Vengeance Is Theirs

Film still for Vengeance Is Theirs

With the success of A Bittersweet Life and Lady Vengeance, Korean cinema is on a roll in the west. But there's more to its output than violence and fishhooks. By Grady Hendrix

You could say that it started with a fishhook. Or, more specifically, a handful of fishhooks crammed down the gullet of a desperate fugitive in Kim Ki-duk's The Isle (2000). Scooping up prizes across Europe, the movie prompted front-row vomiting fits in Venice and fainting spells in New York. Art collided with exploitation, distributors heard cash registers ringing and in that single, cringe-inducing moment a whole slew of misconceptions about Korean movies and violence were cemented in the minds of western audiences.

Fast-forward five years. Park Chan-wook's Old Boy won the Grand Prix at Cannes but on the eve of its belated US release it was clear that American critics weren't impressed. Manohla Dargis attacked from the high ground in the New York Times ("symptomatic of a bankrupt, reductive postmodernism") while Rex Reed struck from below in the New York Observer ("What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots, dug up from the grave and then served in earthenware pots sold at the Seoul airport as souvenirs?"). By the time Park's bleak 2002 masterpiece Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance opened in the US a few months later he was a marked man. The movie became a critical scratching post for even the most timid magazine writers, who fired off all the insults they'd been saving for a rainy day.

Hollywood destroys the planet with asteroids, recreates the Holocaust and makes multiple sequels to multiple slasher films and yet Korean movies, in which you rarely see a gun, are labelled brutal and bile-raising. The Korean box office is regularly dominated by comedies, romances and melodramas yet what western distributors buy are boundary-pushing genre films: in 2005 the Korean movie with the biggest international profile was the conclusion to Park Chan-wook's vengeance trilogy, Lady Vengeance, while in Korea the number-one title was Welcome to Dongmakgol, a goofy culture-clash flick about the Korean War, and at number two was Marathon, a feelgood film about an autistic marathon runner.

Gangster makeovers

The problem is that we've mistaken a discussion about violence for its glorification; we've stepped into the middle of a long-running conversation and thrown in our two cents with no idea of what was said before we entered the room. Korean movies do play rougher than we're used to, but what Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk's recent films represent is only the latest collision between Korean cinema's class-consciousness, anti-authoritarian impulses and a long-standing taste for melodrama.

Korea's 20th century has been one trauma after another: colonisation by Japan, World War II, the Korean War, partition, military rule, presidential assassination, the violent suppression of civil disobedience... By the time the country stabilised in the 1990s and film-makers were freed from excessive censorship no one had anything nice to say about authority. Anyone with power was viewed with suspicion - cops were corrupt, politicians compromised - and so cinema turned to the one class of citizens who could make believable heroes: criminals.

In 1990 Im Kwon-taek, Korea's grand old man of film, made Son of a General, about a noble gang leader putting the smack down on Japanese occupiers in the 1930s. Its popularity spawned two sequels. Over the next decade or so cop films like Two Cops, Nowhere to Hide and Public Enemy gave their police heroes gangster makeovers, turning them into law-breaking mavericks who spent as much time fighting the power as they did policing the streets. Gangsters became the objects of swoony sexual longing and post-millennium audiences ate up a series of comedies - Married to the Mafia, Hi! Dharma, My Boss, My Hero, My Wife Is a Gangster - that glamorised hard-hitting, straight-talking thugs.

Historical films didn't just question authority, they crucified it in movies like Peppermint Candy (1999), which mirrors modern Korean history in the mental disintegration of a police officer, and The President's Last Bang (2005), a political satire on the 1979 assassination of South Korean leader General Park. Silmido (2004), the second-highest grossing movie ever released in Korea, detailed the 1971 Silmido Incident where a gang of criminals, secretly trained to infiltrate North Korea and assassinate President Kim Il-Sung, were decommissioned and scheduled to be exterminated with extreme prejudice. They escaped and were taken down in a wild shoot-out on the streets of Seoul, depicted as high noon between true heroes and spineless government lackeys.

The comedy team of director Kim Sang-jin and screenwriter/director Park Jung-woo took the spirit of the gangster films and grafted it to a string of blockbuster comedies like Attack the Gas Station! (1999), about downtrodden everymen going after the upper classes via the great equaliser of violence. But their 2001 'anything you can punch I can punch better' romantic comedy Kick the Moon was trounced by the next step in the rom-com evolution: My Sassy Girl (2001). Director Kwak Jae-yong tweaked the genre's standard-issue quirky chick into a near-psychotic sadist whose sole expression of love is to humiliate and torture the object of her affections. The fist-swinging girlfriend became a staple of Korean romance and Kwak and My Sassy Girl star Jun Ji-hyun reunited in 2004 for Windstruck, in which she plays a Terminatrix super-cop in a film that swings from predictable comedy to brutal violence to eye-burning melodrama.

Melodrama, with its lovers torn apart, tearful goodbyes and emotional violence, is the genre that has dominated Korean film-making since at least the 1960s, and its techniques seem to be woven into the DNA of Korean directors. While America is still number one in terms of the quantity of its motion-picture violence, Korean films have trumped it in the quality department. From The Housemaid (1960) to A Family (2004), the violence in Korean movies is up-close and personal. Tae-guk-gi (2005), the top-grossing Korean movie of all time, even turns the Korean War into a family feud between two brothers. Its director Kang Je-gyu gave Korea its first major blockbuster back in 1999 with Shiri, whose indelible final image has two lovers holding guns to each other's heads.

