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Haunters
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by Jay Seaver

"No tights, no problem - great Korean superheroics."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Though I suspect many of those who clamored for an "Unbreakable" sequel over the past decade have suddenly "realized" the first wasn't as great as they thought now that M. Night Shyamalan is treated more as a punchline than a standout, that group especially should give "Haunters" a look. It's got the same hook of superpowers in a spandex-free real-world environment, but has a sense of fun to it, giving the audience the action it craves.

Lim Kyu-nam (Ko Soo) isn't invulnerable, but he's never been sick and recovers from injury unusually well. Case in point - the hit he takes from a truck would kill most people, but just lays him up long enough that he loses his job in a junkyard. He eventually finds a new job working in Choi Jung-sik's Utopia pawn shop, though, and one afternoon Choi (Byeon Hie-bong) and his daughter Young-sik (Jung Eun-chae) are having lunch with Kyu-nam's friends Bubba (Abu Dodd) and Al (Enes Kaya) when the shop is visited by Cho-in (Gang Dong-won). Cho-in may have a prosthetic leg, but as we saw in the prologue, can impose his will upon anybody within his line of sight. He intends to have Choi empty his safe while the whole group forgets he was ever there, but funny thing - supernatural healing powers apparently allow Kyu-nam to shake off mind control. Now, Kyu-nam's a simple man who tries to do the right thing, so he would not approve of this even if it weren't his friends involved, while Cho-in doesn't like the idea of there being anybody out there he can't control. In short, it... is... on!

Writer/director Kim Min-suk avoids the trappings of American comic books almost entirely, but he distills the essence of what makes superheroes fun down to the basics: The hero and the villain are both pure-hearted in their own ways, and their powers represent their personalities: Cho-in is a cruel, hateful man unable to relate to others except by bending them to his will, a hidden puppet master who twists even good people and institutions to evil purposes, while Kyu-nam is a model of persistence and good cheer; he gets back up no matter what life throws at him, and has friends to help him on his mission (and it's likely not an accident that Kyu-nam's friends are unusually diverse for a Korean movie, with Bubba a Ghanian immigrant, Al a Turkish Muslim, and Young-sik hapa; he likes everyone, including those that the rest of society looks down on). Kim doesn't overburden the audience with backstory and explanations that just don't matter; he gets that superhero stories are, at their core, tales of good fighting evil on a big canvas, and delivers just that.

And he delivers it with style. Haunters doesn't need flashy visual effects, but Kim has a blast designing showdowns that let Cho-in leverage his abilities against Kyu-nam's good nature - especially since Cho-in's been at this for a while, so aside from being a complete sociopath, he's got enough practice with his powers that he can control not just individuals, but crowds, meaning that Kyu-nam is generally at a distinct disadvantage, even with the heavily improvised gear that Al & Bubba have built. Kim comes up with some great set pieces by applying that logic to a subway depot, a police station, a car chase, and more. He executes them extremely well, too, combining clever ideas and clear camerawork with the sort of mean streak that keeps the tension high even while the action is barreling forward.

As surprisingly harsh as the film gets in a few spots, it remains fun, in large part because Ko Soo is so darn likable as Kyu-nam. The character is not that bright - he's often written and played as child-like or naïve - but Ko knows which lines not to cross so that his fight against Cho-in seems like an act of responsibility rather than foolishness. He's as nice as Cho-in is a bastard, and Gang Dong-won jumps into the villain role with both feet. And that's not a bad way to put it - even the way he limps give the audience an idea of this guy, in that he doesn't wince and slow down with every step (he's been this way all his life), but there's a challenge to it, like he's daring people to call him a cripple so that he's got sufficient reason (in his own mind) to make them jump out a window. Gang builds Cho-in up as being an operatic supervillain without a lot of talk - the exact opposite performance as Ko's, which is only fitting.

The rest of the cast holds up as well, with Enes Kaya and Abu Dodd hitting the sidekick sweet spot between being memorable and upstaging the main character, while Byeon Hie-bong does a nice job of being the glue holding the movie together early on. Kim Min-suk does an impressive job of handling pacing and tone, for the most part (not terribly surprising, considering that his last job was co-writer/assistant director on The Good, the Bad, the Weird) - there are a couple of stumbles in the last act, but he knows just when to flip the switch from this being a movie about an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation to full-on superhero mode.

At that point, it's hard not to have a big, stupid grin on one's face, because Kim knows how to give the audience what it wants without pandering or making the movie predictable. The superhero movie has become a respectable genre of late, and even with that raised standard ,Kim Min-suk has made one of the best.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22602&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/02/11 20:13:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the New York Asian Film Festival 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 34th Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 34th Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Min-suk Kim

Written by
  Min-suk Kim

Cast
  Dong-won Gang
  Soo Ko
  Enes Kaya
  Abu Dodd
  Eun-Chae Jung



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