What a Boar: Translating Animal Horror and Ecological Anxieties in Chaw (Shin Jeong-won, 2009)
Chaw, Shin Jeong-won’s gruesome farce, offers more than the spectacle of a giant boar slaughtering drunken revelers at a karaoke celebration. During the 2000s, South Korean cinema (hereafter referred to as Korean cinema) came to international prominence; this mid-budget creature feature was released in the early stages of that rise. Almost a decade after its release, Chaw remains overlooked and underappreciated. This might stem from its bizarre premise about a monstrous boar threatening an organic farming festival. Maybe it relates to its unorthodox mix of broad comedy and horrific thrills, or its still relatively obscure filmmaker and cast. Whatever the reason, Chaw deserves revisiting. In terms of its production, conception, and thematic concerns, Chaw demonstrates how even relatively modest projects can synthesize local and global forces productively. The filmmakers worked with non-Korean crewmembers to execute Chaw’s ambitious effects sequences. These effects were applied to a project that appropriates horror cinema’s killer animal trope – something popularized in, and associated with, the West. Working off the template provided by Jaws, Shin adapts the trope to address Korean issues. Chaw’s narrative about internal migration and tourism addresses the divisions separating urban and rural populations, as well as the dire consequences of environmental irresponsibility. Despite the narrative’s national specificity, Shin’s engagement with an internationally recognized iconic text allows audiences around the world to connect with Chaw’s concerns about the warped relationships engendered by, and the ecological fallout of, modernization. Shin’s film demonstrates how, utilizing practical and conceptual resources from around the world, a text can address global audiences about common concerns.
Before discussing Chaw, it helps to understand the development of Korean cinema. The international community began registering South Korea’s revitalized cinema around 2004 (Rist 37). The flourishing of Korean cinema offers an impressive case study of an industry triumphing against the odds. Throughout the twentieth century, adverse conditions threatened to cripple Korean cinema. Artistic expression faced restrictive oversight, first from Japanese occupiers (Robinson 19-20), and later from domestic dictators (Pacquet 34; Robsinson 26). Protective quotas, intended to strengthen the industry, resulted in low-quality productions being churned out to facilitate the importation of popular foreign features (Kim 68; Robinson 15). The lifting of quotas in the early 1990s meant greater competition for domestic audiences (Kim 71; Park 25). However, Korean cinema was strengthened when the government began supporting, rather than censoring, a new generation of filmmakers (Kim 75; Shin 53-54). Korea’s vibrant cinema scene exists now as an international pop culture powerhouse. Its products resonate locally, yet travel globally. International appreciation of Korean cinema extends beyond art houses and cineaste audiences. Genre cinema plays an especially important role in introducing these films and filmmakers to wider audiences.
While Chaw should be understood in relation to the narrative of Korean cinema, there are risks to thinking about films primarily in terms of their national origins. Chaw’s production illustrates how the global exchange of talent and technicians can make it difficult to definitively attribute a film to a single nation. Superficially, Chaw appears to be unambiguously Korean. Its writer/director, many of its key crewmembers, and almost its entire cast are Koreans. However, because of the technical challenges of creating the boar, the production relied upon an international roster of talent. This included Hollywood visual effects veteran Hans Uhlig (The Empire Strikes Back, The Day After Tomorrow) serving as an executive producer. It also required shooting a significant portion of the film in the US using an American crew familiar with filming effects sequences. As a result, the woods around San Francisco double for the mountainous Korean wilderness (Yang). Chaw required more than the material support of American personnel. Shin’s narrative draws upon a type of monster movie associated with the West primarily.
By pitting its protagonists against a wild boar, Chaw joins the ranks of other “animal horror” films. These films feature real-world, extant, non-human animals as their primary antagonists. The threat of these animals often strains credulity. Sometimes these films feature formidable alpha predators, but boars are hardly the most outrageous entry in a nefarious cinematic menagerie including worms (Squirm), rabbits (Night of the Lepus), and Frogs. Especially when these films focus on creatures that are neither dangerous nor scary, it alerts the viewer to the fact that many of these films are more about humanity’s relationship with the natural world than they are about the specific animals being used.
