The Killer Wolf or Howling (2012) is based on the novel The Hunter by Japanese writer Asa Nonami (OUP, 2006). It’s A Detective Takako Otomichi Mystery and it won the Naoki prize in 1996. As a novel, I could be unkind and say it’s a bit like Cagney & Lacy investigate Cujo, i.e. it features an indomitable woman detective facing appalling sexism from her police colleagues and superiors while investigating a weird and wonderful crime that morphs into a death-by-dog story. Or I could compare it to Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich which is an equally wonderful story exploiting the presence of a dangerous animal (creditably adapted as Leopard Man by Val Lewton). Either way, the Japanese novel is a very interesting read, albeit that the translation is slightly heavy going, and this film makes an honest effort at reproducing it on the screen.
Courtesy of director Han Yo, we now find the novel relocated to Korea with Cha Eun-Young (Na-yeong Lee finally putting The Fugitive: Plan B behind her), a young female police officer, promoted from the motorcycle patrol unit to detective. Courtesy of the Chief Detective (Jeong-geun Sin), she’s teamed up with Sang-gil Jo (Kang-ho Song). He’s the usual older detective who only needs one big case to score a promotion to captain of detectives. Unfortunately, he has three problems. He’s not that bright, preferring to bend the rules with threats and violence to extract information from reluctant sources. He’s a loner. And he’s deeply sexist and doubly prefers to work alone if the person he’s supposed to partner is a woman. So you can imagine his joy when he’s told to take the case of what looks like a very unusual suicide. He can’t see this as promotion material and resents the presence of Cha Eun-Young.
Now two words about the set-up. The death they are to investigate proves to be one of these hang-on-a-minute, the-murder-weapon-is-a-what? type of case. (My apologies for producing such a long compound adjective.) This is a death-by-belt case and, even by my standards, one of the more unusual methods I’ve seen or read. Anyway, once we’ve established the cause of death, the only other interesting feature of the body is that the deceased had recently been bitten by a large canine. The second slight problem is a completely unresolved issue between Sang-gil Jo and his son (Min-ho Lee) that flashes across the screen and is never mentioned again. It’s hard to see why the director bothered because nothing in the senior detective’s subsequent behaviour seems to be affected by this confrontation.
Now all the good things about this film. No! my apologies. That’s the wrong way round. It’s quicker and easier to tell you what’s wrong with it. Actually, there’s very little wrong with it. The only two problems lie in the mawkish sentimentality that develops in the relationship between Cha Eun-Young and the wolf-dog, and the interminable time she follows the dog on her motorbike. Were it not for these blemishes, it would be an excellent film. As it is, the result is only very good. So why is it so good? The answer lies in the performance of Na-yeong Lee.
For a moment, I need to go back to the execrable The Fugitive: Plan B. Although the script was dire, she never lost her dignity. She deserved better. This script offers her the chance to show us what she can do as an actress, and she gives what can only be described as an understated and restrained performance. As many other films and television series have repeatedly shown, both Japan and Korea are deeply sexist. This is a woman who dares trespass into an essentially male territory. No matter that she has exceptional investigative skills, her very presence is offensive to the other members of the team. Indeed, she’s hard to ignore simply because she shows them up as less competent. So they want her to keep a very low profile. When she refuses and is injured in the line of duty, they try to hold her in the office. When she follows her senior’s solo line, the Chief Detective slaps her face. In other words, the Team does its best to drive her away, then takes the benefit of her work as their own and relegates her to the motorcycle patrol. It’s no more than you would expect. Even Sang-gil Jo who has moments when he stands up for her, refuses her implied request that he takes her as a detective into his new team — yes, he does get promoted to captain thanks to his partner’s work. As an actor, Kang-ho Song isn’t really asked to do very much except tag along behind her although he does finally arrive in time to rescue her when she recklessly takes on an entire gang of armed villains. It should be said that all the fighting shows complete realism. At no point does anyone manage one of these martial arts balletic kicks or a magical blow with the fist or a throw casting an assailant through a window twenty feet away. Mostly people grapple and do their best to disable each other with the least risk to themselves.
So this is a superior police procedural which has an interesting murder plot for the detectives to unravel. Na-yeong Lee gets it right in the end and the men catch up to take the credit as you would expect. If it had retained its hard edge throughout, it would have been an outstanding thriller as the wolf-dog takes down more victims (don’t forget the belt). But it plays the same game as the Lassie films and humanises the dog. Yes, it’s a killer but that’s just what it’s been trained to do. Thanks to Han Yo’s direction, we’re supposed to want Na-yeong Lee to bring it in from the cold and place it in a home for retired homicidal wolves. Forgetting the sentimentality, you should see The Killer Wolf or Howling (2012) because of the quality of Na-yeong Lee’s performance. Even if you can’t get to see the film, the novel The Hunter by Asa Nonami is worth reading.