V for Vengeance: The Impact of South Korean Cinema

In hindsight, I have to say that the 1990s is my least favourite decade of film. But before you throw your Spice Girls CD at me, hear me out. It’s important not to forget that a huge part of my generation’s film education was defined during this period — a teenage haven of clunky VHS tapes and the rewind button — films that were bought, borrowed or recorded off the TV and watched on constant repeat. Most of my favourites were the Hong Kong action movies. Yes, they were adolescent and nonsensical — perfect fuel for an impressionable teen — but John Woo and Chow Yun-fat’s work was like waking up to a Swan Lake massacre while chewing on a toothpick.

Chow Yun-fat’s balletic two-gun action was directed with such virtuoso and panache by John Woo, and was genuinely the coolest thing I had ever seen up until that point. You want impressionable — Tarantino was heavily inspired by Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987) when writing Reservoir Dogs (1992) and the John Woo influence can clearly be seen in True Romance (1993) as Clarence and Alabama fall in love over A Better Tomorrow II (1987). I reckon even young Quentin spun a couple of remote controls while springing himself backwards over his video store counter. Let’s face it, QT has always been at his best when he has one hand on his own work while reminding us (and educating others) of his personal taste in film. It’s all part of his vernacular. John Woo’s films — The Killer (1989), Once a Thief (1991) and Hard Boiled (1992) — primed you for what Tarantino had in store with his own influence on Hollywood action movies just around the corner.

After Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan marathons, most of us witnessed the rise of Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and Donnie Yen in Iron Monkey (1993). But it wasn’t all about guns and martial arts. There was the palate cleansing of Wong Kar-Wai’s stunning Chungking Express (1994) — albeit, an acquired taste, but works of art brought to vivid life by his frequent collaborator, Australian cinematographer, Christopher Doyle.

Hard Boiled (1992)

Alas, the Hong Kong film industry sank without a trace when revenues were cut in half and new political infrastructures took hold once the country was handed back over to China. With the Asian financial crisis, bird flu and the 2003 SARS epidemic, Hong Kong was repeatedly kicked while already rolling around in the gutter. With their film industry constantly criticised and looked down upon — even by their own upwardly mobile middle class — there was no longer room, or a market, for that kind of riffraff. This rapid downward spiral was added to further by the influx of video piracy throughout East Asia and the aggressive push by Hollywood studios into the Asian market who began to poach and exploit key filmmakers and their signature style. John Woo had already been poached for the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target (1993) and traces of his (dated) style can still be seen (unfortunately) in the works of Michael Bay.

As Hong Kong’s Golden Age of cinema died the ‘South Korean New Wave’ was born. Where one was brash and a little rough around the edges the other was an interesting mix of high quality production, showcasing provocative storytelling that began to turn genre filmmaking on its head. One moment funny and tender, the next brutal and sadistic but never losing sight of perfectly executed and compelling characters. Before we take a look at the core theme of vengeance that seems to drive so many of their films, it is important to lend some wider context to South Korean cinema.

Post WWII, Korea was divided into the North and South in 1948 that subsequently led to the Korean War. It is a nation that has only ever known about colonialism and division and an ever-present tension that still remains to this day. It is therefore of little surprise that during the liberation of Korea from the Japanese in 1945 that freedom became a dominant theme. Choi In-gyu’s film, Viva Freedom! (1946), was the first to lend a voice with the director continuing to explore these themes through documentary, melodrama and even crime stories.

Viva Freedom! (1946)

When the industry stagnated with the outbreak of the Korean War, only 14 films were produced over a two-year period — between 1950 to 1953 — and only picked up during their own Golden Age in 1959, when over a hundred films were made. This new era was brought to prominence with director Lee Kyu-hwan’s lost remake of Chunhyang-jeon (1955), and Han Hyung-mo’s Madame Freedom (1956) the latter of which delivered a daring modern tale of female sexuality and Western values. It would seem the theme of liberation was more pertinent than ever.

But we all know how government control works out for society and the arts. When General Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian presidency took hold in 1963, he created an unlimited term and power, declaring martial law and amending the constitution with a militant manifesto called the Yushin Constitution. During his time in office the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation was created in 1973. Although this was presumed to support and promote the South Korean film industry, the KMPPC was there to control and help feed a strict political correctness and censorship that encouraged propaganda and government ideals. After Chung-hee’s assassination in 1979, the Motion Picture Law of 1984 eventually came into play, allowing independent filmmakers to begin producing films with a revised version two years later welcoming the import of foreign films.

Once the Asian financial crisis hit, many family run businesses, known as chaebols, scaled back their involvement in the film industry. However, prior to the crisis their investments had built a solid foundation for a renaissance in South Korean filmmaking by supporting young directors and inspiring further business models. This outlook elevated ‘new’ Korean Cinema that now began to take the shape of their own distinctive style of blockbuster entertainment.

