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Monday, July 8, 2013

Revenge Week: Introduction - Seeds of Revenge

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

One of the most popular trends in cinema across the world, revenge is a powerful device that triggers audience empathy and can be a great excuse to indulge in exploitation on the screen. Far be it from merely being a contrivance to allow for bloody genre cinema, the why of revenge often stretches beyond the theater. Society and history, not to mention personal expression, have led to the construction of many revenge narratives in cinema. Vengeance can take on many forms and its depiction can be a force of good, evil or any shade of grey in between. 

Western texts, stretching from the bible all the way to Death Wish (1974) and Taken (2008), are litered with revenge tropes. Some modern films, such as Tarantino's Kill Bill (2003-04), have taken to borrowing the vengeance convention so prominently displayed in Eastern culture. Asian cinema is wll known for its frequent fixation on revenge. From its honor-driven samurai in Japanese chambara films to jilted lovers, distraught mothers and double-crossed gangsters across most Far Eastern national cinemas, vengeance never seems far from the fore. However, no industry, for better or worse, has had the vengeance moniker stick so strongly as Korea's.

Reeling from decades of successive traumas, you don't need to dig deep to begin to understand why Korean film is so prone to revenge. Yet to label the industry as largely a purveyor of such fare would be doing it a great injustice. Unfortunately, since films like Oldboy (2003) and A Bittersweet Life (2005) have largely been responsible for the global prominence of Korean cinema in the oughts, it's been a little hard for distributors to resist the temptation of going with what has worked in the past.

Things are perhaps a little better now but a great many of the Korean films that do make it to the West are still marketed for their revenge and dark thriller elements. Sadly, it's a trait that's unlikely to recede a great deal in the near future. Some viewers are given a lopsided view of Korea and initially view it as a violent country as a result of this relatively small body of work. Though there may be some truth to it this is largely a gross misconception. Ironically, the popularity of these films overseas says a lot more about certain Western spectators' propensity for viewing violent cinema than it does about its progenitors.

Korea’s revenge cinema is far bloodier than most of what we see in the West, as the absence of guns and the intimacy of the actions make them seem more brutal. Yet, clever filmmakers like Park Chan-wook have played with this seeming violent nature, deliberately using filmmaking techniques to heighten our emotional connection to the on-screen violence, or rather the off screen violence we imagine. Oldboy in particular offers a great example of this after slyly discussing the technique earlier in the narrative. He toys with us but also allegorizes his whole vengeance trilogy in this focal moment in the typtych’s centerpiece production (to jog your memory, it involves a tooth and a hammer). Vengeance is emotional, irrational and involuntary, but also completely governed by things well beyond our control.

But where does all this revenge come from? Is Korean revenge cinema a reactionary strand of filmmaking? Or is it a release of pent-up trauma? Could it just be the product of a violent society? Take The Man from Nowhere (2010), where the titular character is a drifter, a product thoroughly dehumanized his government. He is a metaphorical monster created by an oppressive society, stripped, sa a result of the peninsula's separation, of family and identity. He has grown strong through his hard work repelling foreign threats, which has resulted in a loss of identity, a palpable disconnect with the modern world and the communities he finds himself in.

Beautiful and perfect, he embodies the best traits of modern Korea, or at least the fetishized emblems of contemporary Korean perfection, replete with a feminine face and sculpted abs. However, his behavior in the film, or rather his response to injustice, embodies more traditional and pure Korean values. He selflessly 'adopts' a young girl in need of a family and later puts his life on the line for her, in what is a very righteous fight against injustice. But armed with his knife, his chivalry takes on a brutal and blood-soaked form, particularly as the director rids the soundtrack of any extra-diegetic sound. In these crucial moments, all we hear is his knife slicing through flesh.

Rather than cobble together any conclusions now, these are just a few introductory and parsimonious thoughts to get the ball rolling on this what I hope will be a fascinating week of Korean cinema discussion and appreciation!

I've said it ten times and I'll say it again, if you want to get involved there is still time and please don't be shy! Many a great thought has never seen the light of day because its potential author didn't feel they had anything worthwhile to share. Pick up that pen or dust off that keyboard and surprise yourself.

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).

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1 comment:

  1. i really love your site, come here often to seek new movies to watch, love the revenge week as well