Ever since Spike Lee decided to shoot a remake of Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy, the implication is that even he could learn a thing or two about revenge from their Korean counterparts. What do they all have in common? Plots where the protagonist attempts to restore social order after a wrong has been committed.
Unlike in the Japanese and Chinese revenge genre, most Korean revenge-takers are ordinary citizens unwillingly pushed into becoming avengers through extraordinary situations, and are therefore somewhat morally justifiable. So South Korean revenge cinema could be a plutonic way of a nation attempting to metaphorically right historical wrongs. Military dictator Park Chung-Hee was assassinated in 1979 after 16 years of a failed bid for democracy. 1996 saw two former presidents indicted for crimes committed while in office; the business moguls who profited during their regimes remain popular targets of social anger. Living under the shadows of its neighbouring state, other possible reasons for the trend of revenge in South Korea's cinema could lay in its complicated relationship with China, American military presence, the civil division of Korea and the horrific war that followed.
Whether or not Old Boy can actually be improved by Spike Lee's cinematic clout and calling-card of raw social tension is still up for fair speculation, but while you're waiting: here's a list of our top ten Korean revenge must-see films.
SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE (2005)
Despite the fact that this revenge flick is not as well-known as Park Chan-wook’s other Vengeance Trilogy films-like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or Old Boy-in many ways, its his most experimental. Notably, the protagonist (Yong-ae Lee) is a mother wrongly accused of a child’s murder, leading to a rather unsavory glimpse into the gangbangings of the Korean-female-prison-underworld. Even more harrowing is her chosen method of payback, which involves the group participation of all the parents of school children murdered by the real killer. Left to mete out justice on their own, the effect of a granny with shears and mild middle-class couples wielding bloody axes is electrifying, horrific, and hilarious at the same time.
OLD BOY (2003)
Who doesn’t love the slick, stylized violence of Park Chan-wook, much less the twisted self-realisation of his protagonist Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) at the end? Evidenced by Park’s more recent Stoker, Hollywood certainly does. Old Boy is old-school terror, not only in the sense of blood, but transgression – bearing down on us with all the metaphysical agony and madness of pure Greek tragedy.
I SAW THE DEVIL (2010)
In Kim Jee-Woon’s thriller, Korean revenge cinema’s favourite go-to guy, Choi Min-sik, plays a canabalistically creative butcher that makes Hannibal Lector look like a hobbyist. When he makes the mistake of murdering a top secret agent’s fiancée, the cat-and-mouse game is on. But his victim’s fiancé (Lee Byung-hun), in a sado-macho twist, refuses to kill the psychopath outright despite multiple opportunities, in order to prolong maximum pain. It becomes intriguingly unclear who the real monster is.
The first Korean film to win the top prize at the 69th Venice International Film Festival, Kim Ki-duk’s grim, boundary-pushing masterpiece is a lesson on how even the mighty and heartless can fall. Just as much an indictment of the rapidly increasing unequal wealth distribution in Korea, Pieta portrays Kang-do as a pitiless loan shark who only lives for himself, until he receives a visit from a woman claiming to be his long-lost mother. Through sheer stubborn resistance, she convinces him of her maternal love, which serves as the perfect mask for her long-meditated revenge. Not a film for everyone, those who see it will have trouble forgetting it.
THE MAN FROM NOWHERE (2010)
A lonely pawnshop owner fails to leave his violent ex-ganster life behind when his schoolgirl neighbour and her heroin-addicted mother are kidnapped. He shouldn’t care, but he does. And finds out he has a heart, after all (It doesn’t hurt either, that the schoolgirl is feistily adorable). The story is standard, the execution unerringly vicious, replete with up-close stabbings, eye-gougings, and dismemberment. Bloodlust satisfaction guaranteed.
THE HOST (2006)
With almost nothing in common with the Hollywood remake, Joon-ho Bong’s Host isn't so much a monster fantasy as a shrewd socio-critique of Korean society. All hell breaks loose when an unidentified creature suddenly appears from the depths of the Han River, and carries off Gang-du's daughter Hyun-seo. Roused from their quotidian stupor, her poorer-than-average family members resolve to save her, despite their own apparent helplessness. In the face of relentless modern forces, it isn’t just Hyun-seo, but communal responsibility and traditional values, that are sacrificed.
BAD GUY (2001)
This early Kim Ki-duk production is an oft over-looked gem that leaves you feeling morally torn at best, and utterly disillusioned at worst. But that’s exactly what lends it its transcendent, if inconvenient, truth. Despite the title, the ceaselessly shifting emotional dynamics between Han-ki (Jae-heon Jo) – a typical, thuggish anti-hero – and Sun-hwa, a fresh-faced schoolgirl, lie beyond conventional boundaries of good and evil. Only a character as outrageous as Han-ki could get away with pimping-out Sun-hwa, and spin it into an approximation of binding intimacy with his “victim,” if not love.
Jang Cheol-soo's extraordinary Bedevilled provides a meticulous, unsparing scrutiny of human evil. Reminiscent of Von Trier’s Dogville, as practically the only young woman on a remote island, Bok-nam (Yeong-hie Seo) is a plaything for all men and a free laborer for the women. She tries to escape the island, but her daughter is killed in the process – and that’s when Boknam reaches for her sickle. BeDevilled may seem quite simple, in exposing gender inequalities and critiquing traditionalism, but its genius lies in its implication of the audience.
Never underestimate a Korean mother scorned. Much less one launching her own investigation into clearing her mentally disabled son from a murder rap. True to the title, Kim Hye-ja’s character is defined entirely by her role as a mother, with no characteristics to speak of outside of her maternal devotion. When the police refuse to entertain the idea of another suspect and their lawyer prefers a plea bargain, this seemingly hapless old woman risks everything to find the real killer herself, embarking on a noir-tinged journey that uncovers red herrings, sex scandals, and her own past crimes. It sets up the great moral sacrifice that she later instinctually performs without hesitation when the real killer comes to light-blinded by her own loyalty as a mother.
BITTERSWEET LIFE (2005)
With his pretty-boy Prada model looks and a tight roundhouse kick that could take out a gang of five simultaneously, Sun-woo is riding high on life in Kim Jee-Woon’s film. So where’s the bittersweet element? Love, apparently, in the form of his mob boss’s new young girlfriend. Suddenly Sun-woo can’t sleep, and uncontrollable Shadenfreude impulses lead him to save her life, in direct conflict with the boss’s orders. Banished from the gang and the terms of his old identity, he finds himself the hunted, and even more dangerously, in uncharted territory as a warrior without a code.
Modern Korean revenge films often spin off social issues among youth culture including rising standards of beauty or the highly competitive education system. The latter proves the inspiration for Su-won Shin's Pluto, in which, June, a transfer student into an elite school, is driven to despair by the year's first examination results. In order to initiate himself into a mysterious clique of fellow students with access to important exam scripts, he must undergo a series of dehumanising missions. Yeun Sang-ho's King of Pigs is a K-animation film in which two schoolmates, Jong-suk and Kyung-min, aim to settle an old score with their high school bullies, fifteen years later.
Follow Christine Jun on Twitter here @ChristineCocoJ