24 April 2008 | bob the moo
Brilliant opening attack leaves the film rapidly going downhill from then on
A release of chemicals into Seoul's Han River has an immediate and deadly impact when a mutation occurs within the animal life. The extent of this is made very clear when a massive creature attacks those enjoying a summer's day in the park. Many are killed, including young Hyun-seo. The military move in, quarantining everyone despite their grief. However Hyun-seo is still alive having been dumped in the creatures layer, deep in the sewer and uses a mobile recovered from another body to contact her father. Nobody believes his claims that his daughter is still alive though, so the family go out to hunt down the creature.
From the plot summary you would be forgiven for believing this to be a simple creature feature and indeed this idea is reinforced by a really stylish and exciting opening twenty minutes. Sadly this is not continued or indeed ever matched as the film seems to have far too many ideas and themes and far too little idea of how to pull them all together into a coherent or engaging story. It happens at the start with a clumsy and obvious "message" scene about pollution but I forgave this since everything from there went so well and the attack on the park was so professionally done. The sense of panic and voyeurism is conveyed convincingly while the action is so exciting. Once past this though we get lots of stuff about military intervention, mistrust of authorities, US intervention in Korea, foreign corporations and the inability of the man in the street to stop (or care about) any of it or, as my partner described it, "lots of random sh1t". I do not agree with her rather harsh summary because in theory there is plenty of value in the themes and ideas that the film tries to work with and I could even accept it if I had not understood everything because I do not have the Korean frame of reference.
The problem was though that it didn't come together and the allegories and thematic content only served to slow and dull the film while also completely throwing any hope of a consistent tone. So we get suffering thrown up against comedy; horror thrown up against conspiracy; politics thrown up against family threads etc. And none of them merge at all with the end result of a film that constantly had me wondering where it was all going and, more importantly, when was it going to end? The latter question is valid because, with all these ideas the film runs to almost two hours a trifle if a film engages you but for one this messy and erratic it is far too long a running time for this to carry.
The cast seem as lost as I was at times and their performances vary wildly. They are asked to be real people but yet also expected to carry the poor mix of humour, horror and political meaning and they cannot manage it. Ah-sung has the easiest ride as she is very much in the horror part of the film but the rest (Kang-ho, Hie-bong and Hae-il) has significantly harder roles that they cannot save from the rest of the film. Joon-ho's direction on the action and horror sequences is impressive and it is a shame that he fudges almost every other aspect of it.
The overall result is a horror movie that simply never gets close to the impact of the opening few scenes. The horror is lost in a clumsy and ineffective attempt at wider meaning and at two hours, it is far too long to sustain itself long outstaying its welcome. Unfortunately this is one Korean film that does not deserve the hype and is only worth seeing for the excellent opening attack sequence.