Alfred Hitchcock once said "Revenge is sweet and not fattening", a stance shared in Korea as the suspense thriller genre has become synonymous with their film industry.
Along with the melodrama, revenge films and themes have become all too easy to identify in some of the most famous films to come out of Korea in the last ten years. This apparent sweet tooth has indeed been affected by Korea's turbulent socio-political history and perhaps a social consciousness persists that past injustices have not been adequately addressed both globally and locally.
Art--in this case, cinema--has the ability to purge, expose and depict past wrongs through spectacles that simulate and enact the painful residue of trauma. The notion of a "Revenge" film is a sadomasochistic affair in which the spectator is forced to oscillate between identifying with protagonists' painful circumstances and over-identifying with their vengeful actions. The degree to which one identifies with the hero's (or anti-hero's) trauma sets the parameters for how far we are willing to accept the resultant acts of revenge. Once that limit has been breached, an over-identification occurs and the more sadistic pleasures emerge.
Blood, gore and horrific imagery are the symbols in films that represent a need to over-indulge our lust for revenge in a space that seemingly exists outside normative social spheres. It is this safety of mind and from judgement, from guilt and repentance that functions in the revenge film as desire is dramatically played out to serve the individual, as they exist within a collective social consciousness.
But what of the fate of the hero? How does our protagonist progress once the revenge has been served? In revenge films, the answer is almost always undesirable. In "Old Boy" Oh Dae-su's journey ends with a forced forgetting, knowing that he will be unable to return to the state he once found himself. Much like the act of walking out of a cinema, reality looms and once the tunnel vision ceases to provide comfort, there is need to equip oneself for the aftermath of such a cathartic release. Oh Dae-su has his answers; he has taken the bloody trip and what results in an ineptitude to digest events in a manner that would allow him to transcend his trauma. This is where revenge and the act of seeking knowledge, itself, is a catalyst to compound suffering, except here the aftermath is without a suitable object to direct or project suffering onto. And when forgetting or forgiveness is not an option, there is only one choice left, the death drive.
In "Bedevilled" Kim Bok-nam is a pressure cooker that explodes in this psychotraumatic thriller. After years of torment and suffering, she snaps and goes on a short, but ultra-bloody rampage of revenge. Her mind is beyond repair, her existence now limited to eliminating those who she deems responsible for her suffering. She has no regard for herself or her future; it is all here and now and tomorrow holds no value as the damage has been done. Again, we can see how justice in revenge films is a highly subjective affair. Faith in any objective justice system is abandoned and a new, more self-serving system emerges.
This is particularly evident in the 2010 film "I Saw the Devil", in which Kim Soo-hyeon discards his title as detective in favour of a personal vendetta against his wife's murderer. Social justice in contemporary Korean cinema is seen as a failing and inadequate tool for balancing the scales. Even for a man within the justice system, Kim Soo-hyeon's personal need to deal with matters himself supersedes his previous commitment to social order. Revenge is personal; justice will always remain in the social arena and it is the revenge film that probes the individuals' drive to personally enact it.
Na Hong-jin's "The Chaser" shows how social authority can fail even when one attempts to work inside its parameters. Eom Joong-ho was once a detective himself but now finds himself operating outside their conventions and authoritative norms. When they do become involved, their incompetence and self-imposed restrictions limit their capacity to carry out what Eom Joong-ho would consider appropriate in dealing with the elusive sociopath. "The Chaser" is an interesting case because there is initially under-identification with our hero. This quest for revenge is more about economics than self-suffering. The justification is not initially self-evident (as in "I Saw the Devil"). Our hero is a vessel in which, over the course of the film, we assign justification for his actions. It is only when Eun-ji (Min-ji's daughter) is made the empathetic object that we begin to really identify with his quest and set the parameters for Eom Joong-ho's final confrontation with his target. Through projection, we fill Eom Joong-ho's "revenge cup" with reasons and justifications that he might not otherwise possess or be aware of. He is, at least initially, guided by a purer desire that he has not yet been made conscious of.
Although films like "I Saw the Devil" and "The Chaser" see the heroes as abandoning their socially appointed titles and obligations, does that mean that revenge cannot be a social affair? In Park Chan-wook's "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance", revenge takes on a more social dynamic. This time a female protagonist is behind the wheel and she makes the decision to form her own "revenge society" with its own rules and codes of conduct. Here we can see a stark contrast between masculine and feminine ideals of social responsibility. Unlike "Bedevilled" where the trauma was localised within an individual, here need for revenge is equalled by Lee Geum-ja's social consciousness and her subsequent responsibility to it. The act of revenge still exists outside of great authority but she creates a new democratic system designed specifically to deal with the situation at hand. In addition, the spectator's identification is split between an under-identification with our protagonist, as her initial trauma is subverted and displaced by temporal narrative structuring, and a over-identification with the revenge act itself as we are seduced by the groupthink of the victims and the choices they make.
Contemporary Korean cinema has a number of other revenge films that were purposefully not mentioned as the films discussed here represent my personal favourites of the bunch. The revenge genre is a fascinating one and its relation to Korean culture and society is an equally intriguing one worth tackling.
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-Christopher J. Wheeler
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