A mind-control freak meets his mild-mannered match in the fast-paced, supernatural-flavored Korean actioner “Haunters.” Kim Min-seok’s writing-directing debut is a superior entry that stops short of the bloody excesses of K-horror, but contains several chilling setpieces that rep respectable facsimiles of Hollywood-style fight-and-chase scenes. Featuring stars Gang Dong-won (“Voice of a Murderer,” “Secret Reunion”), adding another oddball loner to his gallery, and TV heartthrob Ko Soo as the hero, pic reached the top of the local B.O. in November, scaring up 14.5 billion won ($13.3 million.)
A 1991 prologue reveals the disturbing childhood of eerie-eyed Cho-in (Yang Kyung-mo), a neither harmless nor innocent boy who managed to psychically manipulate his parents into committing suicide. As a grown-up in contempo Seoul, Cho-in (now played by Gang) continues to use his mind-control abilities, now to rob low-security pawnshops and fund a solitary, anonymous but comfortable existence living in luxury hotels. During one such robbery, Cho-in is stunned to find that one employee, Kyu-nam (Ko) is immune to his spell. Their mutual realization of this fact brings out Kyu-nam’s determined inner hero and intensifies Cho-in’s mean streak, as the intruder kills Kyu-nam’s paternal boss (Byeon Hie-bong) before the robbery is complete.
With only two buddies to help (Enes Kaya and Abu Dodd), Kyu-nam intends to go to the police armed with a security-camera tape of the robbery. But Cho-in reappears to confiscate the evidence, and an extended pursuit across Seoul ensues.
The origins of Cho-in’s extraordinary power and Kyu-nam’s ability to resist it remain unexplained, but compliant auds will strap themselves in for an adrenaline-fueled ride, powered by energetic, extended fight scenes that expertly combine CG and stuntwork. The narrative surges ahead for nearly the entire running time until the pic’s sole jarring note, an ineffectual ending that shifts from glum to upbeat. Otherwise, Kim (a protege of Kim Jee-woon) steers this actioner with the confidence of a longtime pro.
Gang sustains Cho-in’s malevolence and crazed gaze throughout, without ever dropping into camp, and Ko makes for a noble and ingenious hero. Supporting thesps Kaya and Dodd (Turkish and Ghanian, respectively, both fluent in Korean) are an absolute delight, adding warmth and depth.
Hong Gyeong-pyo’s lensing switches mood from setting to setting, capturing the full spectrum of Seoul’s urban diversity. Lee Jae-jin’s electronic score has a suspenseful urgency that reinforces the velocity of Kim’s direction; all other tech credits are impeccable. Korean title literally means “Psychic.”