Chaw (NR) Running Time: 121 min. Directed by: Jeong-Won Shin Starring: Tae-Woong Eom, Yoon Jae-Moon, Yu-mi Jeong, Earl Wayne Ording Cinematography: Barry Stone
Before launching into Jeong-Won Shin’s B-movie bonanza Chaw, I believe a word of caution is in order. For those expecting a schlocky horror film like Razorback or possibly a suspenseful creature feature like The Host, temper your expectations now. And for anyone who only observes star ratings, you might want to really read the review before deciding on this one.
Because, on the level, Chaw is an amazingly buffoonish piece of work.
Think Police Academy meets Jaws. Although in concept it sounds like a thriller, there’s nothing more to this one than a series of gags ever-increasing in their goofiness and insanity. If you were one of those audience members who felt that The Host had too much Korean slapstick, then you should stay well away from Chaw. And yet, because of this silly streak, I found the film to be a terrific little bit of entertainment. You won’t be challenged intellectually or scared witless, but you just might leave it all with a big dopey grin.
Once you can get beyond the fact this isn’t going to be a serious chiller or action fiasco, there’s plenty to appreciate about Chaw. Not least of which is its clever sense of humor and willingness to stretch the limits of physical comedy. Drawing its title from a Korean dialect word for ‘trap’, Chaw more than lives up to its English connotation suggesting a rather large and fierce chewing, which is exactly what Jeong-Won Shin gives both the Korean social system and tired horror movie conventions. He ‘chaws’ them a new one.
The plot is specifically a riff on Jaws, with little bits of Predator, Jurassic Park, and the previously mentioned Razorback thrown into a pot, sprinkled liberally with a dose of Keystone Cops, and then served up with a big pint of sarcasm. Taking place in the village of Sameri and it’s surrounding forests, Chaw follows a remarkably diverse and absurd cast of characters as they all find themselves in the orbit of a giant, murderous boar who has taken to murdering humans on the outskirts of town.
When an old grizzled hunter, Cheon, learns that his granddaughter has been grotesquely chawed to death in the forest, he sets out to find the chawer and take out his revenge on its furry hide. After the hunter, add in the crazy lady who lives in the woods (Go Seo-heui ripping off Japanese ghost girls for her make-up and wardrobe), the earnest female environmentalist (Jeong Yu-Mi), and the hot-headed detective who also brings his pregnant wife and nutty mother into the story for some ill-fitting broad comedy.
While those characters more or less make up the primary monster hunters in Chaw, none of them are terribly likable. Shin delights in peeling back typical archetypes and showing us their rotten cores. None of them are repugnant, but the hunter comes off as callous and single-mindedly dim, the detective is a dopey klutz and the ecologist flakier than a croissant while her assistant looks like a whiny Harry Potter with a bad hairday. In one of the movie’s funniest sequences, he riles a trio of young girls at the bar and gets a bottle to the shag-cut for his troubles.
When you get to the second tier of police officers, politicians, and corrupt backwater farmers, there is no subtlety and no restraint applied. Barney Fife would have mocked these guys, and rightly so. All of them circle the film’s real hero, the giant boar that comes leaping and galloping into the picture to bring welcome wanton chaos to the supposedly civilized veneer of this rural township.
The monster itself is no less quirky or expectation-defying than the human characters. There’s a clear mix of different fx approaches at play, from wonky CGI to what appears to be an animatronic head, and my personal favorite; a puppet made mostly of guys under a giant furry animal pelt making it tromp across dusty, dingy locales. At any given moment, you can identify which tact is being used, and to say that the visuals aren’t seamless is an understatement.
For a relatively low-budget production, Shin does alright, masking implausible effects with a colorful bit of personality. This thing moves like no boar I’ve ever seen, and the filmmakers take delight in contrasting its enormous size with its remarkable speed and agility.
Part mastodon part rhinoceros and part Battlecat, the super-swine rips its way through train tunnels and night clubs with ferocious abandon, and in one terrifically entertaining bit faces off against a cop with a weed whacker. Thematically, she (I’m pretty sure its a female—she has a nest of babies) represents both the brutality of the natural world and a kind of environmental reckoning.
In a late scene, the detective nonchalantly pours lighter-fluid on the young piglets and merrily barbecues them. Mama Chaw takes none too kindly to this. When a team of trained hunters try to track her, they are dispatched with a diva’s flair. We are even treated to the typical monster-vision where the screen goes all red-tinted and wavy and we see through the eyes of the beast. It’s as if the boar has beer bottles grafted onto its irises. All of this endears us more to the pig than the people.
One of Mama Chaw’s shifty little offspring, left to glare at us at film’s end…
Even though there is very little serious about the picture’s tone, Jeong-Won Shin has designed Chaw with a skilled hand and a satirist’s eye for details and contradictions. With American audiences are conditioned to humor being either droll and dry or boisterously ribald, it takes awhile to warm to the constant pratfalls and clownish antics. In the end, though, this trickster mentality works for humanizing the film and generating interest when the beastie isn’t on screen.
No doubt, the numerous interludes of watching a parade of screaming, gap-toothed policeman running and falling down muddy embankments can grow stale, especially in a picture that runs about two hours. But in everything else, Shin works like a painter of the insane and idiotic. He assembles scenes like a cartoon strip artist would, and then plops them down into the story as if they always belonged there. Take the bottle smashing scene from above, or this moment after the cop has been gored in the rump by the creature, and the old hunter decides to cauterize it…with gunpowder:
My best point of reference for the kind of post-modern absurdity that strains the edges of Chaw is the 80s work of Joe Dante. If The Host was the Korean bid to be Spielberg, then Chaw is the country’s Gremlins, hammering together B-movie contrivances and cliches and peppering its story with characters who aren’t necessarily heroic or genial, but simply interesting. Give room for the cultural differences and notions of comedy, and both films do their job with equal effectiveness. There is never a dull moment to be had, and Shin doesn’t drop his gags to go serious on us.
There’s still invention and imagination employed until the picture’s final scenes and then beyond. In an particularly clever bit of acknowledgement, the actors are reintroduced over the credits in a way similar to the end of Predator where Arnold and company were displayed in-character, smiling at the camera while ominous music played in the background. The same happens here, with already murdered or deranged characters looking up from their gory death to cheerfully laugh and chuckle.
By this point, it’s likely you know what you are in for. As a horror film, Chaw fails, but then again, it wasn’t trying. As a comedy its one of the more good natured and genuinely funny pictures I’ve seen recently. As a giant pig movie, it’s better than Razorback and the recent Pig Hunt, though both have their charms.
The bottom line is this: If you are looking for a slice of ridiculous fun, then get ready for serious chawage.