Thursday, March 13, 2014

Monster: the Serial Killer vs. the Vegetable Vendor

There are enough fractured families here to keep an American sitcom fully stocked. There is also a serial killer stalking them, so their limited numbers will only get smaller. However, the stone cold murderer in question may have finally crossed paths with the wrong vegetable hawker in Hwang In-ho’s dark thriller, Monster (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Bok-soon is known in her neighborhood as a somewhat slow street vendor with anger management issues. Nevertheless, she works hard to provide for her somewhat younger sister Eun-jeong, who is a gifted student with a presumably bright future ahead of her. Young Na-ri also lived with her older sister, until she was killed by Tae-soo. Enjoying the chase, Tae-soo gives Na-ri an opportunity to run, just so he can hunt her down again. Eventually, Bok-soon and her sister take in the petrified girl. Unfortunately, Eun-jeong soon becomes his next victim.

Even though Bok-soon has an imperfect understanding of the situation, she is not one to take her sister’s murder lying down. In fact, she will go out looking for the killer’s lair, while doing her best to protect Na-ri. Meanwhile, Tae-soo continues to thoroughly creep out his adopted mother and loser step-brother, who originally unleashed the maniac on Na-ri’s sister, at the behest of his shady contacts. After all, what is the good of having a serial killer brother if you don’t use him as a free enforcer? In retrospect, he might come to regret seeing Tae-soo’s murderous proficiency up-close-and-personal once again.

The potentially exploitative perils of focusing on a mentally challenged focal character almost go without saying, especially when Hwang often has her creating various public spectacles. Nevertheless, Kim Go-eun helps rehabilitate Bok-soon with a fearlessly intense and vulnerable performance. We come to understand her own frustrations with herself and her fierce sense of loyalty, as well as the obvious fear and rage. Clearly intended as a dramatic change of pace from her breakout performance in Eungyo (A Muse), Kim looks considerably older than the Lolita-like character that ignited her career.  Young Ahn Seo-hyun is also a tad older than when she stole nearly all of her scenes as the privileged daughter of Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid, but she is still an unusually expressive and disciplined child actor.

In contrast, Lee Min-ki’s icy ruthlessness is adequate to the film’s needs, but it is nothing we have not seen before in dozens of previous psycho killer films. On the other hand, Kim Roi-ha and Kim Boo-seon give the film its darkly comic edge as his craven half-brother and his massively in-denial Mother Dearest. Their scenes together take family dysfunction to a whole new level.

Whatever objections audiences might have to Monster’s thematic excesses Hwang overcomes through the brute force of his thriller mechanics. Tense and violent, the film is a gripping (and exhausting) viewing experience. Recommended for fans of the serial killer genre and Kim Go-eun, Monster opens tomorrow (3/14) in Los Angeles at the CGV Cinemas.