Film Review: Chaw (2009)
aka Chomp!!! (There It Is!)
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the, uh, foliage…
by Ender’s Girl
Uhm Tae-woong, Jung Yoo-mi, Jang Hang-sun, Yoon Je-moon, Park Hyuk-kwon
Co-written and directed by Shin Jung-won / Soo Jack Films, 2009
In a Nutshell:
Giant man-eating mutant boar terrorizes Korean village!!! (OMNOMNOMNOMNOM!!!!!)
Through the mist, through the woods
Through the darkness and the shadows
It’s a nightmare but it’s one exciting ride…
Monster movies usually make for unapologetically diverting, if dopey, fun. And Chaw, the 2009 creature feature from writer-director Shin Jung-won, delivers a solidly entertaining two-hour chomp — er, romp through the rolling meadows and orange orchards of rural Korea — and into the dense coniferous forests beyond, where the, um, Wild Things Are.
(This film was a rec from my best friend, and though I’m not the biggest fan of the horror-comedy genre, I soon found myself in a late-night mood for the random munching of body parts that Chaw promised. And Uhm Tae-woong and Jung Yoo-mi together in a monster flick? Now, how cool is that!!!)
It’s easy to hang on to the pretty straightforward ride that is Chaw: you have a motley crew of two law enforcers, two professional hunters, and a wildlife biologist going after a mega-boar responsible for a rash of baffling dismemberments that have jolted the sleepy farming village of Sammaeri. Uhm Tae-woong is Officer Kim, a Seoul patrolman so fed-up with the vice and violence of his big-city beat, that he facetiously requests an immediate transfer to “anywhere” at the start of the story — and voila, he gets dumped in this hick town whose singular claim to fame is its self-proclaimed crime-free state. (Seriously, no one can do cops better than Uhm Tae-woong, who played — yes, cops! — in the thrillers Resurrection (2005) and Mawang (2007). I’ve watched Uhm long enough to make out his staple mannerisms when playing Joe Blow law enforcers, but I never get tired of seeing him in that kind of role. Never. He is just that good.)
Adjusting to the odd, parochial rhythm of his new environs is a rude awakening for Officer Kim, who also has to put up with his very pregnant wife and his equally demented mother’s (Park Hye-jin) rather contentious relationship at home. Their family situation only amplifies the stress of Kim’s job, for his new assignment turns out to be a heckuvalot more than he bargained for. (“You thought you’d just be watching tractors and fishing around here, didn’t you?” visiting Detective Shin (Park Hyuk-kwon) smirkily mentions to Kim later in the film. lol) Kim finds his new colleagues at the police station to be squeamish and inept, obviously unused to these bizarre and gruesome cases now menacing their village. And Sammaeri’s occasional nutcases — like the madwoman in perpetual Elvira-meets-Japanese horror doll regalia, with a serious momma complex to boot, or the truculent drinking girls in the tent bar — remind him that the crazies (and the craziness) of this world can follow you wherever you go.
Say a prayer, then we’re there
At the drawbridge of a castle
And there’s something truly terrible inside…
The film’s expository first half steadily chews its way through desecrated graves, ring-finding Gollum moments, severed heads and manducated body parts, a live eel thrashing about in a hotpot, greedy businessmen and town leaders conniving to fleece city visitors, shrieky domestic disputes, Finnish boar hunters with American accents (WTF?), and rowdy town hall parties crashed by one seriously ticked-off killer boar. Before its grand entrance midway through the film, the beast in question only shows itself in brief and blurry parts, but the creature never lets you forget its presence, either — through POV shifts (using a hazy red filter for the boar’s vision), savage off-camera squeals and snorts, and close-up shots of the victims as they get dragged through the underbrush, or as they feel their limbs being ripped from their bodies to disappear down the beast’s maw. Plus, there are enough mammalian references throughout the first half — such as the film’s opening footage of poaching activities, a pig’s head on a platter, taxidermic animals mounted on the retired hunter’s wall, and even the captured papa boar roasted for the (premature) victory shindig — to remind you that though mostly unseen, the monster is never too far away.
