Monday, July 8, 2013

Revenge Week: A Dish Best Served Cold

Part of MKC's Revenge Week (July 8-14, 2013).

It is a popular assertion in drama and literature that revenge is a violent action committed to gain justice for a wronged party. Hamlet kills his uncle for murdering his father, the 47 ronin in the Chushingura devised an elaborate plan to avenge their fallen daimyo and the Old Testament gave us the old acorn “An eye for an eye”. Yet while this simplistic dictum has fueled many vendettas from around the world and throughout time there is never any peace for those involved. In the land of the blind the one-eyed man inherits nothing but a charred and ruined kingdom.

Within the rubric of genre cinema though where does the revenge film fall? Is it merely a sub-genre of the crime film? Does it warrant its own category or is it merely a plot convention utilized by filmmakers and writers to spice up their melodramas? I believe that the revenge film is not so much a separate genre or style, but a thematic element that can be used in whatever genre an artist chooses. Though frequently utilized in crime pictures, revenge is an egalitarian trope that fits into every genre. So then if this is truly the case, when diluted to its basic components what constitutes a revenge film?

Before we can even begin to answer this question we must first identify exactly what constitutes a revenge plot. For example, in a crime film there is either a mystery to be solved and/or a criminal to be caught. A love story involves two people who meet, fall in love, and then must go through a set of hurdles before they can get together. Yet within these narratives, revenge plots can be slipped in and the two narratives can exist harmoniously. And because of the disparate number of genres that the revenge film can combine with there is not a singular visual style. Though Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, Kim Ki-young’s revenge melodramas and Ryoo Seung-wan’s crime pictures have a distinct look taken together none of these films actually has a cohesive style that can explain to a layman what exactly a revenge film should look like.

Though the crime picture has become melded together with the revenge film one can’t state that every crime picture is a revenge film. Oldboy (2003) and Nameless Gangster (2012) may both star Choi Min-shik and also fall under the category of crime picture, but it’s obvious which of the two is a revenge film. Nameless Gangster depicts the conflict between two underworld gang bosses all the while illustrating the inherent corruption within the Korean government who at the same time is trying to arrest these criminals. The drama is built upon the universal tenets of loyalty, duty and greed. Revenge films, on the other hand, are predicated on personal grievances being committed and justice, be it legal or moral, not being met.

Yet if this were the case than all masculine dramas like gangster or war films, which have men constantly killing members of the opposing side to avenge their fallen brothers, would automatically fall under the banner of revenge cinema, but you would be hard-pressed to find a Korean film fan calling Nameless Gangster, Rough Cut (2008), The Front Line (2011) or A Dirty Carnival (2006) revenge films. War and gangster pictures are populated with groups of nameless characters whose sole purpose is to be grist for the murder mill, but what separates these films from being easily classified as revenge narratives is that war, be it between soldiers or gangsters, is shown to be an action motivated by greed, politics, or some other external force. Rarely is the conflict motivated by personal emotions and in revenge films the motives are always personal. Not to mention the fact that unlike a majority of Hollywood’s film output in Korean cinema, revenge is not relegated to a male obsession.

Women like Kim Bok-nam (Seo Young-hee) in Bedevilled (2010), Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae) in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), and the many incarnations of the Myeong-ja character in Kim Ki-young’s films are all cruelly wronged and betrayed by the criminal justice system, the family and Korean society in general. These women begin the story as innocents quietly suffering under oppressive conditions and only retaliate after they’ve become empty emotional husks. Within the category of revenge cinema, the person carrying out their vendetta usually does so only when their status quo has been destroyed. Their loss of innocence transforms them into cold killing machines so far removed from the humanity that made us relate to them. They kill to punish and vanquish the wrongdoer, but of course once the transformation has happened and vengeance has been carried out they obviously can never go back to their former pure selves.