While that subject might resonate with audiences around the globe, the overwhelming majority of animal horror films are produced in the US and Australia. Why do those two countries dominate the subgenre? The reason might lie in their similar pasts. Anglo settlers in both countries tried to dehumanize and eradicate indigenous populations in order to establish themselves as the new natives. The fiction of a formidable, unpeopled frontier, simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, became central to the national mythologies of both the US and Australia. Perhaps their analogous settler-colonial histories explain these countries’ preoccupations with narratives about fighting non-humans for the right to occupy contested territory. Such an explanation would make it seem unlikely that such stories would resonate with a country like South Korea, which had its own painful experience with imperial occupation.
The production imbalance might suggest that these films address a neuroses particular to the West. These films could indicate a culturally specific prejudice against the non-human, or anxieties about a hostile natural world imagined as existing in opposition to civilization. Animal Horror Cinema, the only book-length academic text on the subject, suggests as much. Its contributors imply that animal horror, as seen in Western films, does not exist in Asian cinema; they cite philosophical differences, grounded in Eastern religion, about how nature is viewed (Gregersdotter et al. 15-16; Do 169). The theories discussed above offer partial explanations, but one should be wary of overstating the significance of nationally or regionally distinct motivating forces. Asian animal horror might be less common, but it exists; Chaw is no isolated anomaly. Animal horror films have been produced outside of the West with little variation, thanks in part to the influence of a global blockbuster: Jaws.
While Jaws was hardly the first animal horror film, its financial success alerted producers to the potential of horror movies featuring real-world animal “monsters” (McBride). For years after Jaws, similar exploitation films were produced around the world, including Asia. Jaws rip-offs came out of Mexico (Tintorera, 1977) and Italy (The Last Shark/Great White, 1981), but also Korea (Crocodile Fangs, 1978) and Thailand (Crocodile/Chorakhe, 1980). The ripple effect of Jaws offers a striking illustration of the transnational flow of culture. While Jaws originated in a particular context, its well-executed thrills allowed it to find audiences around the world and inspire imitators from many nations. Asian animal horror films might not be as common as Western ones, but examples continue to be produced throughout the region.
Why do animal horror films resonate with audiences around the world and continue getting produced, despite indulging outdated or ludicrous phobias about the species depicted? Certainly Jaws still possesses an iconic power and cultural resonance. When Magnet promoted the US release of Chaw, they referenced Spielberg’s film directly. The press release announcing Chaw’s distribution stated: “If JAWS was looking to branch out to dry land, without a doubt he’d want to be CHAWZ” (Barr). As seen in that statement, the American title was also changed to Chawz, suggesting a hip update on the classic shark film. However, the reason for animal horror’s global perpetuation must depend on something more potent than a single blockbuster released over 40 years ago. I argue that animal horror resonates with ecological anxieties relevant to global audiences.
By presenting the relationship between humans and the natural world as fundamentally antagonistic, animal horror provides an ideal point of entry for engaging cultural attitudes in an age of human-caused ecological crises. Typically, the conflicts in these films arise from humans meddling with the natural order, throwing things out-of-whack. Perhaps they trespass into or encroach upon the animal’s territory. Perhaps their actions change the animal, physically or mentally, in a way that makes the animal dangerous. In the modern era, human activity can impact environmental conditions adversely, making the world a less hospitable place. Animal horror films offer a fantastic dramatization of these conditions. Ecologically destructive actions can have global consequences, being unbound by humanity’s borders. As a result, these stories about unbalanced ecosystems threatening humanity are increasingly relevant for audiences around the world. In publicity for Chaw, Shin encourages audiences to think about his movie in relation to environmental issues and the destructive exploitation of the natural world (Yang). Chaw inserts itself into an international tradition of ecological horror, while inflecting its presentation with issues relevant to its Korean context.
Chaw mimics, but distorts, the narrative of Jaws. In both films, a city cop lands in a peaceful small town gearing up for a major tourism event. A dangerous animal threatens to ruin the event, and with it the town’s fortunes. As the death toll rises, the cop teams up with an expert biologist and a seasoned hunter to eliminate the threat. Jaws has been accused of having an anti-ecological message; the evil shark must be destroyed to allow for human leisure and profit (Ingram 88). Therein lies the significance of Chaw’s comedic presentation, a difference in tone that undercuts the problematic qualities of Jaws. The characters’ foibles emphasize Chaw’s criticisms of modern society and human behavior.
