Contemporary crime mystery
2012, colour, 2.35:1, 114 mins
Directed by Yoo Ha (유하 | 庾河)
By Derek Elley
Fri, 02 March 2012, 09:30 AM (HKT)
Poorly constructed crime thriller, with a miscast female lead and unconvincing plot. Asian and genre events.
Mapo district, Seoul, the present day. Middle-aged police detective Jo Sang-gil (Song Gang-ho), a single father with a young son and daughter, is assigned the seemingly straightforward case of a man, Oh Gyeong-il, who set fire to himself inside a car. Chafing at his lack of promotion after so long on the police force, but under pressure from his boss-cum-friend (Shin Jeong-geun), he also grudgingly agrees to work with rookie detective Cha Eun-yeong (Lee Na-yeong), a 30-year-old divorcee who has just been transferred from motorcycle patrol duty. The dead man, who had drugs in his system, has a large dog-bite on his thigh but no fingerprints. The police discover the immolation was not suicide but was triggered by a timer in the victim's trouser belt. Sang-gil traces the sex club the victim had visited but bawls out Eun-yeong when she makes an amateurish error during a fight. Against protocol, Sang-gil omits to file reports on the progress of the case, as he wants to earn all the kudos himself and thereby a promotion. His boss finds out, just as a second victim, Nam Sang-hun, is found bitten to death by a large dog or wolf. After talking to dog-trainers, the police learn the man they need to see is Min Tae-shik; during a raid on his house, Min escapes and a wolf-dog subsequently kills a woman in the backstreets. Eun-yeong starts questioning police-dog trainers, as well as investigating those missing or dead, and comes up with the name of Gang Myeong-ho, who supposedly committed suicide a while ago. She sets off to investigate on her own.
Despite its stellar provenance — megastar SONG Gang-ho 송강호 | 宋康昊 as a world-weary cop, poet-turned-director YOO Ha 유하 | 庾河 at the reins, and a well-respected novel by Japanese author NONAMI Asa 乃南アサ as the source material — Howling 하울링 (2011) is a big disappointment, neither gripping as a police procedural, exciting as a thriller, nor involving on a character level. It's also a double disappointment coming from Yoo, one of South Korea's least internationally-known writer-directors but one with a steadily rising career the past decade that's been notable for high-quality writing and dialogue, as well as, increasingly, direction — from Marriage is a Crazy Thing 결혼은 미친 짓이다 (2002) and Spirit of Jeet Kune Do: Once Upon a Time in High School 말죽거리 잔혹사 (2003) through the masterly gangster epic A Dirty Carnival 비열한 거리 (2006) to the involving costume triangle A Frozen Flower 쌍화점 (2008).
Nonami's 1996 novel (literally Freezing Fangs but known in English as The Hunter) is more notable for its atmosphere and its characterisation of the protagonist — a female detective, Otomichi Takako, on her first case paired with an older cop who has little time for women — than for its crime plotting. In Yoo's adaptation, the story, which revolves around a murderous wolf-dog, just seems increasingly ridiculous when transferred to the big screen in modern-day Seoul, and its female lead (here renamed Cha Eun-yeong) is hardly the dramatic centre. Apart from his lively comedy-drama Marriage Is a Crazy Thing, Yoo has always been a stronger writer-director of men rather than women, and in Howling Cha comes over as a rather annoying figure who justifiably earns the scorn of her grizzled, maverick partner.
There's very little screen chemistry between Song, who by now can play a scruffy cop without even breaking sweat, and actress LEE Na-yeong 이나영 | 李娜英, whose major attribute is her saucery eyes and knows it. Here the latter, best known for cute or romantic roles (Please Teach Me English 영어 완전정복 (2003), Someone Special 아는 여자 (2004)), is simply miscast and out of her acting depth, making the woman-in-a-man's-world cliche seem even more old-fashioned at a time when tough female cops are commonplace on South Korean screens.
With a different actress and more balance between the two leads, the film would have worked better; but it also needed a stronger technician than Yoo to pull off the trick of making a wolfdog serial-killer into a believable (and gripping) movie. The best bits of Howling are in the first half when it still promises rather than has to deliver; but after some effective early shocks, the plotting becomes more and more fragmentary, with no clear dramatic or emotional line, and the endless fighting between the detectives becomes tiresome and distracting. For a climax, Yoo finally resorts to pure melodrama, involving Song's character, his emotionally troubled family life, and the killer mutt itself. Halfway between a horror-thriller and a police procedural, and way over-long at almost two hours, Howling doesn't satisfy on any count.
ContactSales: Asia: M-Line Distribution, Seoul (firstname.lastname@example.org); non-Asia: CJ E&M, Seoul (email@example.com)
Theatrical release: South Korea, 16 Feb 2012.
Presented by CJ Entertainment (SK), United Pictures (SK). Produced by Opus Pictures (SK), Film Poeta (SK). Executive producers: Katherine Kim, Jay Gil, Lee Tae-hun. Producer: Lee Tae-hun.
Script: Yoo Ha. Adaptation: Park Dong-shik. Novel: Nonami Asa (The Hunter 凍える牙, 1996). Photography: Gong Pyeong-jae. Editing: Park Gok-ji. Music: Kim Jun-seok. Production design: Lee Seung-han. Costumes: Lee Ji-yeon. Sound: Lee Ji-su, Choi Tae-yeong. Action: Park Jeong-ryul. Special effects: Hwang Hyo-gyun, Gwak Tae-yong. Visual effects: Lee Jeon-hyeong.
Cast: Song Gang-ho (Jo Sang-gil), Lee Na-yeong (Cha Eun-yeong), Shin Jeong-geun (chief detective), Lee Seong-min (Yeong-cheol, detective), Im Hyeon-seong, Jeong Jin (detectives), Jo Yeong-jin (Jeong-a's father), Nam Bo-ra (Jeong-a), Gwon Tae-weon (Choi, the racketeer), Lee Min-ho (Sang-gil's son), Jeong In-gi (coroner), Jang In-ho, Kim Gyeong-ryong, Kim Dong-yun.