Although Lee Myung-se’s Nowhere to Hide (1999) carries far more explicit overtones of vengeance, it is Kang Je-gyu’s action thriller Shiri (1999) that is considered the first of this new wave to be so heavily driven by the blockbuster tropes. The film displays strong Korean nationalist romanticism but also pays a direct homage to both Hollywood and Asian action movies of the ’80s and ’90s — including the likes of John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam — and laced with the panache of classic Bond movies. Shiri was the first film in the history of South Korea to sell over two million tickets in Seoul alone.

Shiri (1999)

With Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) winning the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and championed by Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee (we won’t mention his 2013 remake), South Korean films were beginning to show a broader, global appeal. With the likes of Bong Joon-ho delivering a number of incredible genre pieces from The Host (2006) to Snowpiercer (2013) — later becoming the first Korean filmmaker to win an Oscar for Best Film with Parasite in 2019 — it would seem that South Korea continue to push the boundaries of both film and culture.

But why is vengeance so prevalent in South Korean cinema? Director Park Chan-wook once stated: “When we are confronted with extreme situations, we forget about moral issues; we simply act and must then accept the consequences.” Indeed, payback comes with some validation but it often ends up consuming a central character. In South Korean films, this is what distinguishes their protagonists so much from Western versions where they tend to tread more cautiously. However, in recent years this journey — along with the obvious noir undertones and neon soaked violence — has begun to have some influence and impact on both the big and small screen.

Take both Atomic Blonde (2017) and the John Wick series (2014-2019) so far. The first John Wick displays a heady mix of ’90s Hong Kong action movie homage, injected and refreshed through by a spattering of South Korean vengeance as Wick is slowly dismantled throughout the films. Charlize Theron’s spy on the other hand is perhaps closer in line with Jason Bourne as she punishes and brutalises her male opponents, replacing biros with a rope and chair. Both films are perfectly executed action pieces that remain light on plot but rattle along as efficiently as Keanu and Charlize dispatch their enemies. As the John Wick series progresses it surrenders completely to South Korean methods and technique — both in art and action — most notably Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess (2017) which is, hands down, one of the best action movies so far this century – an outstanding piece of work that delivers a phenomenal opening of innovative camera work, choreography and digital trickery.

The Villainess (2017)

These anti-heroes have more than often become surrogates for our own personal satisfaction and thirst for the thrill ride. But in South Korean films, we face some the most twisted dilemmas imaginable as the lead is captured, punished, set free and captured again. This can be Park Chan-wook’s deeply flawed but sympathetic heroes — groomed and toyed with — or a protagonist teetering on the edge as he catches and releases the most vicious of serial killers.

Kim Jee-woon”s I Saw the Devil (2010) delivers a bloody, explicit and violent vengeance thriller with some truly horrific and gut-wrenching moments. After the death of his fiancé at the hands of serial killer, Jang Kyung-chul, Kim Soo-hyeon hunts the notorious murderer down, playing a warped game of catch and release. The film focuses on the downward spiral and continuous cycle of vengeance as Kim succumbs to an attractive and transformative power beyond good and evil. It is here in the dark abyss where good men — through a lapse of judgement — turn into hollow monsters of themselves not so far removed from the ones they have sought to destroy. Take the high-school equivalents of Shin Su-won’s Pluto (2012) and the brutal animated film The King of Pigs (2011) from Train to Busan (2016) director, Yeon Sang-ho — two films that feel like they are all part of the same dark and twisted reality. Both Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik deliver remarkable performances and despite it’s grim and explicit nature, you remain drawn in and unable to switch off.

I Saw the Devil is one of a number of films from Kim Jee-woon that showcases his diversity as a filmmaker having previously directed The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) — a high octane adventure comedy with lashings of Leone — and going onto direct Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback vehicle The Last Stand (2013) which was a lot better than it had any right to be.

Park Chan-wook goes onto highlight that “The point of revenge is not in the completion but in the process.” In these films, it seems it’s all about the long game. Whether it is the hero or the villain — the plan may be orchestrated and all feeds into this prolonged journey towards some kind of retribution. Television is more than a good enough platform for that, especially in recent years and the dramatic changes in format that streaming has presented.