Chaw gives the elements it borrows from Jaws an absurd twist. It also expands Jaws’s central trio to better explore oppositional binaries relevant to its criticism of modernism, both within Korea and beyond. Unlike Chief Brody, Officer Kim does not want to leave the big city. He is a working class man whose relocation functions as a punishment. Kim is never the primary authority in the film. He answers to his buffoonish captain and the aloof Seoul-based Inspector Shin. Kim’s new village home advertises itself as a crime-free paradise, but it is full of perverts, homeless lunatics, and greedy, incompetent officials. The killer boar threatens the village’s organic farming festival, which exists to swindle money out of gullible city folks. Unlike the resentful Kim, these privileged tourists eagerly swarm the village. The Hooper to Kim’s Brody is Soo-Ryun, a frazzled grad student angling to become the next Jane Goodall. Doubling up in Quint’s role are Chun, an old alcoholic hunter, and Baek, an international celebrity big-game hunter who travels with an entourage of Finnish bruisers (who react violently to the village’s mayor shouting “Nokia” and other brand names). Baek turns out to be a coward and a fraud. All the same, he becomes part of the diverse coalition of misfits required to put things right. Their alliance brings together the young and old, cosmopolitan travelers and traditionalists, and urban and rural peoples. This final pairing is of particular significance to Chaw’s narrative.
The humans must cooperate to defeat the boar, but they are divided by the passive aggressive antagonism that exists between urban and rural populations. It is a division that will be familiar to many countries, but Frances Gateward argues that this division has particular resonance in South Korea. Korea’s rapid modernization transformed it from a primarily agricultural country to a formidable technological and industrial force in the global economy. However, the benefits of this radical reorganization were unevenly distributed. Gateward notes that Korea’s “obsession with the global capitalist and techno-enhanced future has rendered those unable to keep pace, and those associated with the past, invisible and inconsequential” (192).
Chaw mocks both sides of the country’s international division. The audience’s primary sense of life in Seoul comes from an early montage of Kim dealing with entitled and belligerent drunk drivers. Later there are the foolish urban tourists flocking to the village, willing to pay top dollar for anything labeled “organic.” Before Kim’s unwilling relocation, a colleague assures him that he will love country life. “Watch tractors and go fishing,” he councils, “It’s way better than the rotten life here in Seoul.” This description seems indicative of what drives the privileged tourists. Discontent with their own lives, they view rural life with a patronizing romanticism. The villagers are aware and resentful of this attitude. Surveying the bloody aftermath of a boar attack, Kim’s captain mocks him: “Thought you’d be watching tractors and just fishing around here, huh?” Of course, Chaw is no kinder to rural peoples, presenting most of them as either mentally disturbed or brimming with unfounded arrogance. Also, the city people’s stereotypes are partly the result of cynical marketing by village officials, who offer a constructed idyllic image to conceal the dark realities of life in their community. In Chaw’s pessimistic portrait of South Korea, an unhealthy symbiosis connects these divided spheres of national life. The rural community depends on being exploited by, and exploiting, the urban elite tourists.
The non-human threat disrupts the dynamic described above. The malcontent urbanites descend on the village in the belief that it is, like organic food, more “natural.” It appears so from the outside; the village sits on a mountain covered in thick forest and residents farm the land. However, the film makes it clear that the villagers do not enjoy a benign or harmonious relationship with the non-human world. On several occasions, local residents speculate that the boar attacks result from irresponsible land management. The boar’s presence frustrates human privilege and the idea that people with enough money can go where they want and do as they please. It functions as a cruel joke on the tourists. They want to get closer to the natural world. Their incorporation into the ecosystem’s food chain perversely fulfills that goal. Casting a boar as the antagonist lends extra weight to Chaw’s scenario, which upends humanity’s presumptive domination of the natural world. Early in the film, in a bit of comic foreshadowing, Kim enjoys a pork dinner in Seoul. This is how things should be: people eating pigs, not the other way around!
