To this date, South Korean director Jang Joon-hwan has only made two feature-length films. The first is 2003’s Save the Green Planet!, a gratuitously gory piece with an off-kilter tone a la The Dark Knight‘s Joker. The second is 2013’s Hwayi: A Monster Boy. Hwayi is decidedly less insane than Save the Green Planet (though that’s like saying someone is less insane than Charles Manson) and falls more in line with other Korean gangster or revenge films.
The film’s plot centers around a 17 year-old boy named Hwayi who’s been raised by five criminal fathers to become the perfect killing machine. At the cusp of adulthood, Hwayi has incipient longings of a normal life that start to make him press at his existence’s boundaries and unanswered questions. When his five fathers take him on his first crime, Hwayi discovers that they have been concealing a critical — and horrible — part of his past. Traumatized from the finding, Hwayi swears revenge upon his fathers.
If this sounds similar to Oldboy or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, that’s because it is. While Hwayi has a decently unique premise, the film is quite similar in tone and plot construction to other Korean revenge films. Compared with the claustrophobic brutality of Save the Green Planet! (which consists heavily of torture scenes in a basement), Hwayi‘s violence occurs in more traditionally cold-blooded scenes with car chases and gunfights within industrial warehouses. In Hwayi, the bloodletting usually happens for a reason, as opposed to purely for bloodletting’s sake.
What Hwayi does try to share with Save the Green Planet! is a sense of insanity among its characters; for instance, Hwayi (the boy) has frequent visions of a monster that’s manifested onscreen in all its CGI glory. However, Hwayi’s monster feels like a convenient way to package up all the problems of a boy who, given his upbringing, should be way more screwed up than he’s depicted onscreen. Granted, making Hwayi only as insane as other Korean revenge film characters probably helped the movie perform better at the box office (where it did have a strong showing).
Ultimately, Hwayi is an entertaining and thoughtful piece that has slick action scenes and manages to grapple with a boy’s prematurely shattered innocence and conflicted sense of parentage. However, if you’ve seen a lot of Korean revenge or gangster films, it will feel familiar, a regular train ride compared with the roller coaster of Director Jang’s Save the Green Planet.
Hwayi: A Monster Boy (Korean: 화이: 괴물을 삼킨 아이) — Directed by Jang Joon-hwan. First released October 2013. Running time 2hr 6min. Starring Yeo Jin-goo, Kim Yoon-seok, Cho Jin-woong, and Park Yong-woo.