I know I know. I’ve been really bad at posting recently. A mix of the real world, a rush at work and a dose of man-flu has really kept me behind on keeping these reviews up to date. I’ll have to think of some way to catch up on a few films, maybe via an extended capsule post. As a reward for your patience though, how about the promise of another cross-over with our friend Neko at her Litterbox? No defined dates, but we’ve both made a commitment so hopefully that will be fun.
Now today’s movie has been a bit of a local Box Office hot in Korea, managing to hold off those international superheroes Batman and Spider-man at least locally, along with a North American release. However, it turns out it isn’t the film I thought it was. The synopsis floating around the Internet suggested some kind of “The Host”-like horror movie, maybe involving Zombies. What we actually have is a science based thriller, more akin to Cronenberg’s “Rabid” or “Shivers”, albeit minus the none-to-subtle sexual metaphors.
“Yeongasi” introduces us to Jae-pil (Kim Myeong-min)**, a former Chemistry Professor who has fallen on hard times. It turns out that somewhat influenced by his estranged Police Detective brother Jae-hyuk (Kim Dong-wan)** he lost his savings betting on Stocks and Shares. This means he has had to leave the life of Academia and become a Representative for a Pharmaceutical company. What this actually means is that he has to toady and slave around various Medical Professionals – important things like carry their Golf Clubs, and take their families to Amusement Parks. Meanwhile, an increasing number of bodies start to be found in various water-based locations. Jae-hyuk starts to investigate the case, which is eventually diagnosed as some kind of Parasitic Horsehair Worm (The Yeongasi of the title). Thing is, these little critters usually affect smaller creatures like insects, and there is no reason for them to jump species like this. Once infected by the Worms, you initially get incredibly hungry, then really really dehydrated, until after a few days the parasite takes control of your brain, and forces you to a body of water, where is can escape and release its young. And repeat. Just to make things worse, it you are prevented from finding that water, the Yeongasi will forcibly erupt from your body via the nearest orifice. And as they live in your lower intestinal region, I probably don’t have to draw you a diagram to work out where the nearest exit point is! Nationally this becomes a disaster, and Jae-pil is personally affected when his Wife, Kyung-soon (Moon Jeong-hee), and his two children are affected. Then there is a breakthrough when it turns out that the worms that have previously been impervious to all anti-parasite medicine can be killed by a drug produced by the very company that Jae-pil is working for. Except it went off sale a few months ago, and all the unsold stock seems to have disappeared. Could it be that there is a little more to this story than just an unexpected leap of evolution? Can the brothers finally get to work together to solve not only the mystery of what happened, but also save their family (and thousands of other people of course)?
There is a lot going on in this film, and I think that is the root of what stopped me thoroughly enjoying it. In Jae-pil we have a very unlikely hero, who actually at times can be quite unlikeable (mostly because of his own disappointment in himself and just general tiredness). And whilst you empathise with him because of the situation he is in, you never quite buy into him as the centrepiece of the film. The whole melodrama side of things is pretty well done, managing to stop short of being cloying (in fact Moon Jeong-hee is excellent as the loving Wife and Mother who has to hold everything together for the sake of her family despite being on the verge of a nasty death), although the whole timeframe of the illness seems to vary according to the primacy of the character. Then we have the whole conspiracy angle, which is by far the most interesting, but is discovered and resolved in the most unsatisfactory of ways – so much happens off-screen and is delivered by exposition, and it may be the fault of the subtitles, but feels a little muddy and confused. Basically the film has too many plates spinning, and never really knuckles down to explore any of them satisfactorily.
Then we have the relationship between the brothers, which again is not only under-explained, but they actually get to share very little time on screen together. It is very clear Jae-hyuk wishes to make amends, but he never really gets the chance to do this (outside of the responsibilities of his job in the Police), and I was quite disappointed not to see this theme really followed up or even resolved. It rendered the whole subplot somewhat unnecessary. Also, the role of Jae-hyuk’s Girlfriend/Jae-pil’s Ex-classmate, played by Honey Lee is utterly extraneous. She is a pretty girl for sure, but offers almost nothing in the numerous scenes she is in that the film could not have done without.
Not only that, but the actual disease itself is displayed in a pretty anodyne way. Whilst the tension about the potential fate of the infected is well done, the film is just far too polite in its depiction. There’s only so much drama that can be achieved by people being really hungry, then really really thirsty, then really really really desperate to rush into the water. After which we see bodies either floating in the water, or lying dehydrated on the ground. It just isn’t horrific enough. There is one scene which does cause a ewwwww in the viewer, but it’s still pretty post-mortem and lacking any kind of visceral thrill. Regular viewers know I am no fan of overdoing the gore, but in this case I think a little bit of more graphic body horror could have helped the film.
For me though, the biggest fault is how the problem is actually solved. Without being too spoilerific, it won’t be a huge shock to find out that the Chemistry Professor that is our hero finally uses his skills to help provide a solution. The thing is not only is it delivered by the oddest unheralded flashback (we see him telling his Son that soap is still soap whatever shape it is in), but that it is so bloody obvious. And it is not as if the Government and 10 other Pharmaceutical Companies are not working on a solution.
Once again I am being somewhat hard on the film. On the whole it is perfectly fine, and as a thriller it is not without excitement, and the melodrama of Jae-pil’s family makes it emotionally compelling. It is just that the film is not the sum of its parts. Even the conclusion seems somewhat limited, with no storyline really being satisfactorily concluded to my tastes. Yet at the same time, it is far from a horrible mess, so I will give it a Mildly Recommended. It reminds me somewhat of how I felt about “War of the Arrows” last year – it is perfectly ok, if flawed, but hardly the sort of film that showcases the film skills of a Nation.
** Not sure why, but IMDB has the two Kim’s transposed