62: Haunters (초능력자) (LAFF 2011)wri-dir. Kim Min-suk, Korea, 2010, 114 mins
Writer-director Kim Min-suk, who spun the classic Western story through a Korean cultural filter with the script for The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, stakes out similar claims for the supernatural thriller with Haunters. The film rides the framework of the hero-villain origin story, a quintessential clash between good and evil that has become utterly familiar with the past decade of superhero films, but Kim prefers to go light on the psychology and instead presents a series of tense cat-and-mouse games.
Cho-In (Gang Dong-won) is the villain, bug-eyed and missing a leg; the prologue shows him as a child, dominated by his brutalizing father until he unleashes his power — total mind control, able to manipulate people like marionettes — to exact revenge. In the present he’s an aimless sociopath, an addled force of nature who commits petty crimes with his power and spends time in his hotel room building a miniature city. His adversary is the everyman Kyu-Nam (Ko Su), a generally unlucky ne’er-do-well who lucks out when he finds work at a pawn shop that quickly becomes a second family; of course the place becomes Cho-In’s latest target. A bloody clash where Gyu-Nam proves uniquely resistant to the psychic’s powers is the flashpoint for the film’s running battle between the two as each tries to discover who and what the other is.
Kim builds the film as a genre blend, with sweeping shifts in tone that are so jarring as to almost be ridiculous: goofy, easy-going familiarity casually shifts into distress and tense brutality, often within the same scene. Gyu-Nam and his junkyard worker sidekicks Ali (Enes Kaya) and Bubba (Abu Dodd) have a self-conscious approach to their situation that would feel right at home in an Edgar Wright film. But when we follow Cho-In and his cold, dominating stare (as his power issues from the eyes, we see a lot of that), there’s an incongruous darkness at play.
Yet it all manages to hang together as we’re taken through action scenes pulling on notions of stealth and shadow and zombie tropes of people-as-automatons — the film plays with the irony that the sociable Kyu-Nam finds his friends and other people to be a liability while the sociopath Cho-In is strongest in a crowd. The film also skewers the question overlooked by a number of careless thrillers (“Why don’t these people just go to the police?”) by having Kyu-Nam actually go to the police, and Kim lets the inevitable consequences unfold like a slap to the face.
Haunters doesn’t particularly feel like the work of a directorial perfectionist; the jarring tonal shifts (something I noted in the Chinese film “Old Boys” (#10)) make me wonder if I’m on the outside of a certain cultural idiom. And aside from key shots and a playfulness with architectural and human geometry, the visual styling is purely functional. Yet it’s a movie that’s on a mission to thrill, and there are certainly enough moments in which it succeeds.