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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Revenge Week: MKC Thought Leaders' Corner (July 2013)


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

Revenge Week has been a great success and though it's nearly over there are still a few voices to be heard. Read on to learn what the experts had to say about Korean cinema's most popular export.

To what would you attribute the prominence of revenge films in Korean cinema?

We would also love to know your thoughts about revenge in Korean cinema! Please leave a comment or start a discussion with us on facebook or twitter.

Many to thanks to all the contributors for their time and insightful comments. Responses listed alphabetically, followed by the thoughts of MKC's teammembers.

Name: Colette Balmain
Occupation: Lecturer; Writer; Film Critic
Location: London, United Kingdom

 There is little doubt that the revenge film is the most quintessential South Korean genre. Some of the best films that have come out of South Korea have been revenge films including Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy (2002-2005), Na Hong-Jin’s The Chaser (2008), Bang Eun-Jin’s Princess Aurora (2005), Kim Jee-Woon’s I Saw the Devil (2010) and Jang Cheol-soo's bloody and brutal Bedevilled (2010). While revenge is a key component of the vengeful ghost film, as found in the Whispering Corridor films (1998-2009), such films should not be classified as belonging to the revenge genre. 

The South Korean revenge genre is psychological, and not supernatural, resulting from the intricacies of the cat and mouse game between the victim and violator within which the abused becomes abuser and the violator the victim. Revenge might be personal as in the The Scarlet Letter (Byeon Hyeok: 2004) or have political and/or patriarchal dimensions as in The Yellow Sea (Na Hong-Jin: 2010) and Tell Me Something (Chang Yoon-Hyun: 1999). Whatever the reasons, it is always an attack on the body with the private body being a metaphor for the body politic, dismantling the coherency and stability of the nation state through its dismemberment.

Why then the revenge film? What does it say about South Korean socio-economic and political structures? Why is it so popular? As many critics have theorised, the emphasis on suffering in the revenge genre can be attributed to South Korea’s traumatic history, a victim of multiple colonisations which ultimately led to the enforced division of North and South Korea along the 38th parallel. There is something operatic about the revenge genre which makes it particularly well suited to expressing the persistence of trauma, the victim and the violator are doubles and the split self functioning as allegory for the divided nation.

Name:  Chocoshrek
Occupation:  Founder and Editor of Word From The ROK,
Independent Writer and Film Reviewer
Location:  Goyang, South Korea

If you look through the back catalogue of Korean films, you’ll be hard pushed to find films dealing with politics and religion head on. It is easy to then conclude that both topics are sensitive and are most likely taboo areas for film. Without these themes, filmmakers are left with the revenge genre to fill our need to seek out social justice.

For the majority of Korean revenge genre films, revenge is always played out between our hero and a bigger, richer, more powerful character or group as seen in films such as A Bittersweet Life (2005), Oldboy (2003), The Devil’s Game (2008) Tazza: The High Rollers (2006) and The Yellow Sea (2010). In some films, the antagonist is neither rich or powerful. They’re just plain evil or close to it. I Saw The Devil (2010) and Pieta (2012) would be examples of this (although Pieta does show more hope for the antagonist than I Saw The Devil). But even these prey on our sense of want for justice which makes these films more engrossing to watch.

In South Korea it is only in the last 20-30 years that individuals have begun to gain more rights and more power, as governments have been dictatorial in the past.  Even today this struggle continues between individuals and big companies such as the recent NamYang Diary company controversy. The CJ corp. tax fraud case points to a large company taking advantage of their rich and powerful status regardless of those who might suffer.  Korea is also a hierarchal society so bullying can exist in many forms from school life to the work place to even a circle of friends. There is always someone pushing down on you, taking advantage of you, abusing you in some form with the knowledge that they can do it because … well what can you do about it? So there’s always been a power struggle between the everyday citizen and those in the upper classes or ranks. Korean filmmaker’s minds must spin with a billion ideas on whom and how they would like to enact revenge. Especially so, when many of South Korea’s filmmakers come from middle or lower class families themselves.

As long as these social situations exist in Korea, we are unlikely to see a disappearance of the genre in its current format.

Name: Peter Gutierrez
Occupation: U.S. Correspondent, Modern Korea Cinema; Contributing Editor, Australia’s Metro magazine; Member, Online Film Critics Society
Location: New Jersey, USA

There are eight discs inside this particular box, and these comprise three films and countless hours of fascinating special features that cover numerous topics. Yet there is a single word on the box’s front cover and spine that appears in a font so large that you can see it from across the room: VENGEANCE. The background color is a crimson that looks like it has been allowed to dry out and darken. I’m speaking, as some of you may have guessed, of Palisades Tartan’s impressive R1 “ultimate” box set of Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy.”

In crass terms, then, “revenge sells.” In slightly more refined terms, we might say, “Over the last decade revenge has become Korean cinema’s most recognizable trademark for export.”

