“Like father, like son” is a popular expression used to describe how much the behavior and personality of the former influences and shapes the latter. This proves true for a great number of father-son sets, irrespective of cultural or national heritage. Then again, a son can only intake so much philosophy handed down to him by the father. It comes as no surprise that with respect to some salient points and lifestyle choices the son diverges from the path treaded by the father. It’s what makes the son his own person as opposed to a clone of his immediate ancestor. Hwayi: A Monster Boy, the anticipated follow-up from director Jang-Joon-hwan after Save the Green Planet!, takes the concept of father-son dynamics to new extremes.
Revealed in the opening minutes of the picture is the brutal efficiency of five highly skilled murdering thieves as they fool the police aboard a densely occupied train, after which they infiltrate the home of an important businessman, kill their target, and escape with the sought after valuables. Bold law-breaking is not all this quintet of crooks have on their minds, however. Years ago, they cleverly kidnapped a young boy and, rather than kill him or send him back to his parents, opted to keep and raise him as one of their own, training him in each of their specialties, from hand-to-hand combat to marksmanship. Shift forward 14 years and the boy, now a teenager baptized Hwayi (Yeo Jin-goo) after a plant the family sells through their modest business used as a front, is on the cusp of being an elite member of the team when something horrifying happens: Hwayi wants some independence from his fathers! Things grow even more complicated when a training mission with actual targets results in the troubled teen killing someone who happens to be far from a total stranger after all.
Assassins and thieves taking young hopefuls under their wings is nothing out of the ordinary in film and television. It takes the concept of the familial bond and gives it a perverted twist which easily appeals to movie goers. What Hwayi does is put a spin on the spin itself by having the titular character actually live as the adoptive teenage son of not one but five of them. What’s more, director Jang throws in a lot of side-plots and story details that take the central figure through a topsy-turvy journey of self-discovery. Apart from his receding attachment towards his collection of father figures, there is a high school girl who strikes his fancy whom he shyly gets to know, a police detective (Park Yong-woo) who spends the film tracking down the culprits of the aforementioned murder whose identities are a mystery to him, the hero’s struggle to suppress a lifelong fear that takes the shape of an imaginary monster, and revelations regarding Hwayi’s lineage to add even more dramatic weight. It can argued that Jang throws in everything except the kitchen sink, making the picture somewhat unwieldy at times. Even considering its slight lack of focus, Hwayi nevertheless ends up being a shamelessly entertaining romp with a bizarre set of characters, to say the least.
Part of the gag, of course, is that the protagonist goes through a phase all teenagers experience, that being the desire for increased independence and the search for oneself in the shadow of one’s parents. The latter, like many parents of the world, have their own specific objectives in mind with respect to what Hwayi should do with his life, especially the leader of the pack, the stoic Seok-tae (Kim Yon-seok). To him, it is clear that Hwayi should follow in their footsteps. All those years of training in hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship and high-speed driving cannot possibly go to waste. Seok-tae is the father whose ideas about his son are written in stone, the sort of father with whom more independent-minded children and teenagers often butt heads. Then there is Jin-seong (Jang Hyun-sung), slightly more easygoing towards Hwayi’s interest in art (an acceptance letter to an arts school proves a decisive plot point). He can be negotiated with even though he ultimately sides with the best interest of the group. Then there is the stammering Ki-tae (Jo Jin-woong), more of a big brother than a father figure. He is useful not only as the team’s driving instructor but as a true friend, someone who only wants the best for Hwayi, functioning as a supportive and conciliatory figure. These personalities make for an eclectic group, which proves a powerful tool when everyone is on the same page and fervent ground for tension when they collide.
Once Hwayi renounces his fathers (the reason for which shall remain a secret for this review), the film morphs into a prolonged sequence of chases and rousing action set-pieces. Grueling contests where every move means sudden death replace heated arguments. At least with shouting matches the opposing sides walk away alive in the end. In the case of the antagonist approach employed by Hwayi and his fathers to resolve their issues, the loser is not so lucky. The one complaint that can be aimed at this part of the story is the expediency with which Hwayi becomes a turncoat. After having spent the majority of his life with these people, some of whom have shown much love and affection, it doesn’t feel as though much time is spent pondering the prospect that whoever ends up on the wrong side of the feud will likely be dead and buried. Suffice to say that as far as the set-pieces are concerned everything is handsomely crafted, the highlight being a shootout in a warehouse between the fathers and a rival gang while Hwayi is huddled outside, equipped with a sniper rifle, offing enemies as he shoots through the windows.
Alas, a few plot points used to further develop Hwayi feel superfluous, if not entirely useless. The girl he crushes on takes up a bit too much screen time despite never amounting to very much. The notion of a sheltered teen discovering first love is strong in theory, but the film never seems quite dedicated enough to offer anything more than a surface level exploration. Then again, it isn’t even the main storyline, so the likelihood of it being fully developed is remote to begin with. The worst offender, however, is the heavy-handed monster that haunts Hwayi’s dreams. The creature, interesting in concept but realized via lower tier CGI, is the film’s real low point. There is enough drama in the text to carry the picture without the addition of this bizarre representation of Hwayi’s fears, not to mention that it simply looks odd to see a trained assassin teenager quiver and quake at the presence of a beast that doesn’t actually exist. How insecure can he possibly be after all?
Hwayi is not always the smoothest of rides, tasking itself with juggling a few too many characters and ideas, but on the whole director Jang Joon-hwan is up to the task of making something of this mishmash of plot points. Frankly, there aren’t many films about the teenage longing for emancipation that set their tales in a household filled with killers and mastermind thieves. While not perfect, the movie succeeds because its strong elements are excellent, whereas its weaker aspects are mere annoyances, some of which are not even all that bad. Like most family members, Hwayi is not perfect but easy to love just the same.
— Edgar Chaput