Facedown in the tofu

In the hands of Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk the distrust of authority, the use of violence as the great leveller between classes and the melodramatic instinct combine to make for cinema that assaults sensibilities. Kim Ki-duk is reviled in Korea for the carnage in his films and for taking his gallery of low-class characters so seriously. In the case of Park Chan-wook, the huge success of JSA (Joint Security Area) (2001), about a friendship between regular joes in the North and South Korean armies who get pulped into bloody chum by the grinding gears of geopolitics, gave him a creative licence that he used to embark on his vengeance trilogy - Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Old Boy and Lady Vengeance - which takes for granted that all authority is corrupt. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance pits its noble factory worker against a rich industrialist and Old Boy sets a disposable, middle-aged salaryman against a slick go-getter. But Lady Vengeance has a main character who's doubly cursed: what could be lower than an ex-con and a woman?

Yet somewhere between Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance some Korean directors developed a distaste for violence. Jang Joon-hwan made Save the Green Planet, possibly the most violent anti-violence movie ever; Lee Myung-se shot Duelist, a romance told in action-movie language that left adrenaline junkies scratching their heads; Park Chan-wook turned in his most compassionate film Never Ending Peace and Love, a short for the Human Rights Commission's omnibus flick If You Were Me. Even Kim Ki-duk's rage-heads reached a surreal detente in 3-Iron, a study in non-violent resistance.

Lady Vengeance's heroine Keum-ja takes the rap for her lover's murder of a little boy and is packed off to prison for 13 years. On her release she's greeted by a gaggle of Christian busybodies who offer her the traditional plate of white tofu, symbolising cleansing and redemption. This being a Park Chan-wook movie, Keum-ja tosses the tofu and strides off to round up her prison buddies and engineer a complicated revenge scheme.

Revenge is another form of narcissism, and self-absorbed Keum-ja isn't even remotely palatable for the first half of the movie. Finally giving up her personal mission, she tries to orchestrate communal retribution against her ex-lover but the event winds up feeling petty and small-minded (there's even an argument over the bill at the end). It's only when she realises that all revenge is a soul-destroying time-waster that she goes facedown in the biggest piece of tofu she can find, begging for forgiveness. Loaded with Christian iconography, Lady Vengeance marks the transformation of Park from an eye-for-an-eye Old Testament director to a New Testament auteur grappling with redemption.

Genre of the moment

Park's off-putting conceit of making Keum-ja as unlikeable as possible until half way through the film could have been lifted from Kim Jee-woon, who specialises in torpedoing his characters in their closing moments. His latest film A Bittersweet Life is yet another tale of bloody conflict between a good employee and a bad boss. Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) is a tightly wound enforcer in a vast hotel who takes care of the jerks who hog the karaoke rooms. When his boss goes on vacation he asks Sun-woo to look after his young girlfriend and, almost as an afterthought, orders Sun-woo to kill her if he finds she's being unfaithful. Sure enough: she's cheating. But in an uncharacteristic moment of compassion Sun-woo lets her go and Kim Jee-woon makes sure he's punished for his good deed again, and again, and again.

Kim Jee-woon is the director as rock star, a couch-surfing slacker who claims he stumbled into the movies because they were "easy". Each of his films is like a flashy stage show that sends up and celebrates the genre of the moment. The Foul King (2000) came at the height of the anti-authority comedy boom, telling the story of a downtrodden bank clerk who finds his spine when he becomes a masked professional wrestler. The triumph-of-the-underdog plot implodes at the end when the clerk finally confronts his nasty boss and... gets humiliated. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) was Kim's mutated take on the J-horror wave and A Bittersweet Life is his more subtle take on the revenge movie, with Sun-woo practically a parody of Old Boy's sharply dressed, pre-verbal, havoc-wreaking hero.

Sun-woo's boss is unfair, unforgiving and tacky, so the requirements of the genre dictate that Sun-woo must take revenge. There are echoes of Taxi Driver as Sun-woo drives around night-time Seoul trapped behind the wheel of his car, watching everything go to hell through the windshield. Like Travis Bickle, he's a man pushed to breaking point, and only a visit to a quirky arms dealer and a final, high-calibre stroll through the bad guy's headquarters can bring matters to a close. It's a nice irony that Sun-Woo's final showdown is a bloodbath with most of his opponents armed only with knives, and the evil citadel he penetrates was his own cosy hangout at the start of the film.

The movie isn't much more than an especially accomplished knock-off until Kim Jee-woon twists the knife in the final frames. Jumping back in time to the opening scene, we see Sun-woo self-consciously shadow-boxing his reflection in a private moment of silliness, like someone singing in the shower. Suddenly this grim enforcer looks more like a goofy little boy getting his kicks from acting like Dirty Harry, and it seems the entire movie could be his own macho power fantasy. Films from Old Boy to Kitano Takeshi's Sonatine (echoed in Bittersweet) to The Godfather are all given gravitas by the men at their centre who regard the often ridiculously bloody proceedings with complete earnestness. To replace the dark character at the heart of such movies with an everyday goofball is not only to point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes, but to suggest that there was never any emperor in the first place.

With this handful of shots Kim Jee-woon has joined a wave of Korean directors who are finding tales of tight-lipped enforcers who spend their days exacting vengeance on the upper classes to be a narrative cul de sac. But their technique is unbeatable and so we get to have our revenge cake, and critique it too.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012