This can clearly be seen in Bedevilled, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy, three films that feature parent protagonists driven to avenge the loss of their children. Now when the bloodletting starts to happen in each of these films the protagonist and we, the audience, may feel some cathartic release as the relegated villains of the piece are brutally punished for their crimes, but by the film’s final denouement nothing is resolved. Oh Dae-su, like Oedipus, is left physically and mentally scarred from his confrontation with Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae), the man who destroyed his happy home life, not to mention the fact that he was ultimately robbed of his vengeance when Woo-jin commits suicide. In Bedevilled Bok-nam dies in the end and though she may have killed most of the people responsible for her daughter’s death justice has not been served for she will most likely be remembered as a savage killer while her dysfunctional family will be labeled as victims of her murderous rage. Revenge narratives usually end tragically not simply because of the moral imperative that violence is bad, but that as Aristotle stated when defining his idea of the tragic hero being a good man being brought down not by vice or depravity but through an inherent flaw in their own character. For Oh Dae-su it is his sharp tongue and for Hae-won in Bedevilled it is her apathy.

Though the protagonist in revenge films may have suffered a serious grievance at the start of a film their initial reasons for enacting their brutal plans take a back seat. Similar to film noir and Greek tragedy, in Korean revenge pictures once the mechanics of the revenge plot are started fate takes over and their can only really be one outcome: the death of the protagonist, the death of the wrongdoer and the death of any possible happy ending.

Beyond the idea of fate there is also the use of flawed, obsessed and alienated protagonists. Like for example in Bedevilled, Bok-nam, having been so isolated from the Korean mainland for all her life is a woman out of step with the modern world; e.g. believing that water from Seoul can make you white and amused that people on the mainland do their laundry inside; and thus is easily trapped by her husband and the geriatric population of the island to be their slave. Choi Min-sik’s Minki in Jung Ji-Woo’s Happy End (1999) is an emasculated husband who’s out of work and relegated to hanging out at used bookstores yet the moment his adulterous wife, played by Jeon Do-yeon, risks their baby’s life to drink and cavort with her lover the final domino is in place for all three people’s fate to finally collide. Or in another Jeon Do-yeon performance, Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine (2007) has the award winning actress playing a mother so traumatized by the murder of her son that no amount of justice save for the killer being tortured and doomed to suffer a million deaths is enough to satiate her thirst for vengeance.

The best example of the flawed, alienated and obsessed character though is Lee Byung-hun’s portrayal of National Intelligence agent Soo-hyun in I Saw the Devil (2010). Losing his wife to the psychopath Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) at the start of the film Soo-hyun begins a sick cat-and-mouse game where he hunts Kyung-chul, captures and tortures him a bit before he can hurt another woman, but then releases him back to the wild to attempt another murder.  I Saw the Devil is a film of extremes and no one would label this picture as being realistic but the hyper-violent film becomes like a parable warning those who would practice revenge what one ultimately loses in the process. Soo-hyun’s obsession with getting the “perfect” revenge on Kyung-chul clouds his judgment. While tracking Kyung-chul’s action it’s interesting to note that Soo-hyun seems to be reliving his wife’s attack; listening to a victim being assaulted as he had done with his wife but unlike her situation Soo-hyun can come to their rescue. Of course like all clever mice Kyung-chul is able to figure out the traps and starts hunting the hunter. By the end of the film Soo-hyun has turned into Kyung-chul’s doppelganger, a monster that hunts monsters.

So, if a revenge film can be identified as one that is predicated on a quest for justice, is driven by an alienated and obsessed character who takes it upon themselves to correct an injustice and has an ending which reveals both the futility of revenge as well as a blurring between hero and villain then must all revenge films have dour tragic endings? A majority do but there are just as many that end on a hopeful note. Bedevilled ends with Bok-nam’s friend Hae-won, the only survivor to the massacre, gaining back some of her humanity. Won-bin’s avenging angel character in The Man from Nowhere (2010) is allowed some cathartic relief at the end and copper turned pimp Eom Joong-ho (Kim Yoon-seok) in The Chaser (2008) is a morally reprehensible character who is shown to be, by the end, the only honorable person in the whole movie.

The revenge film in Korean cinema is a versatile genre that is part morality tale and part pulp melodrama. The act of vengeance is usually taken by characters when the family structure is threatened, and though, more often than not, violence and murder are a prerequisite for these groups of films what raises them up above torture porn is the cathartic release in the end. We, the audience, are complicit in the violence. We want justice just as much as the characters do. Revenge may be a dish best served cold but, as these films prove, the final bloody outcome leaves nothing but a bitter taste in one’s mouth.

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