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La Dents de la forêt
A UK region 2 DVD review of CHAW by Gort
 

There are some real monsters in Korea. Not so long ago we were treated to a hungry escapee from the Han river in Bong Joon-ho's The Host, and now we have Chaw, a rural mammalian response to Bong's urban reptile that suggests there's also something nasty and equally hungry lurking in the woods. As a horror work it's nowhere near as satisfying or inventive as Bong's excellent movie, but it is a lot of fun. Indeed, with this many blatant borrowings to wade through, it's ultimately the comedy that carries it.

Kim is a traffic cop in the South Korean capital of Seoul. He has, as they say, a thankless job, required as he is to deal with everything from bemused foreigners and drunkards to arrogant officials who don't see why they need a licence to drive. But he's about to be transferred to the sleepy country village of Sam-Nae-Ri after thoughtlessly writing "anywhere" as the second choice on his transfer application. "That was a joke," he soberly tells his colleague, but heads out to the country anyway with his pregnant wife and energetically batty mother.

He's not been there long before ecology professor Soo-ryun and her hapless boyfriend discover the dismembered remains of a girl's body in local woodland (how it got there is a small tale in itself). Having helped collect body parts on the orders of work-shy Captain Yoo, Kim volunteers to attend the autopsy and becomes involved in the investigation being conducted by perennially shade-wearing Detective Shin. The coroner thinks it's murder, but the victim's grandfather Chun, an ex-hunter of some repute, knows they're dealing with an animal of some sort and becomes determined to hunt it down.

Chaw has been repeatedly described as Razorback meets Jaws, and this is no pitch-driven tag line but an accurate if incomplete summary of its principal borrowings. Jaws in particular doesn't so much inspire the film as provide it with a ready-cut template from which to work, both in the structure of the story and in the wholesale lifting of key elements and scenes. Nowhere is this more obvious than when a band of imported Finnish hunters (with broad American accents) capture what they believe is the wild boar responsible, only to have Chun proclaim that, big though it may be, this is not their beast, something he proves by cutting open its stomach and examining the contents of its slow-working digestive system. Sound familiar? There are even some character similarities here, with a local police detective, a fresh-faced outsider and a seasoned hunter teaming up to go into the forest and hunt the beast out. And standing in for Spielberg's self-serving Mayor Vaughn is corrupt police chief Park Maan-bok, who dismisses Kim's request to call a temporary halt to local farming on the grounds it will harm the local economy. Can you guess what happens as a result? But Jaws is not the only cookie jar that Chaw has its paws in. There are undisguised nods to Jurassic Park and Predator, and a climax that suggests director Shin Jeong-won knows his Terminator movies too. By this point all but the most tolerant may be wondering if Shin actually has any plot ideas of his own.

What prevents Chaw falling headlong into rip-off pit is the economy of its filmmaking (Chun's present state as an alcoholic ex-hunter is suggested in just two brief static shots) and its infectious humour, which runs the full gamut from slapstick to the strangely surreal. Much of it really is laugh-out-loud stuff: the officious Captain Yoo falling arse over tit down a grassy slope; the cop who throws up at the first sight of a corpse; the woodland hut conference that has to be restaged with more drama for Soo-ryun's camera; the still flapping fish that sprays soup on its would-be diners; the cops who cling to the rafters when the beast attacks a barn dance; the restaurant girls who respond to a request to quieten down by apologising and then smashing a bottle on the complainant's head; Kim waking from sleep to discover that his wild-eyed mother is driving their vehicle. And there are plenty more.

The monster itself is the product of some average quality CGI, with a little too much of the final man-against-beast chase playing like quick reaction tasks on a new Resident Evil game (press triangle now!), and the lack of originality does ultimately make itself felt. But the characters are fun and their misadventures genuinely enjoyable, and the film really is worth seeing for its inspired silliness alone. All the same, should director Shin try for a third cross-genre piece (his first was the 2004 Sisily 2km) and bring his gift for comedy to a story with some real narrative originality, I have a feeling he'd be on to a winner.

sound and vision

With Blu-ray now spoiling us on picture quality, it's always nice to come across a transfer that can still fly the flag for upscaled DVD. That's definitely the case with the detailed and well balanced anamorphic transfer here, which looks great in in daytime exteriors and pleasingly doesn't lose anything in the night scenes, some of which could almost have been lit with home video in mind (and quite possibly were, of course).

You can listen to the soundtrack in Dolby 2.0 stereo, but I wouldn't, because the 5.1 surround track is far better, being louder, more impressively mixed and has noticeably more punch. There are some seductive LFE rumbles when the beast is approaching, and the attack on the barn is very inclusive and the effects spread around the room and speaker specific. The clarity is excellent throughout.

extra features

Only a Trailer (1:55), a rapidly edited piece that sells the film solely on its horror-thriller elements and completely bypasses the comedy. Which is its key asset, of course.

summary

Glaringly unoriginal but niftily assembled and often very funny, Chaw lacks the substance and thematic complexity of Bong Joon-ho's standard-setting The Host, but just about gets by on its wit and eye for the oddball. No extras of note on the DVD, but a damned good transfer and a fine 5.1 soundtrack, so no complaints on the technical side.

Chaw

South Korea 2009
117 mins
director
Shin Jeong-won
starring
Eom Tae-woong
Yoon Jae-Moon

Jeong Yu-mi

Josiah D. Lee
Earl Wayne Ording
Heo Hyeon-hwa

Disc details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
Korean / English
subtitles
English
extras
Trailer
distributor
Optimum
release date
1 March 2010
review posted
7 February 2010

Related reviews
The Host (region 3)
The Host (region 2)

See all of Gort's reviews