Depicting a teenager’s traumatic upbringing by five criminal foster fathers, “Hwayi” is a hyperstylized, ultra-violent action-thriller that reeks of gratuitous bloodlust. Despite its repulsive gallery of bad-seed characters, director Jang Joon-hwan’s film offers scant insight into the nature of evil, fleshing out its characters so sketchily that their actions and motives make little sense. Domestic B.O. was bolstered by the bigscreen debut of teenage TV star Yeo Jin-goo in the title role, and the pic’s bristling violence may initially whet genre appetites, but its oblique storytelling and pretentious dialogue will try fanboys’ patience offshore.
A long-anticipated comeback for Jang after his 2003 runaway festival hit, “Save the Green Planet,” “Hwayi” shares that film’s theme of captivity, as well as a larky attitude toward the grisliest sort of torture. But what worked for “Planet,” with its daring mix of graphic gore, fantasy and social critique, doesn’t work here, mainly because the captors in “Hwayi” are just vile freaks who delight in inflicting pain on innocent people. Displaying a rank misogyny that runs even stronger than in the average Korean film, the pic doesn’t pose any moral questions; it just stirs disgust. Passions run so high that the characters always seem to be hyperventilating, yet they remain emotionally stunted throughout.
The opening unleashes a frenetic sequence of events, including a bank robbery, a messy getaway and an even messier hostage situation. It’s the spring of 1998, and news reports identify the perpetrators as the “Day Goblins,” five sadistic crooks whose crimes include the kidnapping of a young boy, Hwayi, and the enslavement of an older girl, Young-joo (Im Ji-eun).
Years later, in the winter of 2013, Hwayi (Yeo) has grown into a shy and secretive teenager. Like the hero of a martial-arts novel, he is taught a different skill, like shooting or getaway driving, by each of his adopted “dads”: Suk-tae (Kim Yun-seok), Jin-sung (Jang Hyun-sung), Ki-tae (Cho Jin-woong), Dong-beom (Kim Sung-kyun) and Beom-soo (Park Hae-jun). However, when he’s called upon for sniper duty, he proves less ruthless than he’s groomed to be. Later, when property magnet Jeon (Moon Sung-geun) hires the Day Goblins to deal with Im Hyung-taek (Lee Geung-young), an activist who opposes Jeon’s shady redevelopment schemes, Suk-tae pushes Hwayi into an act whose consequences the boy will only realize later.
Though Hwayi’s relationships with his dads should form the backbone of the story, their personalities are so hazily drawn in Park Joo-suk’s screenplay that even after an hour, it’s difficult to tell them apart. Aside from dimwitted Ki-tae, who dotes on the boy like a playmate, the other men’s desire to simultaneously nurture and corrupt Hwayi is not given any convincing psychological basis.
Although Suk-tae is the leader and instigator of the whole chain of events, his influence is for the most part diluted by the cluttered pool of characters and hectic plot turns. It’s only in the film’s over-the-top final act that his hidden agenda comes to light, and the unfolding of his gruesome past becomes gripping in a warped way. Even so, his theory on getting in touch with one’s inner Evil is ludicrously blase, accompanied by recurring visions of a Godzilla-sized beetle — a symbol of the monster within — that smacks of intellectual pretension.
Kim Yun-seok channels the primitive brutality of the Chinese-Korean gangster he played in “The Yellow Sea,” but his performance, all hyperbolic dialogue and blustering physicality, remains disappointingly facile for a thesp of his caliber. Also missing is genuine chemistry between him and Yeo, even when feelings of extreme love and loathing roil in their final confrontation.
As an innocent who’s sheltered, duped and pushed over the edge, Yeo sometimes overstates his character’s pain and bafflement. Nevertheless, he gives Hwayi enough complexity to elicit sympathy, and the fragility and tenderness he expresses in a budding romance with classmate Yoo-kyung (Nam Ji-hyun, nondescript) and in his childlike attachment to Young-joo provide a warm respite from the relentlessly downbeat drama. Im is mesmerizing as a victim-masochist who’s become both timorous and crazed from captivity.
The narrative throbs with energy and is not without its suspenseful and moving moments, but given the sheer surplus of action scenes and locations, the overall effect is one of listlessness, and the film finally skids off the rails with a climactic killing spree. Editor Kim Sang-bum further confounds by crosscutting nonlinear scenes at nerve jangling speed. Production package is top-drawer, especially the stuntwork by action choreographer Jung Doo-hung, thinking up brand-new ways for cars to overtake each other and finding unexpected places to stage shootouts.