I can't think of another revenge film that better portrays the dangers, messiness, and overall mayhem that accompanies true revenge; in that respect, it is a very different film than any American revenge film ever made.
I have recently binged on Korean revenge flicks and this week watched I Saw the Devil
, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
, The Chaser
, The Man From Nowhere
. I have also rewatched Oldboy
, Samaritan Girl
, and A Bittersweet Life
. I still need to catch Bedevilled
and rewatch Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
. I think that pretty much covers the recent Korean revenge canon. A few first thoughts are:
1. Korean films top out my festival ticket lists for a reason. The consistent aesthetic in Korean crime and psych drama is impressive. Much could be said about the the Korean film industry as a collective auteurism, but I will just leave it at that for now.
2. Park is firmly on my top five list of directors. Few currently working directors are able to handle the range of themes and genres he does within such a consistently gripping mode of composition. The scripting of Mr. Vengeance
, with the way it weaves together various streams of revenge as a series of logical emotional progressions is stunning. Way better than Oldboy
in this respect.
Yeah. As far as I'm concerned, OLDBOY is the gold standard when it comes to Korean revenge flicks. I agree. In fact, I think Oldboy is the gold standard for Korean cinema period.
How does it compare to, say, OLDBOY?
I may have said this prior to my recent binge. But there are many parts of I Saw the Devil
, The Man From Nowhere
, or Chaser
that achieve the same level of craft. That recent conversation about "Chaos Cinema
" as a rejection a classical mode of cinema is flawed given that one can quickly turn to Korea for multiple examples of action cinema occuring within very classical (whatever that means...) forms. I am thinking specifically of many scenes of the sloppy, inarticulate, gasping, and exhausting reality of hand to hand combat. The entirety of I Saw the Devil
, the end Man From Nowhere
, and Chaser
are good examples. As much as I love Park (see above), the action sequences in Oldboy
actually tend away from the general trend in Korean revenge cinema toward a more stylized affect. If you watch Oldboy
after many of the films listed above, this more stylized tone seems to represent a deviation from the traditional Korean revenge motif, which by actual camera placement and editing allows us to perceive the action as a form of naturalism. It isn't adorned or complicated by additional cinema tricks. A great example is the final murder in Chaser
, during which the viewer fully expects droplets of blood to splatter on the camera lens. But it doesn't, because this is Korean revenge cinema, and that is not what the genre is after.
I am just trying to say that while Oldboy is formally spectacular, I don't think it achieves the naturalism other films in the genre set out to accomplish. Which is okay, as I don't think that is what Park is after here. But as a result, I can't think of it as a revenge gold standard. And as far as a Korean gold standard, I would probably look somewhere else. Maybe more toward other Park films or Kim.
I think that's a fair comment about UNFORGIVEN. I don't think that's very true of Park's Vengeance Trilogy, however, at least far as OLDBOY and SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE are concerned (I've only seen SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE once, and a long time ago, so I can't speak to that one effectively). There is no satisfaction offered in either of them. Just despair, frustration, and guilt.
UNFORGIVEN is a good example, as it inverts the revenge ethic of so many westerns -- but still, that film (and even more so Park's Vengeance trilogy) play on the audiences appetite for vengeance all the way through.
That may be true for Oldboy
and a few others, but I noticed something during this last trek through the genre. There are two fairly typical patterns at play: a little girl being saved or saved and harmed as a result and some reference to Catholic imagery. Here is a little list (some are spoilers, so I will keep it general):
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (little girl/no direct Catholic imagery I can recall)
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (young woman avenges self/loads of Catholic imagery)
Samaritan Girl (father avenges daughter/loads of Catholic imagery both thematic and direct)
Oldboy (avenge the girl motif subverted, horribly...)
Chaser (attempt to save girl/concludes in Catholic church)
Man From Nowhere (little girl/no direct Catholic imagery)
I Saw the Devil (girl avenged/title establishes Catholic subtext)
So it is true that the overall feeling this genre imparts to us is one of despair and even futility. The revenge in each case accomplishes nothing save the death of someone who would surely continue to kill and torture others. In some cases a young girl or young adult woman is saved or spared some sort of agony, but this is not always the case. Generally, Ryan is right. These films offer no emotional or narrative satisfaction. They tend to subvert closure by denying us a sense of justice or peace because, as the genre suggests, violence and revenge cannot accomplish closure no matter the motivation. But
, I think words like "futility" are incorrect descriptions of this cinema. I am out of my depth here because I don't know much about Korean culture, yet the above noted consistencies are striking. In each of these films a particular young or young adult female is posed structurally as the motivation or first cause for the entire narrative structure. This single girl/female figure serves as an image of innocence (either lost or about to be lost) and the violence swirling around their presence in the film is posed as an attempt to preserve, at any cost, the idea that the nihilism of psychopathic violence isn't a correct interpretation of the world. The tragedy of revenge/vengeance is that while it is an attempt to preserve the integrity of innocence, it requires someone becoming the opposite.
In addition, I was stunned by how much Catholic imagery exists throughout. I expect this more in Park, who left the Catholic church. But it just keeps popping up in all of these films. I am not sure why this is, and wish I knew more about the history of Catholicism in Korea. But I do think that this imagery directly infuses the revenge motif with a Western good/evil polarity that isn't necessarily present in traditional Korean culture and religion. The Catholic imagery rescues these films from the idea that the avenger and the psycopath are simply Taoic counterparts in a dualistic universe. I Saw the Devil
is particularly striking in this respect, in that the psychopaths in this film are directly connected with the idea that there is an active form of evil in the world that can never be mitigated as yin.
The final scene of Samaritan Girl
really ties this all together, which is why I think it lies close to the heart of the entire genre. I don't want to spoil the film if you haven't seen it, so go watch it and consider the ending. Thinking of it as the fallout of revenge, of an attempt to preserve or valorize innocence by means of violence, makes its striking sense of loss all the more haunting. And here is where the Korean revenge genre gets really interesting. If their narrative logic is pushed to its breaking point, these are ultimately pacifist films. There are not films just about violence and action, but they are films about violence as the absence of peace, as an aberration that blooms from mental and spiritual anxiety which can only be best interpreted within a generally Catholic moral vision.
Edited by M. Leary, 19 September 2011 - 10:46 AM.