From the fevered mind of Joon-Ho Bong, the maniac who brought you Snowpiercer, comes an almost equally batty creature feature about a mutant-fish-serpent thingy who eats Korean people, but not always right away. The story begins, practically Re-Animator style, with a deranged American coroner demanding his Korean subordinate dump all his toxic chemicals into the sink. The sink which drains, as we are informed, into the Han river. (The doctor is played by Scott Wilson, who is best known these days as “Herschel” on “The Walking Dead”.)
This, in very, very short order, indeed, leads to a monster in the Han river. It seems like only a few hours pass, in fact, between the time poor oppressed morgue worker drains the fluids, commits suicide and The Monster leaps from the water to terrorize Korean river-goers. The initial appearance of the monster is, shall we say, a little “rough”, being both so bold and so clearly CGI (done by the defunct San Francisco CGI house, “The Orphanage”, which did movies like Iron Man and HellBoy) that it nearly breaks suspension of disbelief.
A funny thing about that, though, is that this bold daylight assault kind of inures you to the subsequent CGI-ness of things. If you can get past the first monster scene, you’re golden. Also, they used some traditional special effects later on for close-ups, so the monster actually seems to get more realistic as the proceedings wear on.
The movie is centered around the Parks, a family that ends up in the center of the action when the young girl of the family, Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko, Snowpiercer) is taken by the monster when her father, Gang-doo (Snowpiercer) mistakenly grabs the wrong child in an attempt to escape. The two live with the family patriarch, Hie-bong, in his little snack shack on the riverside, but when the girl goes missing (presumed dead), brother Nam-il (Hae-il Park, War of the Arrows and this year’s Fortress, which I really wanted to see) and sister/champion archer Nam Joo (Doona Bae, Cloud Atlas, “Sense8”) show up to berate Gang-doo and wail theatrically.
I mean, seriously theatrically.
The Korean version of the CDC shows up suddenly and tells them all that they’ve been exposed to a dangerous virus and must be quarantined. Then, the hero gets a call which seems to be from the missing Hyun-seo. Apparently The Monster doesn’t eat its victims right away but carries them off for later consumption, and she’s being stored in a giant sewer drain under the river somewhere. This sets up the park family for a grand rescue mission, which they execute poorly, and also sets them up against the U.S. and Korean government, which are (fortunately?) as incompetent as they are, and much less focused.
It’s a common theme in American films for the ne’er-do-well to rise to the occasion, so one of the most remarkable things about this film is that the characters don’t ever really rise above their incompetence, until the very end. And the incompetence is everywhere. The hero can’t stay awake much. He can’t keep himself from eating the tentacles off the squid he’s supposed to be serving to his customers. He can’t save his daughter. His inability to count gets someone killed, in a really memorable scene.
His siblings aren’t much better. His sister tends to choke in her archer competitions, and then decides a bow-and-arrow would be a good way to take down this killer mutant fish-thing that seems largely unimpressed by bullets. His brother’s just kind of a jerk. Between the three of them, there’s just the one kid, which is a potentially good metaphor for Korea as a whole, but works really well just in the literalness of it.
But the incompetence doesn’t end there. Besides the aforementioned coroner who starts the ball rolling, there’s an American who gets himself killed trying to stop the monster, and another American doctor (Paul Lazar, the crosseyed bug-guy from Silence of the Lambs who also has a role in Snowpiercer) who basically is spreading the rumor about the virus to avoid any information about the monster getting out. And part of his plan is to lobotomize Gang-doo, but he botches that, too. The Korean military fares no better, basically being run higgledy-piggledy by the buffoonish Parks.
And this is a common theme in the Korean films I’ve seen: They really seem to have no confidence in the government. Going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. I mean, think about it: We had The Wailing, where the incompetent corrupt cop gets his ass handed to him by the devil; there’ve been a variety of Korean films about the Japanese invasion, in which the Korean government is varying degrees of incompetent from completely self-serving (Warriors of the Dawn) to just plain not there (The Handmaiden); the only positive view I can think of is from My Way, which is more about the military than civil service.
Oh, and then there’s the completely botched plan to capture the Parks for the reward, which reflects rather ill on Koreans as a whole. I mean, honestly. These guys have a pretty well run society but it’s not clear how that happens from any of the movies.
Ultimately, however, it makes for a unique moviegoing experience, as the sole, consistently competent character is Hyun-seo, the missing daughter, and she lacks competence at some very important moments. (*kaff*) Despite all this, one tends to like it because one ultimately ends up liking the main characters. Not admiring, exactly. But almost empathizing with, in a Homer Simpson sort of way.
The kids liked it, too.