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by Jay Seaver

"Rhymes with 'Haunters', but doesn't capture it."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: 2011's "Haunters" was an excellent Korean movie that established a simple premise - two people with opposite superpowers (mind control and rapid healing) on a collision course - and delivered with entertaining action pieces, a likable cast of characters, and style to complement its straight-ahead drive. I figured it for a US remake, but Japan got there first, and sort of screwed it up.

The initial set-up is, in fact, almost exactly the same: Ten or fifteen years ago, an abusive father tried to kill his son but succeeded only in unleashing his powers to control anyone he sees, with the enraged boy forcing his father to snap his own neck. The boy is grown now, limping through the world on a prosthetic leg, making people give him whatever he needs and occasionally adding control just because he can. Elsewhere in the city, mild-mannered Shuichi Tanaka (Takayuki Yamada) works for a moving company with friends Jun (Taiga) and Akira (Motoki Ochiai), at least until he is hit by a car and recovers impossibly quickly. He eventually winds up taking a job in the driver's guitar shop and getting close to his daughter Kanae (Satomi Ishihara). When the "monster" (Tatsuya Fujiwara) robs the shop, it turns out that Shuichi is not vulnerable to his powers, and that just cannot be allowed!

This version, adapted by Yusuke Watanabe and directed by Hideo Nakata, has some nice details (although giving a kid with immense psychic powers a copy of the Akira manga to read and latch onto may have been a bad idea), but it also does some completely unnecessary things. Much like the recent Ju-on reboot, the cast skews younger than that of the original, and while there's a certain logic to it, there's also a certain bit of weight lost. It's a weird bit of narrow-casting to appeal to a core audience which is also reflected in how Kyu-nam's Ghanian and Turkish friends are now otaku or gay, with no mention of Kanae having a western mother. The unusual diversity of Haunters's cast played into a theme, which is why seeing it reduced is somewhat disappointing.

Then again, I'm also having a hard time remembering the last gay male character as prominent as Jun in a mainstream Japanese movie, so it could be a big deal, even if Taiga does play him as a rather broad stereotype. He and Motoko Ochiai are simple but effective odd-couple sidekicks, a little more memorable than Takayuki Yamada and Satomi Ishihara are as Shuichi and Kanae. They're not quite bland - he does a good reluctant hero without overselling it and she covers the annoyed to friendly range well enough - but they are characters more likely to be remembered for their functions than their personalities.

This is not a particular problem for Tatsuya Fujiwara, who may not have the most complicated character but is certainly going to make sure people remember his performance. He sneers, yells, and limps around as if this guy hasn't been disabled all his life. It's a fairly hammy performance, but when a character is given underlying and immediate notices as basic as this guy's, there's really no reason not to go big with it. Fujiwara actually does a nice job of capturing how the super-criminal with no regard for others thinks of himself as the victim, even if it is sometimes funny in the wrong sort of way

I think the biggest mistake in this version, though, is trying to make the thing too complicated. This impulse is far from isolated to Nakata and Watanabe, but it's so often misguided; the core appeal of superheroes and supervillains is making simple ideas larger than life, and the great ones - even the ones like Unbreakable (a clear ancestor of Haunters) that don't go for colorful suits - recognize this and don't compromise unless they get something out of it. Grafting a greater mythology onto the story but not making that actually important and adding ambiguities to characters that don't enhance the theme or create real drama don't help. That's part of why there are odd jumps, and action that for all its scale isn't very exciting, especially since horror director Hideo Nakata often seems to equate killing a lot of people with excitement.

"Monsterz" is a remake trying to add too much at the expense of what made the original terrific, but even if you haven't seen "Haunters", it's a real disappointment: Yet another superhero story that doesn't put nearly enough fantasy into its power fantasies.

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originally posted: 09/17/14 09:37:51
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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