Comfortable and Furious

Chaw (2009)

This is supposed to be something of a followup to The Host. Not because it has any meaningful connection to that film, but because it is a Korean monster movie that hopes to make its investment back tenfold. I doubt that will happen, but it should do fine. Chaw (this word is pronounced like ‘chow’ and seems to be a deliberate pun on the English word [I will never understand why languages with completely different alphabets can’t just be translated phonetically)] is about a giant, man-eating boar. The first part of the film is a a rip off/homage to Jaws.

Bungling small-town cops run into each other and get caught peeping into showers, while local big shots try to downplay the first warning signs of an impending disaster because they are afraid of losing a bunch of money by scaring off big city tourists to their mountain village. Why is there a big tourist season in a mountain village? This is an interesting cultural note. Apparently “weekend farming” is a leisure activity in Korea. It seems to involve driving to the country and picking produce, like a migrant worker. You might say this is no stranger than fishing for recreation. I’m going to say this is much stranger than fishing for recreation.

So Jaws is the starting point, but the film also openly borrows from Predator and Rambo, among others, choices that make it almost unfuckupable. Eventually, hot shot hunters are brought into town to slay the beast. They form a hunting party comprised of every action film cliche. We have the nerdy but fearless scientist, the big city cop relegated to small town duty, the small town cop with a chance to prove he’s the real deal and the grizzled veteran, the only one who really appreciates what they’re up against.

This sounds drab, but it is the knowing use and play with all of the cutouts of the genre that elevates Chaw into something worth seeking out. The Korean film industry might be relatively big, but it’s still a fly on Hollywood’s elephantine ass. So these mid-budget commercial films have no choice but to rely on good acting, writing and direction to create a sense of fun instead of just ejaculating money at the audience. Chaw strikes an excellent balance of self-aware playfulness, never becoming so ironic as to undercut the story, but generally being in on everything that is funny. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Gremlins, as a moderately budgeted, cheese bomb horror flick with an underlying intelligence, a willingness to laugh at itself and the wherewithal to make the right creative tweaks.

Though not as good as Gremlins overall, this film is bolder stylistically and… quirkier, but the good kind of quirky, not the (500) Days of Summer style of affected vacuousness that Matt’s always attacking. I chuckled when, out of nowhere, a dog briefly starts talking, for no other reason than to make you chuckle. I liked how when the old guy is describing his trap, we can see him imagining how to put it together. And like Gremlins, it’s reasonable to think of this as comedy first and a horror film second.

Speaking of Gremlins, when the boar shows up, it is pretty unimpressive compared to the effects in that movie. It’s only on screen for a few minutes, in dark lighting, standing in front of a background that is similar in color to its fur. And, while the actual appearance of the creature isn’t as important as the elements that surround it, I wonder if CGI is the way to go on films like this. Granted, even most critics have been browbeaten into convincing themselves that high end CGI looks real. But, in a film with this budget, the CGI looks like a cartoon drawn onto the film. Now, look at Gremlins. It had a somewhat bigger budget than Chaw, but the creatures were on screen constantly and it was done like 25 years ago.

More to the point, the gremlins and mogwai still look pretty real to today’s viewer. Is there some reason they couldn’t use animatronics and squeeze out three minutes of convincing boar footage for a couple million bucks? Or have we just been too conditioned to think that corporeal effects are low rent, even when they look better?

So anyway, there’s also a Godzilla, “man has brought this on himself” theme because the giant boars have been created by generations of human meddling. First, the Japanese cross-bred their pigs with wild boars during WWII. This could be a nod to those Godzilla films, but probably has more to do with the fact that all other Asians hate the Japanese. Especially if you remember that Americans got the blame for creating the monster in The Host (so solly for saving you from communism, ingrates). Then the Koreans over-farmed and over-hunted the hybrid boar’s habitat, forcing it to dig up graves for food and develop a taste for sweet, sweet man meat.

There also might be a secondary agenda here, of softening the Korean reputation for animal cruelty. I assume the somewhat brutal scenes of people eating meat early in the film are meant to be ominous more than anything, because we know the tables will soon be turned. But it’s weird how, several fatalities into the film, the group discovers the boar’s nest and coos an whines about the babies at great length. A cop, admittedly a pussy cop, but still a cop, offers up, “those poor, cute, little, baby pigs.” Nobody will be fooled by this propagandist turn. We all know that Koreans eat live kittens basted in the tears of puppies. In any case, the baby pigs are pretty cute. Wonder if they have a sequel in mind.

The worst part of Chaw is the climax. The film spends so much time on humor and play, that it hasn’t really got enough dramatic build up for the protracted chase scene in which the monster is killed. There’s some decent suspense before that, but there’s just not enough serious juice to watch a giant pig chase people for over five minutes, always on their heels, never gaining ground. But getting there was fun, so I can live with it.