"You can't publish these, they are the stories of the dead...
Don't you know the dead are killing people?"
When publisher Suh Mi-sook (Kim Bo-yeong) is found dead in her office - her face slashed and throat punctured by her own Xacto knife - police are shocked to also discover that her violent demise follows exactly a story within a graphic novel manuscript drawn by celebrated comic artist Kang Ji-yoon (Lee Si-yeong); instantly making her the most obviously likely culprit of the suspected murder.
However, no sooner do detectives Gi-cheol (Eom Gi-joon) and Yeong-soo (Kim Hyeon-woo) begin to investigate Ji-yoon in depth than another of her graphic stories begins to unfold in real time; leaving them racing to save a life while trying to ascertain whether Ji-yoon really is a murderer or if, as she claims, something far more sinister, malevolent and otherworldly is in fact at play...
In recent years, there has been somewhat of an ongoing trend in Korean cinema for increasing numbers of film narratives to be based on internet comic series, commonly referred to as webtoons - 'Moss', 'Secretly, Greatly', 'Fists of Legend' etc. - and concurrently with this some movies have used a combination of live action and manwha (Korean manga) to great effect; the graphic elements actually forming part of the overall story, as was the case in 'Petty Romance', for example.
While the success of these - whether measured in the perceived deftness of the narrative realisation of each or, more generally, in terms of box office takings - has been a fairly mixed bag overall, the ever-growing popularity of comics and webtoons in the zeitgeist has, for a time, positively screamed for such a graphics-based medium to be used as part of one of the most visual of all cinema genres, that of horror, and breathe freshness and topicality into an area of Korean cinema that has been rather on the wane of late, in the process.
Step forward 'Killer Toon'; the first Korean horror to secure over a million cinema admissions since 'Death Bell' back in 2008:
Having both directed and written the screenplay for 2005's classic 'The Red Shoes', director Kim Yong-gyoon is certainly no stranger to the horror genre and his familiarity with the numerous, almost requisite, classic horror conventions seen in 'scarefests' from Korea, other Asian territories and worldwide alike is clearly apparent from the very first moments of 'Killer Toon'.
From hangings and suicide; to blood-soaked figures appearing and disappearing on deserted roads; to lights being inexplicably extinguished as tension mounts; to blood streaming down walls; to even a 'Grudge'-like individual with a deeply unsettling head movement complete with cracking neck - they're all here, to the extent that they could be combined to form a virtual checklist of archetypal horror elements. In lesser hands, so many scary moments that have so often been seen in an utter plethora of horror films through the years would likely appear as little more than deeply and predictably clichéd, but in 'Killer Toon' they fit not only naturally but grippingly too, like a hand in a glove (or a throttling hand around a throat, if you prefer an analogy more fitting to a film such as this).
These 'classic' horror elements merge with the well thought out narrative idea of murders following a graphic webtoon story to come across all the more successfully (and while we're on the subject, may I just say that the webtoon imagery created by Song Sun-chan and Kim Dae-il is both creepily exquisite and darkly beautiful); without question serving to make the film's opening segment and the (subsequent) first two murders by far the strongest parts of 'Killer Toon', as a whole.
'Killer Toon' begins with a seemingly melancholy single piano melody accompanying the first written credits on a black screen with ominous strings added as brutal webtoon imagery begins to tell the background story of how Ji-yoon's previous graphic novel, 'History of Lunacy', became a best seller; reaching an orchestrated crescendo as the first of her new stories - 'The Black Veil' - shows itself to be a real life account of publisher Mi-sook's childhood, and as is also the case with the other murders that follow the victim's desperate (or futile) attempts to stay alive are played with live action and webtoon imagery in tandem on screen, each adding to the other. In fact, so strong are the opening segment and first few scenes that the rest of the film has its work cut out to come even close to their effectiveness and therein lays one of Killer Toon's biggest problems: It’s not that the underlying plot is particularly lacking, per se (though it does have to be said that Kim Yong-gyoon has rather too much of a tendency to deliberately withhold pivotal scene information specifically to facilitate a later 'reveal', which feels contrived as a result) but the fact that the story and underlying themes will likely be familiar to almost anyone with even little more than a vague knowledge of (any) horror cinema means 'Killer Toon' does tend to feel less vital, if you will, overall than in its individual horrific parts.
And speaking of themes, the underlying thematic focus of the film will be apparent to most by the time of the second murder (that of embalmer Jo) and here too it's fairly standard fare for the horror genre - vengeful ghosts, dark secrets leading to both guilt and violent retribution, and the karmic consequences of greed and selfishness - but that said it does work reasonably well in the greater scheme of things even if it is somewhat overstated in the final scenes; especially in Ji-yoon's television interview discussing her aim in producing the graphic novel - to my mind slightly explanatory overkill and altogether rather unnecessary.
Also, as a side note of sorts,
during the early deaths/murders the question is (almost) raised as to whether what is befalling the 'victims' is really vengeful spirits or simply the self-inflicted vicious actions of guilt ridden minds and though I would have really liked to have seen that idea taken further that is more of a personal wish rather than any sort of demand, or criticism that it wasn't.
However, overall the biggest issue I have with 'Killer Toon' comes in the middle segment as the narrative moves somewhat into melodrama.
Now, don't get me wrong, I have little issue with the melodrama itself (let's face it, if you can't cope with melodrama you're never going to be a fan of Korean cinema as a whole) and it could even be said to be necessary in the detailing of Ji-yoon's background and her relationship with her friend Seo-hyeon - via flashback and exposition - but the problem is that these types of scenes require a very different pacing to the briskness we have become accustomed to by this stage in proceedings and as such the story largely grinds to a shuddering halt, only recovering in the final third of the film as we step back to the main (and present) timeline after what feels like a protracted period.
Not only that, but personally I always take issue with elongated explanatory monologue or, to my mind, overly lazy exposition and in that regard this middle section of 'Killer Toon' is majorly guilty. Yes, the explanations and character background depictions are needed but I honestly wish a more natural - ergo believable - method of detailing them had been sought and found.
As previously stated, thankfully the final section of 'Killer Toon' manages to regain the majority of its original gusto and though the narrative culmination never quite surpasses the film's initial promise, ultimately 'Killer Toon' stands as a thoroughly engaging horror genre film with some stunning visual moments.
Cast: Lee Si-yeong, Eom Gi-joon, Kim Hyeon-woo, Moon Ga-yeong, Kim Bo-yeong
Directed by: Kim Yong-gyoon
'Killer Toon' starts out incredibly strongly - an interesting premise deftly realised with the help of exquisitely dark, stunning webtoon visuals - and though the film somewhat loses its way in the middle section of proceedings, ultimately it stands as an engaging addition to the Korean horror film genre; complete with several perfectly creepy moments along the way.