Review: Who is the “Monster?” The Serial Killer or the Family that Created Him?

Reading the typical plot synopsis for “Monster,”directed by Hwang In Ho, you might think that it falls under the genre of revenge thriller or horror. While the movie does have some of their elements, it might be better thought of as something else . In fact, at times I found the shifts in tone very jarring and confusing, moving from the overly comical to the horrific and repulsive in a few minutes, leaving me with the impression that the director did not truly respect his material. 


Kim Go Eun as Bok Soon

The story concerns two miserable families, one much worse than the other. (It could even be said that it actually involves three miserable families, but I am avoiding spoilers.) In the first family there is Bok Soon (Kim Go Eun), a mentally handicapped young woman who sells produce at a street stall to support herself and her younger sister, Eun Jung (Kim Bo Ra). She is known locally for being prone to anger and violence, but these should be understood as manifestations of her basic desire to protect the welfare of her family. After all, the sisters are orphans and without any other family support

Lee Min Ki and Kim Roi Ha as the two brothers Tae Soo and Ik Sang.

Lee Min Ki and Kim Roi Ha as the two brothers Tae Soo and Ik Sang.

Their lives tragically intersect with those of Ik Sang (Kim Roi Ha) and his adopted brother, Tae Soo (Lee Min Ki). The two brothers’ childhood spent with an abusive father has affected them in different ways. Ik Sang struggles in life, while Tae Soo is a psychopath who enjoys killing people, having learned it when he was young. When Ik Sang’s uncle asks him to take care of a troublemaker at his factory, Ik Sang takes the money he was supposed to give to the employee in exchange for the incriminating video being used to blackmail the uncle. Ik Sang then asks Tae-Soo to gain possession of the evidence, knowing what sort of person he is. This sets up the chain of events which results in Tae-Soo killing Eun-Jung, and Bok-Soon and Tae-Soo taking turns pursuing one another, one for the sake of justice and the other to cover up his tracks.

If one thinks of the movie as a revenge thriller it probably does not succeed as such. Given Bok Soon’s mental condition, the police dismiss her claim that a murder was committed; hence there is a reason for her to seek justice outside the legal system. But the movie is weak in building up sympathy for the victims and thus increasing the audience’s desire for justice to be done. Moreover, justice is not completely satisfied–as a result the ending may leave the viewer puzzled as to the what the intended meaning of the movie is. There is some graphic violence, but it does not approach the level of a contemporary American horror movie. What is implied is more disturbing than what is actually shown on screen.


It may also be difficult for the viewer to sympathize with Bok Soon, to take her seriously as the heroine because of the frequent changes in tone mentioned at the beginning of this review, which did not enhance but hampered her characterization, almost turning her into a caricature. 

The movie is more like a very violent drama; a study of family dynamics and how they play out. Both of the two protagonists are ‘damaged’ people who yearn for stronger family bonds. Despite her handicap, Bok Soon has known family and sisterly love and seeks to recapture that. Similarly, the killer Tae Soo, a true moral monster whose actions demonstrate to the audience that he should be feared and disliked, has a background that could arouse pity. It could be said that he is a malfunctioning human being who never had a chance to properly grow in a loving environment. He, too, wishes for a closer relationship with his brother and mother but has known only neglect by his adoptive family. 


There is a clear contrast between the two and their respective family experiences. Bok Soon, despite her material poverty (or because of it), knows the importance of love and lives it as best as she can, while the relative wealth that Tae Soo and his family members have acquired over time cannot compensate for or repair their moral deficiency and spiritual poverty. Is there perhaps an implicit criticism of growing consumerism in Korean society? I was left wishing that a deeper existential claim was being more clearly expressed by the movie. The tragedy that is Tae Soo’s family is not fully explored – Are Ik Sang and his mother responsible for their own flaws or they victims as well? What were Tae Soo’s circumstances before he was adopted? Was he already “broken” before he came into their lives, or is he the product of the life spent with them?


It seems to me, then, that the contrast between the two families could have been drawn out more to infuse the movie with more meaning. But as a tale of a clash between good and evil, even if imperfectly shown as such, the movie may be satisfying enough for some.

Title: Monster

Genre: Action, Thriller

Language: Korean with English subtitles

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: NR

Director: HWANG In Ho

All images courtesy of CJ E&M


“Monster” is currently playing in select theaters in North America. Check out the movie’s website for showtimes and more information. 

If he could, papabear would spend more time on philosophy and watching Korean films; he can’t stay away from a good historical drama.

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