Director: Shin Jeong-Won (신정원)
Cast: Eom Tae-Woong (엄태웅), Jeong Yu-Mi (정유미), Jang Hang-Seon (장항선), Yoon Je-Moon (윤제문), Park Hyeok-Kwon (박혁권)
Dark comedy is incredibly difficult to successfully pull off. Case in point – Chaw. The story of a quaint, rural town besieged by a giant killer boar is equal parts Jaws and The Host (괴물), sometimes aping the former scene-by-scene for action bits while attempting to capture some of the satire of the latter. Jaws is certainly a good model for narrative purposes, but it is in the humor where Chaw really falls flat. Tired, worn, and also incredibly mean-spirited, Director Shin’s attempt at humor includes cross-eyed police chiefs, lazy and incompetent police captains, opportunistic city officials, police officers falling down hills and over each other, and anything that makes police officers look like total buffoons. Whereas someone such as Bong Joon-Ho is able to use such characterizations for brilliant satirical effect, Director Shin is neither brilliant nor clever. The boar, you ask? Shots of the creature alternate between serviceable to what the hell is that? The special effects were done by the same effects house which also worked on Haeundae. I guess they got the B-team to work on this one.
What is it? A Japanese experiment left over from the occupation? Nature’s reaction to urban over-development and the decrease of wilderness? These are the questions plaguing the rural village of Sameri when a giant boar begins to run amok and kill off villagers. Their only option is to locate the beast’s lair and kill it. However, as local authorities demonstrate a combination of utter stupidity and cowardice, the task is left to a select few brave enough to venture into the forest. Fresh off his transfer from Seoul to the remote village, where he assumed he would be increasingly bored, Officer Kim (Eom Tae-Woong) is drawn into the hunt along with veteran hunter Il-Man (Jang Hang-Seon), celebrity hunter Baek (Yoon Je-Moon), Detective Shin (Park Hyeok-Kwon), and Soo-Ryeon (Jeong Yu-Mi), an ecologist who sees the boar as her way to fame in the cutthroat world of wildlife ecology.
The setup will be familiar to anyone who’s seen even a few monster movies from just about any continent. Mysterious deaths quickly escalate into witnessed attacks by the increasingly desperate (and hungry) boar, leading to a public cry to dispense with the beast. When a large boar is killed, residents are convinced their troubles are over, except for the elder hunter Il-Man. Going all Richard Dreyfuss on the captured boar, he checks its stomach for human remains and finds nothing. Meanwhile, citizens are increasingly concerned about their livelihood. Whereas Jaws‘ Amity Island depends on summer tourists, Sameri is looking to become a hot spot for organic farmers. So the sooner this monster is killed, the more attractive their town will be. Where Chaw sets itself apart, however, is in its unabashedly humorous tone, which could prove to be a huge turnoff for some viewers. It starts out innocently enough, with bumbling police officers falling down a hillside and acting really squeamish at the site of a corpse. Take a look [WARNING: Video contains gratuitous fake vomiting]:
By the end of the film, however, when the 500th police officer has fallen over or crashed into something, you start to tire of the joke. It is a poor attempt at slapstick and really adds nothing to the film, instead only contributing to the mythological stupidity of rural law enforcement. We get it, ok? Not only are rural cops stupid, they also have horrible balance and are inept at operating any sort of motorized vehicle. The other aspect to the film’s dark humor is evident in many of the characters’ disgusting indifference. In the most extreme example, [SPOILERS AHEAD – STOP READING IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM] a young woman is riding her bicycle home along a secluded road when she crashes down a hillside to avoid hitting a cow. When she hears strange noises coming from the tall grass around her, she does what any of us would do – she ditches the bike and runs back up the hill… only to be struck by a speeding truck. The two men in the truck initially decide to take her to a hospital (she is still alive, after all), but immediately change their minds because they were driving drunk and without a driver’s license. Leaving her for dead, they toss the young woman’s body back down the hill where she is then eaten alive [END OF SPOILERS]. The whole sequence lasts for an excruciating three and a half minutes. Yes, that is a long way to go for a joke, and it’s all wasted on insulting and unfunny characters and meaningless mean-spirited humor. Other similar scenes abound, including police officers fighting to hide inside a bulldozer as the beast attacks an indoor gathering. Yes, I get it. It’s supposed to be funny. But as the beast begins its massacre and the people basically turn on each other to avoid being killed, Director Shin forgoes any connections with the characters in favor of attempted satire, I suppose. As a result, performances serve the comedy. Yoon Je-Moon and Jeong Yu-Mi shine in a quirky sort of way as the not-so-hotshot hunter and die hard ecologist, respectively. The rest of the cast, unfortunately, suffers from being pigeonholed as either boring and uninteresting or goofy beyond belief.
If there’s a bright spot to the film, it is most definitely in its cinematography, which makes use of some fabulous vistas of South Korea’s countryside. If you’ve been to South Korea, then you know it is an incredibly mountainous country, and filmically, it’s always nice to get out of Seoul for a little while. It doesn’t quite match the breathtaking beauty of Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder (살인의 추억), for example, but it succeeds in creating some truly stunning and unnerving backdrops for the film’s set pieces. It’s a shame the boar never quite fosters the same response. A combination of computer effects and animatronics, it is serviceable at times while downright ugly at others, never completely convincing. But I suppose trashing the look of the creature is a moot point. Chaw‘s budget was a fraction of its Hollywood counterparts, and the filmmakers did the best they could with what they had. But I tend to analyze films such as this based on my visceral reactions, regardless of the overall verisimilitude of the creature in question. If I respond strongly to the visual design and presentation of the creature, then there’s something there of interest to me. In Jaws, when the shark bites down on Robert Shaw’s torso at the end of the film, I still flinch. I know it’s fake. It looks fake. But the combination of steady camerawork, longer takes, the absence of music, and the sound of Shaw’s frantic splashing and desperate cries (not to mention the crunch when the shark actually bites down), which are abruptly cut off as the shark drags him under, strike me as a beautifully horrific sequence. While watching Chaw, I simply had no reaction. The beast was merely serviceable and the rest of the film never pulled me in to its world, primarily because the characters were insulting and unrelatable and the story all too familiar. A good attempt, but there are far better Korean movies worth your time.