I Saw the Devil (2010)

Netflix’s Marvel TV series Daredevil (2015-2018) not only manages to perfectly adapt the street-level superhero but, as with all of the Marvel adaptations so far, taps into the right genre and tone of filmmaking to tell Matt Murdoch’s story. In light of the Oldboy legacy — and how thematic devices transferred over successfully to the John Wick films — longhand storytelling via streaming was the perfect platform to explore a damaged and vengeful character. In one of the first series’ standout moments, the second episode, ‘Cut Man’ delivers an unforgettable single fight scene. Shot in one five minute take, Matt proceeds to take out the trash of Hell’s Kitchen via a corridor, heavily inspired by Oh Dae-su’s hammer fight in Oldboy. It’s an incredible sequence that shows how human our hero is — we are forced to watch as a large portion of the fight relies on our own senses (relating to the blindness) as we listen to the fight spill into a room off camera. Matt returns into frame, beaten and fatigued — there is nothing showy, no heightened foley, just a raw Korean-inspired showdown painted with familiar downtrodden greens.

What has become clear is that the theme of vengeance runs rampant through the majority of South Korean cinema. Historical epics such as The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014) and The Tiger: An Old Hunter’s Tale (2015) — both of which star South Korea’s De Niro, Choi Min-sik — paint the conflicts and internal struggles faced against the Japanese over the years. It would seem that this exploration of conflict, especially against Japanese invaders, becomes somewhat customary.

The Tiger… (no exaggeration in saying it is easily the best South Korean film I have ever seen) is an extremely powerful piece of work, reminiscent of David Lean, with an emotional scope that would destroy the most hardened of viewers. On one level, both the conflict and vengeance that manifests are both allegorical and historical with the animal in question very much representing a nation’s loss of identity but also a resilience to fight back. For such an overlooked film, this is a truly astonishing piece of work that sets the benchmark very high indeed for any filmmaker.

The list goes on. Park Chan-wook’s widely regarded ‘Vengeance Trilogy’, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003) and Lady Vengeance (2005) lead the charge, with A Bittersweet Life (2005), The Chaser (2008), I Saw the Devil (2010) and The Villainess (2017) also setting the standard. Psychological horror dramas are also explored through A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and To Sir With Love (2006). No matter the genre, all of these examples embed vengeance as their driving force but are not without their surprises by subverting expectations. At the flick of a switch, comedy becomes a thriller and crime becomes a horror, lending South Korean films a unique and bewildering sensibility.

The Tiger: An Old Hunter’s Tale (2015)

It could be assessed that this desire to explore such themes is inherent from Western influences where they are also explored, but lost amongst the noise. As a nation shaped so much by social arrest and disorder over the years it is hard to imagine how South Korean films could be any different. In their transition to democracy it has been a violent and often turbulent journey. There is a constant reminder of how things could turn out under communist rule with the perpetual threat from North Korea over the peninsula’s border. With all of this in mind, it would seem make they make the most of resources, with film having become the perfect cypher for their struggles and frustrations.

This is a country that has witnessed two former presidents impeached for their crimes, one of which, Chun Doo-hwan, was sentenced to death. Then there are the business leaders who remained quiet during such regimes, growing in power and wealth — some of which were the very businesses that funded the new film industry — and still remain the main cause of so much anger and resentment amongst the nation. It is therefore no surprise that they constantly seek their own form of retribution.

Vengeance in cinema has always remained both a distinctive and instinctive part of the human condition. Film plays with these ideas and concepts of rage, passion and forgiveness — even presenting characters who may or may not survive or overcome their adversities or even themselves. Exploring the theme absolutely allows a filmmaker to express how a nation deals with their feelings and attitudes that surround such important matters. On one level it allows the frustration of a people to see these negative emotions channelled in some way — a somewhat cathartic experience — whether it’s through the eyes of a tiger or an assassin, vengeance is a deep wound the nation shares. On another level, it has allowed for filmmakers to explore the power of cinema as a major art form.

The King of Pigs (2011)

Through the relentless violence the camera takes those crucial moments to pull back and lends South Korean cinema more realism. There is a disturbing quality to these films not just because of the central themes and how they are shot but because of how believable the characters are. Compared to other output from Asia — where they are frequently part of organised crime such as the Yakuza and Triads — they are, instead, ordinary people… including the perpetrators themselves.

It is also interesting to note that in most of these films the protagonists remain somewhat blameless and usually represent the lower classes. It makes sense that areas of an audience wouldn’t apportion blame to a central character for certain actions because they identify with the character, potentially toying with those very notions. Any film dealing with deep-seated emotional and physical impact offers up questions about how we would act in a similar situation, and while the films themselves may not explicitly portray a real person or a part of Korean history, it is implied.

Vengeance is retribution and with it comes restoration. South Korea ‘heal’ themselves through their stories, either more transparently or through the metaphorical delivery of justice within a highly competitive society, and because of it these films remain both compelling and universal. Whether you need the award season to highlight this or not, South Korean cinema is here to stay.


Updated: May 15, 2020

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