In short, revenge is a Korean brand.

But I think we have now gone beyond such truisms. That’s because the success, on multiple levels, of revenge-themed films across genres has turned vengeance into Vengeance, a touchstone of the artistic medium. Yes, over the years I’ve heard many intriguing theories linking revenge and Korea’s national psyche, and surely this roundtable will contribute further insight. Yet I’d argue that at this point what we’re dealing with is a self-perpetuating aesthetic and commercial reality.

To be sure, I’m not saying that newer “revenge films” are merely responses to earlier films rather than authentic and deeply felt in their own right. However, because of revenge’s cultural saturation and the enormous versatility and sophistication with which it’s been treated, it has now become a widely accepted idiom through which important dramatic and cinematic ideas can be expressed. Were the ancients Greeks more “tragic” by temperament than other peoples? I don’t know. But culturally tragedy came to embrace everything that their playwrights wanted to say about cosmology, politics, passion, and anything else worth writing about.

Similarly, instead of saying that each Korean filmmaker has a specific “take” on revenge, as if it were some monolithic subject, it’s probably worth noting the extent to which many revenge films are not at all “about” revenge per se. Instead, revenge is just a narrative vehicle, just like romantic love (which also cuts across genres), for exploring themes that include time and the weight of the past, being a slave to one’s emotions, memory and identity, and our existential powerlessness in the face of so much that we can’t change.

In this sense, vengeance has become the World.

Name: Mike Hostench
Occupation: Deputy Director, Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia
Location: Barcelona, Spain

From Homer to Sergio Leone, revenge has been a classic subject matter in literature and cinema. Not the most respectable of emotions but definitely the most human of them all. The desire for revenge can be found in any filmographies, and due to its violent nature, it is a persistent trend in the genre field. 99% of westerns, noir, and martial arts flicks, and around 50% of horrors, deal with setting accounts and paybacks; the bloodier the better.

But why are Korean films are known for their revenge stories? I think there are basically 2 reasons:

Korean revenge movies are to the revenge subgenre what Spaghetti Westerns were to classic westerns: all emotions are fuelled to the limit by an extra dose of intensity, violence and utter excess in every level of the narrative. All of it wrapped up in an incredibly innovative eye-popping style. I perfectly remember 10 years ago when my inner-circle of friends/colleagues was exposed to Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance for the first time; I am sure our reaction was no less in awe than when audiences were exposed to the credit sequence of The Good the Bad and The Ugly in 1965. This was NEW, in capital letters, unique, and extremely exotic to the western eye. And yes, it dealt with something so primal and universal as vengeance.

Revenge K-films are also product of the time when they were released. A decade ago, the western eye was looking for the new Asian film trend, and after Kang Je-gyu's Shiri, Korea seemed to be the next Hong Kong everybody was looking for. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance caught the attention of the critics, Oldboy and the Cannes/Tarantino factor set the trend, and Lady Vengeance reached the mainstream. This typecast this new korean wave as the "cinema of vengeance."

From a Korean point of view, the box-office success of the mentioned film only proves local audiences can never have enough of their vengeance flicks. Oldboy is normally mentioned by locals as their favorite film or among their favorites, and since those days there has been a consistent produce until today of revenge titles ever since Song Kang-ho' confronted his North Korean nemesis at the end of Park Chan-wook's first film of his "Vengeance" trilogy. Titles such as Min Ho-woo's Man of Vendetta, Lee Jeong-beom's The Man from Nowhere, or the recent Azooma (directed by Lee Ji-seung), are clear examples of a subgenre that, being drama, action or semi-arthouse horror/thriller, is still in the throes of a golden age in Korean cinema.

Name: Paul Quinn
Occupation: Independent Writer; Founder, HangulCelluloid.com
Location: London, United Kingdom

By its very nature of depicting tales of individuals' struggles against adversity, cinema almost cannot fail to reflect the psyche of a nation; whether in direct narrative reference or through allusions within underlying themes. Just as horror films increase in prevalence and popularity during times of economic turmoil – allowing audiences to face their darkest fears within a safe environment – cinematic themes of revenge tend to trend following periods of oppression, and as far as historically repressed nations are concerned, Korea comes high on the ‘list’ on repeated occasions.

Having only escaped from decades of Japanese occupation in 1945, during which time the Japanese increasingly sought to eradicate all notions of Korean nationality – even banning Korean-language films in 1942 – Korean independence brought with it constraints of its own in almost draconian cinematic censorship of all but 'safe' subject matters (non-political; non-sexual; and non-controversial); underlining feelings of repression yet further.

As censorship gradually eased over the years, the emergence of a new breed of film-makers (Park Chan-wook, etc.) sought to revitalise what they considered a staid industry and while their narratives mainly detailed personal, rather than national, revenge against fictional wrongdoers the aforementioned decades of repression had left subconscious thoughts of persecution so ingrained in the national psyche that at least one point of origin of the revenge genre stood clearly stated.

