Ten years after his flamboyant debut, director Joon-Hwan Jang steps out with a much tighter and straightforward crime saga. While it isn’t Save the Green Planet II, Hwayi stacks up well against other Korean vengeance thrillers. In a genre crowded with first rate films over the past decade, Hwayi shows that there can always be room for another.
About a decade ago, Joon-Hwan Jang almost ruined my taste for Korean action films. I mean that as a compliment. I left Save the Green Planet a little numb and confused about what I had seen, and even more undecided about whether I should like it. But then, for a long while, I just couldn’t watch other Korean action films without feeling disappointed that they weren’t more like Save the Green Planet. I guess that’s how you know in the end that you’ve watched a film that was worthwhile; the effects linger and interfere with your other viewing pleasures. It took Jang a decade to put out a second film. He has said in an interview that he works slowly. I should feel a little disappointed that Hwayi: A Monster Boy isn’t nearly the wild ride of its predecessor. It is a much more controlled Korean revenge thriller, a genre that by this time is very established and safe. But safety doesn’t have to mean boring, and Jang’s sophomore effort is worth a viewing or two.
Hwayi is a saga about a young man (Jin-Goo Yeo) who was kidnapped by a gang when he was 3 and raised by them as a son. Hwa-yi is a boy with five fathers; six if you count the his birth father, who he doesn’t remember, but who comes to play a role in the film. It is a saga in the very traditional sense of the word. Were I to sit around a campfire with a bunch of twelfth century Icelanders, they would certainly understand what this story was about, and would probably enjoy it. At the very least they’d be thrilled to find out that we still tell tales about outlawed men who hide out in the country and make a living raiding towns and cities. It is a tale of an injustice that goes unpunished and therefore only grows to involve everyone across two generations until something happens to stop it. Well not exactly everyone – we are limited in the narrative to five orphans, crime victims, the police and the highest levels of Inchon government and commerce. But it does end up involving quite a few people who weren’t involved in the original crime.
Hwayi opens with a botched ransom drop off, which sets off two of the three vengeance cycles told in the film. The first involves the kidnapped victim himself. The five members gang, known in the press as the Day Breakers, must decide what to do with the child they kidnapped. Jin-Sun (Hyun-Sung Jang), the most risk averse of the team, attempts to kill the boy only to be stopped by the leader, Seok-Tae (Yun-Seok Kim). The second revenge cycle also starts during that same day: A young policeman (Young-min Kim) is stabbed and disfigured during a stand-off with the gang and left for dead. He recovers and spends the rest of his career hunting for the Day Breakers.
Hwayi’s third cycle remains largely hidden, but it does play a role in the kidnapping and Seok-Tae’s decision to keep Hwa-yi in captivity and raise him. It involves resentment and a rape at an orphanage years ago. To explain more would spoil the movie, but it is in this tale where revenge and corruption is the most destructive. If there is a critique of the destructive power of violence in the film it is found in the larger cycle. It is in his third cycle where Jang shows what is really lost through revenge, where alternative lives devoted to forgiveness, hope, charity, romantic love and art attempt to make a stand but lose. It is also this third cycle and Hwa-yi’s role in it where the value of holding onto those virtues is questioned.
The main story, though, is Hwa-yi and how this loose end from a kidnapping grows up and what he will become. The first half of the film is largely devoted to his “education.” It counts as the “light” part of the movie. He’s seventeen, and in many ways, the arguments his fathers have about him and the advice they give him are familiar. Should he join the family business or go to art school? Jin-Sun, who thought it prudent to kill him as a child, desires the safety of a college education. Seok-Tae would like him to face up to his recurring nightmares and join the gang. The other father who matters, Dong-bum, would like him to just get laid. Hwa-yi meets a girl, enjoys her company and we could have a standard romance, except his situation isn’t conducive to that.
In many ways, Hwa-yi is a stand in for the false choices given to teenagers which result in them following and recreating the problems of their parents. He obviously respects his fathers, but it is actually his inability to stop thinking of them as fathers even though they are clearly bad men that aids in his captivity and serves as his ironic, but tragic flaw. That he is the one who will snap is a given, and Yeo does a good job in creating contrasts in the “happy youth becomes crazed maniac” role. Unlike many revenge films, I did not find myself losing sympathy for the lead as his violent acts start to add up.
Hwayi doesn’t forget it is an action film and there are plenty of well-edited car chases, suspenseful crime moments and violent showdown set pieces to hit those notes. It is a violent film, but surprisingly tame given the penchant of Korean revenge films to go over the top with torturous deaths. That doesn’t mean it is safe for the squeamish. “Over the top” is relative. The revenge drama is always ripe for criticism for its violence and pandering. The standard moral to revenge drama is that a life of revenge isn’t worth living, although the way revenge is acted out on film, it becomes a satisfying release and glamorous. In Hwayi, the violence is toned down enough that its moral remains clear: we are never at a loss figuring out who the villain is. Its high rating is based on my feeling that it works as both a tragic drama, a thriller and action film, and finding a movie where all three work together is a challenge.