Seok-tae’s wife who was a captive just like Hwayi at that time, is like a caring mom to him. Although he has never gone through any proper education in their isolated world, Seok-tae and his gangs have taught Hwayi lots of things including driving and sharpshooting, and, as revealed later in the movie, he is a very good apprentice to make his criminal fathers proud.
Because Hwayi is approaching to adulthood, Jin-seong(Jang Hyeon-seong), the thoughtful and sophisticated member of the bunch who manages their dirty business, thinks Hwayi deserves to have a life better than theirs. While he can lead a fairly good criminal career with his learned skills, Hwayi also has a considerable artistic talent(we see several good sketches in his notebook at one point), and Jin-seong is willing to help him in any possible ways.
However, it seems that Seok-tae, the leader of the bunch(while casually calling other fathers ‘dad’, Hwayi always calls him ‘father’), has the other idea. Hwayi was frequently terrorized by the monster in the basement where he was locked in, and, though it is apparently a pigment of his imagination possibly fueled by his horrible situation, the monster keeps haunting him, and Seok-tae takes a drastic measure to solve Hwayi’s problem once for all; he is going to push Hwayi more deeply into the dark, ruthless criminal world of him and others.
The movie gets darker and bloodier after Hwayi directly participates in his dads’ works and then accidently(or fatefully) learns about himself more than he imagined, and the movie drives its story to the destined point with a vengeance through its volatile mix of family melodrama and crime drama. Some of its surprises can be easily predicted in advance, but they strike us hard with emotional impacts, and that accordingly pushes its main characters to their inevitable conflict calling for blood and revenge.
The director Jang Joon-hwan, who made a long-awaited comeback with this film, shows here that the potential shown in his exceptional debut film “Save the Green Planet!”(2003) is not eroded at all. While it does not have that loony raw power of his debut film, “Hwayi” is a compelling genre piece packed with good action/suspense scenes and accompanying gray ambience. There is always a foreboding sense of fatalism at every corner of the screen, and it is effectively manifested through its gloomy spaces including the certain crucial characters’ lone residence surrounded by demolished houses.
Things get complicated as the police and other underworld figures come into the picture, but the movie stays focused on the love/hate relationship between Hwayi and Seok-tae, and the performances by Kim Yoon-seok and Yeo Jin-goo ably carry the movie even when the plot become shaky at times. As shown in “The Yellow Sea”(2010), another dark South Korean crime thriller drama driven by the darkness of human heart, Kim Yoon-seok is good at conveying the steely brutality behind his plain but commanding appearance, and young actor Yeo Jin-goo does more than holding his own place amid the adult co-actors. The movie is essentially his character’s coming-of-age drama, and Yeo Jin-goo is believable in every step as his character is transformed from a boy fearing his own monster to a man finally engulfing it. In that aspect, the movie reminds me a lot of David Michôd’s “Animal Kingdom”(2010), which was also about the sad loss of innocence in the criminal world.
Although less developed in comparison, the supporting characters bring some colors to the moody story. Cho Jin-Woong, Kim Seong-gyoon, Jang Hyeon-seong, and Park Hae-joon quickly establish their respective characters right from their first appearance; Cho Jin-wong is one of few sympathetic characters in the film, and Kim Seong-gyoon is always on the edge with his possibly psychopathic character. While Lim Ji-eun is pitiful as a woman confined in her hopeless position by her men and then by herself, Nam Ji-hyeon is a plucky high school girl who happens to begin a tentative relationship with Hwayi, and her scenes with Yeo jin-goo are a few precious warm spots in the movie.
While it loses its steam around the ending, “Hwayi” is a gripping noir drama supported by its skillful direction and convincing performances. Like several notable South Korean films, the movie also reflects the dark sides of modern South Korean society through its gritty tale, and there is an interesting aspect associated with social class issues when hidden motives and connections are revealed during a chilling encounter between two contrasting characters. Its view on the modern South Korean society, which is still dominated by Confucian patriarchal ideas and haunted by the history of violence during the 20th Century, is ultimately pessimistic, but its somber ending comes with a small glimmer of hope none the less(There is a tiny but crucial scene after the end credit, so don’t leave the screening room too early).
Mainly because of the local box office failure of “Save the Green Planet!”, Jang Joon-Hwan could never fully expand his career despite lots of critical praises he received for that cult film which has steadily gained its reputation since its release(the movie is one of the best South Korean films of the last decade at least in my opinion). He did not make any feature film for last 10 years except a few short films, but now he succeeds in making his second work with the major Korean actors who can draw lots of audiences, and I am glad to see that it is also a pretty good one. I hope he will be able to go on with more good works.