Nope, Korean director/screenwriter Yoo Ha’s “Howling” is in no way related to the American semi-classic, werewolf horror flick with the same name. Based on the novel written by Asa Nonami “The Hunter: Freezing Fang”, the film is about two detectives who stumble on a case of a serial murderer who is not human, but rather a dog trained to kill. Imagine "Old Yeller meets Cujo"...
Mapo district, Seoul. A middle-aged, somewhat discouraged detective named Sang-Gil (Sang Kang-Ho, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Thirst ) assigned to close the case of man who may have burned himself in his own car. He has two children and has been passed over a promotion by his boss-friend (Shin Jung-Geung), and now he has been assigned a female rookie named Cha Eun-Young (Lee Na-Young) to be his partner. Eun-Young is a divorced cop who had recently been transferred from motorcycle patrol. Despite their reluctance to work together, the two may have stumbled upon a case that isn’t suicide, but more of a homicide. When more dead bodies turn up with a huge dog bite that resembles a wolf bite, the police may have a killer dog on their hands. But Sang-Gil and Eun-Young discovers something far more complex and ominous that leads to a man named Min Tae-Shik (Jo-Young Jin), a dog trainer and his drug addicted daughter…
The film begins rather simply and innocently enough. At first impression, the screenplay seemed to be a simple tale about a veteran and a rookie cop. The direction keeps things light with some touches of dry humor with the use of Sang-Gil’s antics and eccentric behavior. It draws the viewer in by showing the workings, the pecking order and the politics of this police department. There is something kind of disturbing just how the cops in the film were portrayed as ‘sexist’. Their ‘macho’ bullshit was seemingly intended to make the viewer to quickly form an attachment to Eun-Young, as she has to tolerate such behavior just because she is the only female member of the team. Not sure if this is true to real-life Korean cop behavior, but nonetheless, it was rather disturbing to see her associates behave quite badly.
As the film then caught its stride, the script took me for a look inside the potential relationship and camaraderie between the veteran cop and the rookie. The screenplay was then able to take the focus off the displeasing sexist behavior of the supporting characters, as Sang-Gil and Eun-Young begin to work and have respect for what the other does. Much of the film is all about detective legwork; the two lead characters seemingly trying to beat their associates as well as the case they are faced with. If director Yoo Ha did something right, it was the way he structured the film. The clues and the manner the investigation went drove the plot’s development, as it offers several twists and turns that led to even more surprises.
Having two cases in the heart of the plot actually gave the film a lot of intricacies. Ha was able to give the ‘not just a killer dog’ element credibility as it led to something much more disturbing such as child prostitution. The direction was able to put together the clues and develop them well into the plot, with a revenge subplot. It also gives the viewer something to ponder just as who were the victims? Were the victims those killed by the dog or was the victim the dog? Who was the real innocent here? The film carried enough emotions that one would not be hard-pressed to root for the killer. Themes such as how guns don’t kill people (in this case, an animal) but people kill people. The script and the direction were direct in the themes, as sometimes, the real monsters are those who walk on two legs.
What also made the film work was the way the chemistry between Sang Kang-Ho and Lee Na-Young struggled and then it became better. It was almost as if the director wanted to generate that ‘mistrust’ to make their ‘bond’ much more effective. It was easy to buy into their relationship, it felt sincere and real. The supporting cast was also able to lend some needed aid in the establishment of its groundwork. The villains here also were not the villains if you look at it from a moral standpoint. I was glad to see a gray area in the screenplay as it allowed room for the viewer to think about what he was watching.
“Howling” may have lost some of its momentum since I did see some editing problems that plagued it near the final act. It dragged in some areas, areas a little muddled and some things were a little overwrought. The film does prove to be a heart-breaking crime thriller with an emotional ending that comes close to the emotions of the classic “Old Yeller”. This is a film about man’s best friend after all, and yes, they are indeed man’s best friend even when it is taught to hate, whose hatred was birthed from love.
Recommended! [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars]
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