Chaw dimly echoes the 2001 French Gothic-fantasy-horror film Le Pacte des Loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf), loosely based on the legendary Beast of Gevaudan, a man-eating wolf-like creature that sowed terror in the French countryside in the 1760s. The story was highly absorbing for the first three-fourths of the film, with a healthy dose of secret societies, religious espionage, political intrigue, and riveting performances from Vincent Cassel, his real-life missus Monica Bellucci, and Mark Dacascos as a kung-fu-fighting Native American (I kid you not!). But the much-awaited entrance of the beast (in full metal armor, mask, and spikes!) was an anticlimax by comparison, because the poor thing looked more like a furry Jim Henson Muppet than the dreaded monster that the film (and your own imagination) had set it up to be. The beast in Chaw is a similar CGI-animatronics hybrid, but because the horror-comedy aspect of the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, I found myself more forgiving of the creature’s representational limitations.
It’s a beast, he’s got fangs
The story really comes together when the five main characters team up and declare that enough is enough, after virtually the entire police force of Sammaeri is left debilitated at the ill-fated party. And although Grendel’s mother — er, the boar is the common enemy, the hunt represents different things to these characters: valuable research for zoologist Su-ryun (the always exquisite Jung Yoo-mi, almost unrecognizable under all that frizzy hair!); justice for the untimely death of the grizzled ex-trapper Cheon Il-man’s (Jang Hang-sun) granddaughter; a personal trophy for Il-man’s former apprentice, the sought-after hunter Baek Man-bae (Yoon Je-moon); and just another day in the office for the shades-wearing, Fox Mulder-esque Detective Shin (Park Hyuk-kwon). Rounding off the hunting crew is Officer Kim, who joins in to find his own mother, who has gone missing the morning after the boar’s village rampage.
But the hugely anticipated hunt through the forest, funnily enough, is the least thrilling part of the second half, and falls short of the “wild rumpus” that you expect it to be. The action isn’t well-sustained throughout, the shots and editing not that dynamic. (Compared to, say, the jungle chase scenes in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, which were superbly, dizzyingly suspenseful.) And there isn’t much interaction between hunters and beast until the scene where the humans chance upon the boar’s lair, prompting one of the characters to set fire to the entire farrow (well, almost), not knowing the mom is close by; and then later the boar gets stuck under the drop trap, but they’re all too scared to go near it (lol).
What also detracts from the thrill of the hunt is the intrusion of gross-you-out gimmickry, like when the old hunter Il-man uses gunpowder to cauterize Officer Kim’s butt cheek after the poor glute gets skewered by the boar’s tusk. And the presence of the doll-carrying madwoman, who pops in at the strangest places, gets tiresome right away. Unlike the other comedic elements in Chaw, the madwoman’s histrionics are campy at best, her ubiquity more annoying than entertaining. It doesn’t even make sense that she survived this long without getting devoured while wandering the fields at night. She also figures in the film’s epilogue (an otherwise happy note showing that a major character, believed to be dead, has survived the monster ordeal after all), but this final scene just feels extraneous and unfunny, IMO.
Massive paws, killer claws for the feast…
Barring the Comedy FAIL! moments, the funny parts in Chaw are gut-bustingly hilarious when they come unexpectedly and don’t try too hard. The screwy bits of humor — policemen sliding down a muddy slope amid a chorus of flailing bodies and “aaaaahhhhs”, a pongy old slipper inadvertently landing in a houseguest’s dinner during a family fracas (and Detective Shin’s reaction as he extracts the offending article from his soup bowl => LMAO!!!!!), the hunting crew popping open (and hiding behind!) a red umbrella, hoping to ward off the charging beast — make this film so entertaining that you’re willing to overlook the inherent silliness of a CGI-and-synthetic-fur mascot laying waste to the land (lol).
