Haunters is a feature-length supernatural thriller that reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode.
Ever since his troubled childhood, Cho-in (Dong-won Kang) could control other people. He can make people freeze, forget, attack, and even commit suicide. He’s a scary little boy who grows into a sociopathic supervillain.
His eventual counterpart is a nice enough guy, but Kyu-nam (Soo Go) is kind of a loser. He works with society’s castoffs. He works at a pawn shop where his first job is to lay the roach traps. Before that he worked at a junkyard with two immigrants, both racial minorities. Al and Bubba (Enes Kaya and Abu Dod) both speak excellent Korean, but they stick out like sore thumbs. Al is from Israel, Bubba is from Ghana. They stick with Kyu-nam throughout the film as his sidekicks.
The stories come together when Cho-in tries to rob the pawn shop where Kyu-nam works. All the other employees freeze or “collaborate” while Kyu-nam watches the supernatural crime unfold.
The rest of the movie plays like an action thriller. Kyu-nam realizes he’s the only person who can stop Cho-in, which he accepts as his moral duty. Cho-in is clever in his control of bystanders. Freezing the crowd works, but once Kyu-nam foils that plan, he uses other methods: sending mobs to attack, creating human barriers, and using bystanders as hostages.
Haunters is slickly produced, which is ironic because the concept doesn’t require any expensive effects. A student filmmaker with a limited budget could have made it. Yet there are car crashes, dangerous-looking stunts, some computer-generated effects, and the polish of a well endowed production. Rookie director Min-suk Kim, who co-wrote the screenplay to The Good, The Bad, and the Weird, shows promise.
Though it plays like an action movie, it feels like it’s tapping into something deeper. A native Korean might give you a better analysis, but this American, living during the time of Occupy Wall St., hears a resonant subtext. The villain is a rich sociopath whose wealth is unearned, and whose power is control over “the people.” The hero is the lowest of the low, a friend to immigrants and minorities, whose power is resistance and a firm grounding in reality.
Then again, the hero of the Korean monster movie The Host was a food vendor, so maybe Koreans just have a thing for underdogs.
My wife liked Haunters better than I did. I appreciated it and enjoyed it, but it didn’t leave me breathless like some action movies do (like this year’s French thriller Point Blank). Still, it’s a good choice for a late-night movie at a film festival with a spotlight on Korean cinema.