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 Ryan H., 19 September 2011 - 12:31 PM.