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‘Monsterz’

Remake of Korean thriller looks into the abyss

by Mark Schilling

Hollywood has been remaking Asian films for a long time now, but over the past decade Korean movies have become the focus of remakers attention. One reason is that hit Korean films are often based on the sort of “high concepts” (easy-to-grasp premises) that fuel Hollywood’s own sure-thing projects. They do not, however, always deliver the results their remakers hope for. One recent example: Spike Lee’s reworking of Park Chan-wook’s controversial 2003 smash “Oldboy” was both savaged by critics and ignored by audiences.

Now Japanese producers are getting into the act with a remake of “Haunters,” a hit 2010 psychological thriller by director Kim Min-seok. Titled “Monsterz” and directed by horror maestro Hideo Nakata of “Ring” series fame, the remake follows the outlines of the Korean original: A psychologically warped man (Tatsuya Fujiwara) able to stop people dead in their tracks with his laser-like stare becomes upset when a removalist guy, busy working on his moving van, fails to freeze with the rest.

The mover, Shuichi (Takayuki Yamada), also has an uncanny ability to recover from injuries, as the man with the powerful stare (who must remain anonymous) discovers when Shuichi is miraculously healed after being struck by a speeding car — an injury that would instantly kill any ordinary mortal.

Rather than sue the driver, Kumoi (Tomorowo Taguchi), the now-unemployed Shuichi asks him for a job and is soon working happily with the kindly Kumoi and his gorgeous daughter Kanae (Satomi Ishihara). But his sociopathic nemesis is not yet done with him.

This story of head-to-head (or rather power-versus-power) rivalry is not entirely new territory for Nakata. His 2008 film “L no Honto no Himitsu (L: Change the World)” — the final entry in the “Death Note” series — featured a reclusive, candy-addicted genius detective (Kenichi Matsuyama) on the verge of death, who confronts a brilliant scientist-turned-bioterrorist, planning to wipe out humanity with a super-virus, though the scientist herself is has no superpowers. (Earlier series entries, however, featured a cynical, pitiless death god, known as a shinigami, who resembles a heavy-metal guitarist.)

Instead of referencing Japanese folklore, as the “Death Note” films and Nakata’s J-horror shockers did, “Monsterz” seems to take inspiration from Hollywood superhero films, in which even a nerdy teen can — with one insect bite — morph into a gravity-defying fighter against evil. If a Korean flavor remains, I couldn’t detect it, though I make no claims to being an expert on Korean superhero lore.

What is specifically Nakata about the film is an air of dread pervading otherwise normal lives, as well as the sudden invasion of those lives by forces seemingly beyond human control. Nakata also allows (or even encourages?) scenery-chewing in his films, and “Monsterz” is no exception, with the madly grimacing Fujiwara as the worst offender.

Like many evil characters in this type of Japanese action film/thriller, Fujiwara’s unnamed character has his reasons, principally an abusive father he effectively killed with his blue-eyed gaze while still a boy. Reduced to catatonic despair, his mother (Tae Kimura) abandoned him and he has since cut himself off from the human race, save for forays out into public to replenish his money supply by mentally freezing his victims and making them do his bidding.

Shuichi has his own back story, namely, an accident that killed his parents and brother and left him with a crushing burden of guilt. He vowed that if another such occasion presented itself, he would save those dearest to him, a list that now includes Kumoi and Sanae as well as two goofy pals (Motoki Ochiai and Taiga) who serve as comic relief.

Naturally, there must a showdown or two (or more) between the irresistible force of Fujiwara and the immoveable object of Yamada, and the film supplies them, though the quality and the scale of the effects is not quite up to the standards of a Marvel Studios movie — if you’ve seen one crowd of extras freeze in its tracks, you’ve seen them all. And despite some striking images, including one of the bad guy manipulating a mass of humanity like so many magnetized filings, the action begins to feel repetitive.

That said, the film builds to a slam-bang conclusion that develops logically from earlier shocks, and flows from character, not plot contrivance. It reminds me of something Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” With blue eyes, no less.

Fun fact: Nakata shot “The Ring Two,” in Los Angeles in 2005, a remake of his own 1999 J-horror hit “Ring 2.” In 2009 he made “Hollywood Kantoku Gaku Nyumon (Foreign Filmmakers’ Guide to Hollywood),” documenting his frustrations with Hollywood.