As already mentioned with regard to horror, cinema does facilitate cathartic journeys by means of character empathy without fear of real-life pain, reprisals or consequences, and in terms of the idea of revenge it allows retribution to be enacted where payback in reality could never be sought. Korean Cinema has been so accomplished in this regard – added to the fact that numerous classic Korean revenge thrillers were frankly near-masterpieces – and it comes as little surprise that subsequent film-makers have focused on the same area; in an effort to excise similar demons and an attempt to capitalise on earlier films’ popularity. That in itself has largely created a 'snowball effect' of its own adding further to an already growing ‘revenge genre’ trend.

Of course, it could be argued that the above is just one subconscious element adding to a desire to create Korean-specific ideas within a genre already popular in other Asian territories and across the world but where the balance truly lays could be discussed ad infinitum.

Name: Sten Saluveer
Occupation: Industry Director / Programmer of Asian Cinema at Tallinn Black Nights FF
Location: Tokyo, Japan

Looking in from afar, revenge narratives have indeed taken the stage in the iconic films of recent South-Korean cinema and the fascination seems to be there in both art house and big budget filmmaking. Kim Ki Duk’s Pieta, Jang Chul-Soo’s Bedevilled, Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devilm not to mention Park Chan-Wook’s venerable “vengeance trilogy,” have all being driven by characters seeking for retaliation.

But whilst superficially all this films seem to be connected by the centrality of vengeance, I am not fully convinced that “revenge” should be treated univocally as a specific trait of Korean cinema, as the authors differ in their style and treatment of the subject.

To begin with, Kim Ki Duk’s and Park Chan-wook’s explorations draw inspiration from the insecurities and societal tensions that have came with South-Korea’s tumultuous transition within the past twenty years or so with many understandably seeking retribution from the experienced horrors of past regimes and political turmoils (consider the treatment of political prisoners during the early 1980’s as meticulously and gruesomely described in Chung Ji-Young’s National Security). In that respect the popularity of revenge stories and the reenactment of violence on screen could be seen as the release valve for tensions within Korea's society and history.

At the same time both Kim and Park have expressed during interviews a number of times that their fascination in exploring and deconstructing the human character with violence and the urge for revenge being a primordial feeling. In that respect it could be argued that perhaps the authors have drawn inspiration from Korea’s cultural concept of han – a unique feeling of sadness and helplessness derived from the injustices and “an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong”, as theologian Suh-Nam Don has put it. Going hand in hand with the centrality of obligation and duty towards one’s family and superiors within the Confucian school of thought that has permeated the Hermit state for centuries, one could hypothesize that “revenge” could be taken as a commanding trait of Korea’s cultural subconscious finding it’s expression in popular cinema.

Having said that, I also fully acknowledge that these interpretations could be dubious at best. Simply speaking, revenge is one of the most effective tools of (cinematic) storytelling as it not only provides a clear hero – antihero opposition, but also an equally clear motivation for character’s development throughout the plot. In that respect, Korean “revenge” blockbusters would not differ so much from their Hollywood or European counterparts except for their dissimilarities in cultural setting and language.

Thus, in conclusion, I argue that perhaps instead of treating revenge as an unequivocal characteristic of Korean cinema, to seek answers, one should take a more in depth look to specific features, their narratives, production contexts, and of course the filmmakers themselves.

MKC Team

Name: Pierce Conran
Occupation: Editor, KoBiz, Korean Film Council/Modern Korean Cinema; Korea Correspondent, Twitchfilm
Location: Seoul, South Korea

Like many others, my entry point to Korean cinema was a revenge film. When I first saw Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance I was appalled and sickened. I was upset and angry at what the filmmaker had put me through. Weeks later, still troubled by the film, I sat down and watched it again. This time it all came into place. Though I still knew little about Korea and its history, the abject despair of Park's film hit a nerve with me. I could sense that it came from a real place.

10 years on, I still get hit quite hard by Korea's revenge narratives. Those that fuelled the renaissance of Korean cinema sought to reinvigorate a flagging national cinema, in part using the weight of national trauma within a web of dazzling mise-en-scene.

Enjoying consistent domestic and international popularity, revenge films became the norm for Korean thrillers and genre pieces. Though for many of these subsequent works, the use of revenge as a theme may have been purely commercial.

Recent Korean cinema has seen a rise in revenge narratives. Though earlier works (allegorically) dealt with a national trauma, these new revenge films are more focused in their topics. Sexual abuse has been particularly prominent (Fatal, Azooma, Don't Cry Mommy, Dirty Blood) but historical instances like the Gwangju Massacre (26 Years) are also getting addressed head on, now that filmmakers seem less and less worried about (ironically) retribution.

Revenge is a cornerstone of Korean cinema – though by no means the defining a trait – and I expect to follow its evolution with rapt attention.


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