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Hwayi: A Monster Boy
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by Jay Seaver

"Training a stolen kid to follow in your footsteps is asking for trouble."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: A little over ten years ago, director Jang Joon-hwan made a good-sized splash with a film by the name of "Save the Green Planet", but after that, barely a peep. He certainly seems to have come back to the Korean movie scene in style with "Hwayi: A Monster Boy", which shows a little rust - but not when the time for action comes.

There's an important time-jump in the movie, too: It kicks off in 1998, when ruthless outlaw gang the Day Breakers have kidnapped a pre-schooler, only to be met with cops instead of a ransom. Rather than killing the boy, though, they raise him as his own. In 2012, Hwayi (Yeo Jin-goo) is seventeen and likes to wear a high school uniform even though he is home-schooled by his "fathers" - planner Jin-sung (Jang Hyun-sung), getaway driver Ki-tae (Cho Jin-woong), martial artist Dong-bum (Kim Sung-kyun), weaponsmith Beom-soo (Park Hae-joon), and killer Suk-tae (Kim Yun-seok). Before Hwayi goes off to art school, the Day Breakers aim to involve him in one simple-enough job - which naturally turns more complicated than it looked.

Five fathers - and one mother, Young-joo (Im Ji-eun), who was also in chains in 1998 - is a rather unweildy number, to the extent that Dong-bum and Beom-soo have relatively little to do. It takes a bit of squinting for the way Park Ju-seok's script pulls everything together in the end to really make sense; as much as it pulls what could be an entirely random story together in a way that gives the final showdowns more emotional resonance than just a lot of people who are good with guns pointing them at each other, it also requires a group of master criminals to not notice what this job entails and whether or not involving their bright, highly-skilled son who has never actually killed before is really the brightest of ideas.

But they do, and then things get kind of nuts. Even though everything about the movie has been preparing us for how Hwayi has been trained to do everything his fathers can do, it's still kind of a surprise when he throws down with a corporate assassin in a hospital room and it's a legitimately great fight scene that doesn't seem to have a whole lot of doubling. It's not the movie's first big action scene nor is it the last, but it's an eye-opener. As much as it's a stand-out, it's also kind of typical for the action in the movie - high-energy, creative, and with a sardonic sting for even the most prosaic up-close headshots. It's mentioned and demonstrated early on that Beom-soo makes the gang's weapons, and while that seldom comes up as a plot point, the spirit of not just doing the standard scene is there.

Yeo Jin-goo is pretty good outside the action scenes, as well; the character is written as an outsider who doesn't really know how to deal with regular people even though he wants to fit in, but he's got to be confident as well. He sells Hwayi as a pretty good kid despite his upbringing, and his later rage is never simple. As the story solidifies, Kim Yun-seok's Suk-tae takes center stage among the Day Breakers, and Kim manages to keep him interesting; he's the most cynical and least affectionate-seeming of the group, but he might have the deepest connection with Hwayi. Im Ji-eun is listed fairly low in the credits, but she's also impressive as the broken Young-joo.

Despite how some of the fathers get pushed to the background, it's actually an impressively-built ensemble - there are a lot of characters running around, from the crooks to cops who run the gamut from corrupt to obsessed to to corporate guys who hired the Day Breakers even though they've got their own group of killers to the girl Hwayi likes to... Again, a lot. Part of what makes the movie stand out is that there are very few just there as a placeholder - almost every one has a memorable personality and a funny moment or two that springs from it. Jang fills the movie with keen imagery as well - Beom-soo's guns tend to explode their targets as much as they just leave holes, Hwayi is still seeing monsters (a well thought-out, good-looking CGI creation), and both the Day Breakers' headquarters and the targets' house in the middle of a construction zone are unconventional and full of personality.

I would pay good money to see a crossover movie involving Hwayi and the title character of Joe Wright's "Hanna", as they seem to be cut from the same cloth - impressive, sympathetic kid assassins whose movies have style to spare. And given how well this turned out, I hope that whatever Jang Joon-hwan does next, it happens well before 2023.

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originally posted: 07/23/14 02:49:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Joon-hwan Jang

Written by
  Ju-seok Park

  Jin-goo Yeo
  Yun-seok Kim
  Jin-woong Cho
  Hyun-sung Jang
  Hae-jun Park
  Sung-kyun Kim

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