Fantasia 2011: ‘Haunters’ is a funny, heartbreaking and action-packed superhero epic
Directed and Written by Min-suk Kim
South Korea, 2010
The best superhero movie this year is not Captain America or Thor or Green Lantern or X-Men: First Class; it features no costumes, no secret origins and amazingly, no exposition.
The obvious comparison for this film is M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, but where that film ends Haunters begins, skipping the traditional secret origin and in fact any explanations for the super-powers on display.
Cho-In (Dong-won Kang) is your Mr. Glass analogue. Like Elijah Price he is crippled, but with a prosthetic leg instead of Osteogenesis Imperfecta. He has the strange ability to mentally control anyone that he can see. We get a very cursory introduction to Cho-In as a young boy, not to explain how he got his powers, but to show us his incredibly screwed up childhood: when Cho-In used his powers to save his mother from a beating by Cho-In’s abusive Dad, his mother tried to kill him as a monster, forcing Cho-In to run away.
Im Kyu-Nam (Ko Soo) is your Unbreakable-style hero. Unlike Bruce Willis, he can bleed, but he seems almost impossible to kill and he heals very fast. When Cho-In tries to steal the money from the safe of the Utopia pawn store that Kyu-Nam manages, Kyu-Nam discovers that he is the only man in the world immune to Cho-In’s mind control abilities. (The film suggests that this is related to Kyu-Nam’s healing ability. He starts out affected, but gets better.)
The film offers no explanation why Cho-In is able to control people or why Kyu-Nam heals so quickly. They just can. What is more important is what they do with their abilities. Cho-In uses his abilities to steal, murder and force his victims to commit suicide. Kyu-Nam barely uses his abilities at all until accidentally thrown into conflict with Cho-In.
Cho-In is every bit the creepy super-villain. As others have noted, visually he looks like L from Death Note. When he uses his powers, his eyes turn silver and the film implies that the active use of his powers also temporarily bleaches his clothes silver. Cho-In wears blindingly white suits, but they are a lie; in truth, Cho-In’s clothes are as dark as his soul.
Kyu-Nam is naive but unstoppable. He epitomizes a belief that good will eventually triumph over evil, although not, Haunters reminds us, without casualties along the way. Since Cho-In has to use surrogate slaves to fight his battles for him, the struggle between Cho-In and Kyu-Nam is a psychic struggle expressed physically. Cho-In has lived an invisible life – taking what he needs from people who don’t even remember he was there. Just through the act of actually seeing and remembering Cho-In, Kyu-nam forces the villain out into the blinding light. Part of the struggle is Cho-In’s attempt to place the guilt for his subsequent desperate actions squarely on Kyu-Nam’s shoulders.
Haunters‘ effectiveness lies in is its refusal to explain, to give us a tidy comforting package of secret origin and exposition. The film could just as easily take place in the Scanners universe or the Push universe or even the X-Men universe. By refusing to be specific, the film achieves a weird universality and a nasty supernatural edge.
Mixed in with the heroic action and the supernatural horror are moments of astonishing humour. Haunters is very funny without really telling any jokes, aided by the comic charisma of Kyu-Nam’s two friends and side-kicks, Boba from Kenya (Abu Dodd) and Ali from Turkey (Enes Kaya).
Like many Korean films, Haunters mood-swings from comedy to tragedy with whip-lash speed. This film confrontation between a man who can’t stop killing and a man who refuses to die is funny, heart-breaking, action-packed and more satisfying than any super-hero movie released this year.