One of my favorite sequences is the lull in the hunt, during which time the team holes up for the night in the old woodsman’s tree house. When the two professional hunters return with a sample of the boar’s bristles and the rest of the team marvel over the estimated size of the creature, Jung Yoo-mi’s character Soo-ryun gets them to re-enact the scene for maximum cinematic effect while she films them on her camcorder => LOL!!! And when Soo-ryun talks about her idol Jane Goodall, Detective Shin interjects with the non sequitur “Vidal Sassoon?” => LOLOLOL!!! (Is it so obvious that Detective Shin is my favorite character of the lot?) Moments like these, you realize how truly weird and lovable these people are, as well as appreciate the unique kooky charm of Korean movie humor — when delivered in such delicious little bites.
It’s only when the humans (and the boar) are out of the woods that the real chase gets going. The final leg of the hunt (who’s pursuing whom now? take a wild guess, heh) is a rip-roaring ride down an old mine shaft and into an abandoned factory, where Officer Kim and Soo-ryun (having elected to draw the creature away while the others call for the National Guard), put their wits together to trap the beast once and for all under an elevator, and using one of the piglets as a decoy. The adrenalin-pumped action is interspersed with taut, breathless moments (i.e. when the two crouch on the floor as the beast comes a-sniffing mere inches away — referencing Jurassic Park, but in a good way), and it’s these well-utilized dynamics that effectively build the suspense all the way to the, uh, explosive finale.
Hear him roar, see him foam
But we’re not coming home
‘Til he’s dead, good and dead
Kill the Beast!!!
Despite its madcap moments, Chaw doesn’t hold back on delivering its ultimate message, which is a cautionary ecological fable for our times: Hell hath no fury like Mother Nature seriously messed up by Man. We learn from the hoary hunter Il-man that the dreaded beast and its ilk are really an aborted military breeding experiment gone awry, and that the dwindling numbers of their natural prey (due to poaching and anthropogenic habitat destruction) have driven these mutant boars to forage closer and closer to human settlements.
In this sense, Chaw remains true to its classic monster movie genre because the so-called “monster” here is a sympathetic antagonist motivated not by any evil or destructive desires, but only acting as a twisted product of Man’s rapacity and selfishness, and his willful desire to take, enslave and destroy without regard for the consequences. Chaw is very clear on making this distinction: the ajusshi at the start of the film gets devoured not because he stumbles into the exhumed grave, but because he goes back to filch the gold ring from its owner’s severed finger; Il-man’s granddaughter is eaten alive by the boar not because she slips down the muddy embankment while riding her bicycle, but because the two delivery men who accidentally mow her down on the highway throw her bleeding body back into the field, hoping to cover up their own crime.
Chaw is (for the most part) funny and entertaining, but it does leave you with a little bit more to, uh, chew on. For it turns out that the real monster isn’t a hulking killer boar with bullet-deflecting hide and fangs the length of a human femur; the real monster is us. This particular aspect of the story recalls the imagery used in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”, wherein the novel’s namesake (embodying the evil in Man) speaks to one of the major characters through a sow’s head impaled on a stick, rank with blood and buzzing with flies: “There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast… Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close!”
If you wish to stretch the semantics, the town of Sammaeri may as well be any town in the world, or the whole world itself. And we have unleashed the Beast of our own turpitude, we have brought this ruin upon ourselves. Through our grasping and self-serving nature we have created — and continue to create — the circumstances for our own undoing.
The film’s final shot — and arguably its most chilling — is that of the lone surviving shoat who, having witnessed the slaughter of its entire family, and judging from the murderous gleam in its amber eyes, will grow to full size carrying a deadly vendetta against the unsuspecting humans nearby. The villagers of Sammaeri may have bought some respite from this porcine peril, but — as the film seems to tell us — for as long as Man keeps doing what he does, the Beast in the forest — which is really the Beast in all of us — can never truly be killed.
Artistic & technical merit: B-
Entertainment value: B
Photo credits: asianmoviepulse.com, giantmonstersattack.blogspot.com, hangukdrama.wordpress.com, horror-movies.ca, k-popped.com, koreatimes.co.kr
“The Mob Song” lyrics from “Beauty and the Beast” (Disney Pictures, 1991)