For me Hwal was the confirmation that Kim Ki-duk (Pieta, Bi-mong, Breath) didn't just land a lucky shot when he directed Bin-jip. Hwal has everything a good Ki-duk film is supposed to have, only it's a tad more refined than his previous efforts. This lead some people to call his work derivative (his manic release schedule didn't help much either), others just recognized Ki-duk's signature style and enjoyed another great film from his hand.
It's not that I don't like Ki-duk's work prior to Bin-jip, but somehow I never really expected the man to deliver a true masterpiece. Films like Suchwiin Bulmyeong, Samaria, Nabbeun Namja or Seom are all very good, but they somehow lacked that little extra bit of magic. Bin-jip was the first film where Ki-duk truly blew me away and with Hwal he perfected that feeling.
If you've seen some of Ki-duk's earlier films you should pretty much know what to expect from Hwal. The main characters are almost completely silent, save for a few muttered words left or right. They make weird and unconventional choices at times and Ki-duk makes little to no effort to explain their motivations. And of course the ending is the perfect blend of abstract and symbolism, setting the stage for a weirdly attractive finale.
Ki-duk seems to favor floating settings (Seom, Bom ... Bom), this time traveling to open waters to follow the lives of an odd couple living on a boat. The captain of the boat is an old man who lives there with a young girl he rescued when she was only 5 years old. He makes a living from visiting fisherman who get a chance to fish and hang out on his vessel. But many of the fisherman seem more interested in the company of the young lady, much to the dismay of the captain who is eagerly waiting for the girl to turn 17 so he can finally marry her.
Visually Hwal is a clear step up from previous Ki-duk films. It's may not be as slick or polished as some of his more recent ventures (Pieta, Soom), but there are plenty of beautiful shots and sequences to be admired here. The slightly slo-mo'd fortune telling scenes for one belong to Ki-duk's absolute best, while the setting itself provides plenty of opportunity for the cinematographer to go wild.
The magnificent soundtrack is a strong trump that brings the film's atmosphere full circle. Ki-duk's use of string-based music gives the film a sharp yet soothing edge, something that perfectly suits the visuals and the characters of Hwal. The only odd thing is that Ki-duk chose to let the old man "play" the songs on his self-made bow/drum instrument, while it is quite clear that the haphazardly put together contraption is actually incapable of producing the music you hear in the film.
The acting too is top notch. Both Seong-hwang Jeon and Yeo-reum Han deserve plenty of praise for bringing the characters to life. Even though their relationship seems odd and inexplicable at times, they make it believable for the audience, bringing the drama to full fruition. The secondary cast is guilty of a little over-acting, but luckily those moments are rare as the main focus of the film lies on the relationship between the old man and the girl.
Things go bad for the old man's plans when he brings a young student to his boat two months before the day the girl turns 17. The girl and the student grow quite fond of each other and the girl finally understands she is effectively held captive by the old man, never allowed to go off the boat or able to talk to other people. But she can't just leave the old man behind either as ten years of living together did create a strong bond between the two of them.
Hwal is a pretty logical evolution in Ki-duk's career. It includes many of the themes and stylistic choices from his older films while still lacking the slick execution of his newer ones. It still ranks as one of my favorite Ki-duk films though, as the setting is absolutely beautiful, the acting is strong and the ending is one of Ki-duk's very best.