Howling (2012)

Rating: C

Dir: Ha Yoo
Star: Song Kang-ho, Lee Na-young, Yeong-jin Jo, Bo-ra Nam

This Korean thriller feels like two different movies joined at the hip. There is an overall story running across them. However the style, approach and, most importantly, impact is radically different. I’m not sure why. It’s as if someone popped the film’s balloon mid-way through. Things begin with someone bursting into flames in their car. Assigned to investigate is Detective Sang-Kill (Song), who’s disgruntled at being passed over for promotion. He’s given a new partner, and is less than delighted by this too, because it’s a woman, Detective Eun-Young (Lee). The rest of the homicide department are similarly unimpressed, treating her as little more than a secretary, despite  proving that her intellect and instincts are every bit their equal. 

Their investigation gets weird, as it leads to a series of vicious dog attacks, with the victims linked by having been involved in a sex trafficking ring. Eventually, the focus narrows to a former police dog trainer (Jo), whose daughter (Nam) was one of the ring’s victims. He’s now using a crossbreed between a wolf and dog as the instrument of his vengeance. It’s when the cops track down the perpetrator, at the same time as the last surviving target does, that things go off the rails. The film just doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself thereafter. At points it almost drifts into Disney True-life Adventures, becoming the wolf-dog’s story. At others, it grinds to a near-halt, as the detectives sit around in their office.

Given the title and poster, to be honest, I was expected a Korean werewolf story. It isn’t that at all – though I’d still like to see one – but for the first hour, what we do get is tight and effective. Sure, it’s another not exactly sympathetic portrayal of the South Korean police. Outside of the two detectives, they are largely incompetent. Including Sang-Kill, they are blatantly sexist, in a way even Gene Hunt from Life on Mars might find a bit much. But Een-Young’s largely placid acceptance of the situation, up to and including physical violence, is part of the problem, and the film avoids focusing too much on this, at the expense of the larger scenario.

There are a lot of very good moments, such as when a raid on a suspect goes wrong, leaving Eun-Young unable to do anything but watch as someone suffers a very savage death (top). However, these are all front-loaded: I can barely remember a single sequence from the second half, as things grind on. I still had questions. The fiery first murder turns out to be the result of an explosive belt buckle: if you are so ingenious as to be able to make those, why bother with canine accomplices? That I was contemplating such issues by the end, illustrates how much the film had lost its hold on me. It’s definitely a shame, considering how well this began. Then again, I’ve always been more of a cat person.