Chaw never definitively explains the boar’s presence or the narrative’s events. In fact it obfuscates any such explanation. Some characters blame irresponsible farming practices. That implies that the fault lies with the Korean population and recent domestic natural resource management. However, that explanation comes during a series of almost back-to-back somber monologues, in which characters offer different theories. Some blame Japanese colonialism; they reference the Japanese practice of importing and crossbreeding boars, an invasive species. This suggests that the boar functions as a monstrous manifestation of historical trauma, as well as ecologically irresponsible practices with a deep history. The overabundance of explanations functions as another joke, playing upon the desire of audiences to understand why these events are happening, and critics’ desire to understand their meaning. At the same time, these theories offer legitimate suggestions for how viewers might understand the film, while conceding that there is no singular correct reading. Allowing this level of ambiguity feels appropriate when viewing the film from an ecological perspective. Suspecting that human activity caused an environmental crisis does not make identifying a singular culprit easy. There may not be a single cause; the various factors the characters cite are not mutually exclusive. The events in the film could be the result of forces at home or abroad, and events both recent and in the distant past.
Whatever the reason for the boar’s presence, the film ends with our protagonists destroying the immediate threat. The humans venture into the boar’s forest domain and lure it into an industrial facility. After maneuvering the boar away from its wilderness home and into an artificial environment emblematic of modernity, the humans use their superior strategic minds to crush the boar beneath an elevator. Looking into the crippled animal’s eyes, Kim decides to put it out of its misery by blowing it up. As the humans celebrate the boar’s defeat, the camera finds one of the boar’s offspring roaming through the forest. The piglet looks at the camera and glares.
The ending of Chaw can be read as a reactionary statement. Throughout Chaw, the film offers the entertaining and bizarre spectacle of the status quo being turned on its head. Privileged humans endeavor to exploit the natural world for pleasure and profit. Instead, they become food for a porcine foe. However this proves to be only a temporary disruption of human dominance. In the end, the humans obliterate this rebellious member of the natural world. Stephen King notes that horror often revolves around struggles to restore order and destroy the monstrous other, suggesting that the genre often brings a conservative perspective to the issues it addresses (39). Yet several factors ameliorate this negative interpretation of the film.
Chaw presents a world in which foolish humans allow petty differences to divide and alienate them. It is a nihilistic movie in many regards, one without much faith in human decency or competence. Yet, despite its pessimism, it suggests a strategy for facing ecological crises. The humans remain flawed, but they form a diverse coalition strong enough to survive their foibles. Chaw suggests the potential of people from different walks of life working together to confront problems caused by human foolishness. Hope exists, as long as people do not take themselves too seriously or become overly confident. At the same time, they do not solve the problem for good. The sinister piglet at the end suggests that continued ecological irresponsibility will result in something similar (or worse) occurring in the future.
Chaw’s tone and presentation make it an offbeat ecological text, but different strategies are necessary if environmentally conscious filmmaking hopes to register with wider audiences. In the fight to encourage environmental awareness and responsibility, serious advocacy documentaries have their place. So do killer pig films. Critics suggest that animal horror films like Jaws evince an ecologically irresponsible ideology. Therein lies the value of a film like Chaw. It offers a new perspective on that old formula, one that realizes animal horror’s potential as a vehicle for positive social messages applicable around the world.
Chaw is, by design, a B-Movie oddity, but its strangeness should not obscure its significance as a document demonstrating the benefits of different forms of hybridity between the local and the global. Chaw was released early in Korean cinema’s development as an important force in world cinema. Shin took advantage of the internationalization of cinema to make contact with talent outside of Korea in order to realize his vision. Shin’s film appropriated a niche horror subgenre primarily associated with the West to address local issues. However, his film playfully riffs on Jaws, one of animal horror’s most iconic and controversial texts. That accessible point of reference aids non-Korean audiences in drawing connections to broader issues of unequal mobility, internal national divides, and environmentalism. Years after its release, Chaw still offers lessons to filmmakers and audiences interested in how cinema can connect the local and the global.
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