Tae-ho (Ahn Jae-mo) sits in a police interrogation room, dressed in a white prison jumpsuit, with his angles and wrists shackled. As he recounts the events that led him to be there, we watch, in flashback, as he and his friends from childhood - Amoeba (Park Sang-myeon) and Euglena (Kang Seong-jin) - accidentally kill "the greatest cop in the country", while on a night out drinking. When one of the cop's colleagues (to whom the dead policeman was a hero) demands two hundred million Won to make the crime "disappear", the three men decide that the only course of action open to them is to kidnap Tae-ho's rich, ex-military, father (Park Young-gye) and demand the money from his estate. However, Tae-ho quickly realises that if they set the ransom even higher, he would also be able to acquire enough money to buy himself out of having to do military service and, in the process, finally get his father's respect for having (or appearing to have) saved his life.
Once Tae-ho has concocted an intricate plan to have his father abducted by Amoeba and Euglena, the kidnap attempt gets underway, but his failure to take into account the myriad of possible variables that could occur - and not factoring in the utter stupidity of his friends - results in a catalogue of disasters and coincidences being unleashed which quickly snowball, irrevocably altering the lives of each and every person involved...
A deeply dark and twisted comedic thriller, The Humanist derives the majority of its humour from repeatedly stepping as close to the edge of the bounds of decency as possible but, somewhat surprisingly, the comedy actually works for the most part - depending on your penchant for gross-out laughs.
This is largely helped by the offbeat eccentricities (and plain oddities) of the majority of the characters - Amoeba, a slightly brain damaged hulk of a man; Euglena, a bitter and angry eunuch; Sister Rosa (Myeong Sun-mi), a nun with a deeply strange accent, which the children she teaches begin to adopt; the homeless beggar with the suppurating leg (Kim Myeong-su), who has a deep aversion to washing; Tae-ho's strict and disciplined father, whose sexual fetish involves body-painting prostitutes and getting them to pop naked in and out of a closet, like a human cuckoo clock, while he masturbates and throws money at them; etc. etc. - and while virtually all of the characters (bar the Sister) are clearly shown to possess no humanity whatsoever, their constant self-obsessions and self-serving attitudes result in an increased believability in the idea that they are actually capable of (and likely to do) the, sometimes disgraceful, often cringe inducing, things they do, and thoroughly enjoy themselves in the process.
Add to that, the fact that even as the stories, and pasts, of the main characters unfold, they each remain caricatures to a degree (rather than fully fledged, fleshed out individuals) and, as such, the gross-out comedy comes across as rather less reality based than would otherwise have been the case, thereby allowing that line of decency to be nudged ever so slightly further away.
Of all the close to the knuckle moments within the film, even the scene surrounding the attempted rape of Sister Rosa, by Amoeba, manages to hit a funny bone (due largely to Amoeba's utter embarrassment at his failure to perform because "the romantic mood wasn't right") and, in fact, there is only one scene in the whole of The Humanist which I really thought shouldn't have been in the film at all:
Tae-ho as a child (once again shown in flashback) has plied Amoeba and Euglena with cash and ice-cream, and they sit watching a young girl and boy (who appear to be no more than twelve or thirteen years old) playing together on the local swings. The couple's movements are filmed from Tae-ho's perspective and, as they swing back and forth, the camera repeatedly, and deliberately, films up the young girl's skirt. Clearly, this was done to accentuate Tae-ho's burgeoning feelings of lust, but to blatantly film a girl this young in such a voyeuristic and sexualised way is utterly unnecessary and frankly goes beyond what's reasonable and decent.
Co-written by Lee Mu-yeong and Park Chan-wook (who also co-wrote Joint Security Area and Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance - both, of course, directed by Park Chan-wook), The Humanist is Lee Mu-yeong’s directorial debut. His direction is fairly assured throughout, with the only criticism being with regard to the slightly uneven pacing. In spending a large portion of the first half of the film dealing in depth with the various character eccentricities and sub-plots, he is subsequently forced to rather rush the main kidnap plot (even with its numerous twists and turns), and the desired escalation of calamities within the increasingly tangled web created by the actions of the three main characters is, sadly, somewhat diminished as a result.
It would be interesting to see what difference would have been made by having Park Chan-wook direct The Humanist. The plot almost begs for his unique directorial style, and his ability to bring a noticeably surreal quality to the screen, along with the fact that he routinely creates sumptuously beautiful visuals, would, I feel, have suited the film down to a tee.
Finally, note should be made of the music used throughout the film. The combination of Tom Waits-esque Korean language tracks with songs by the likes of Nick Cave and the Stereo MCs, compliments both the plot and the visuals perfectly, and noticeably increases the feeling that we are watching a group of characters who truly are ever so slightly deranged.
The cast in The Humanist all give decent, if somewhat unremarkable, performances - the most accomplished and noteworthy being Myeong Sun-mi's portrayal of Sister Rosa and Kim Myeong-su's role as the unwashed beggar with the suppurating leg.
Both raise the level of proceedings in every scene in which they appear, but it is Kim Myeong-su's playing of the beggar which truly stands miles above the rest. He positively wallows in his character's filth (so to speak) and gives an exceptional performance throughout - funny, moving and utterly disgusting, all rolled into one... Superb.
Though somewhat flawed and erratically paced, The Humanist still has a lot to offer fans of wilfully tasteless, yet genuinely funny, humour.
Just don't let your local nun watch it.
Screenplay: Lee Mu-yeong, Park Chan-wook
Directed by: Lee Mu-yeong
Ahn Jae-mo... Ma Tae-Ho
Kang Seong-jin... Euglena
Park Sang-myeon... Amoeba
Park Young-gye... Ma Bok-dae
Myeong Sun-mi... Rosa
Kim Myoeng-su... Beggar
An Seok-hwan... Bae Kyoung-wi
The DVD reviewed here is the Korean (Region All) SRE Corporation single disc edition. The film itself is provided as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, but unfortunately the transfer isn't as good as it could be. There are image artifacts on display throughout the film, especially prevalent in the darker, night time scenes and, though they are not quite at a level which would necessarily be detrimental to the film's enjoyment, their presence is, nonetheless, disappointing.
The original Korean language soundtrack is provided as Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and, while being fairly clear, is rather unremarkable.
Excellent subtitles are provided throughout the main feature but English-speaking viewers should note that, as with many Korean DVD releases, there are no subtitles available on any of the extras.
Audio Format: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Video Format: Widescreen 1.85:1 (Letterbox)
Region Code: ALL
Duration: 100 mins (approx.)
2 Music Videos
Electronic Press Kit
'Making Of' Documentary