V for Vengeance: The Impact of Korean Cinema
“Do you want revenge, or do you want the truth?”
Although the ’90s provide me with a more serious cinematic education, in hindsight, the decade remains my least favourite decade when it comes to the output of film. But before you throw your Spice Girls CD at me, hear me out. It is important not to forget that a huge part of my generation’s film education was defined from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s with a teenage haven of VHS tapes bought, borrowed or recorded off the TV and watched over and over again. Most of my favourites were Hong Kong action movies. Yes, they were adolescent and nonsensical — I was an impressionable teen like most others — but John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat’s work was like waking up to a Swan Lake massacre while chewing on a toothpick.
Fat’s balletic two-gun action was directed with such virtuoso and panache by Woo, it was the coolest thing I had ever seen (and understood) about fight choreography and gunplay up until that point. You want impressionable? Tarantino showed off this same taste for Woo and Fat in True Romance (1993) as Clarence and Alabama watch A Better Tomorrow II (1987)… and I am sure young Quentin spun a couple of remote controls while springing himself backwards over his video store counter. Let’s face it, Tarantino has always been at his best when he has one hand on his own work while, showing off his personal taste in film while, simultaneously, educating us all by introducing us to obscurities and reminding us of the classics. This is all part of his vernacular; The Killer (1989), Once a Thief (1991) and Hard Boiled (1992) priming you for what Tarantino had in store with his own inevitable influence on Hollywood action movies.
There was no escaping the ‘impact’ of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan; most of us witnessed the rise of Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and Donnie Yen in Iron Monkey (1993) throughout the ’80s and ’90s. However, martial arts began to evolve into something else entirely, while also leaving room for more artistic approaches that had begun to break down further barriers between the East and West. One such example was the palette cleansing of Wong Kar-Wai’s stunning work Chungking Express (1994); albeit, an acquired taste, but works of art brought to vivid life by his frequent collaborator, Australian cinematographer, Christopher Doyle.
No sooner had a second wave begun, alas, the Hong Kong film industry sank without a trace when revenues were cut in half and new political infrastructures took hold once handed back over to the Chinese. 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 already 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 further to the influx of video piracy throughout East Asia and the aggressive push by Hollywood studios into the Asian market, most of whom began to poach and exploit key filmmakers and their signature styles. John Woo had already been hired for the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target (1993) and traces of his (dated) style could still be seen for at least another decade… parodied perfectly in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007).
But, 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 is an interesting mix of high-quality production and provocative storytelling, turning genre filmmaking on its head. They are one moment funny and tender, the next brutal and sadistic. But they never lose 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 stories it is important to lend some important context to South Korean cinema.
Post WWII, Korea was divided into the North and South in 1948 which 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 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 In-gyu continuing to explore these themes through documentary, melodrama and even crime stories. 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) 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 he created an unlimited term and power, where he declared martial law and amended the constitution a militant manifesto called the Yushin Constitution. During his time in office, the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation was created in 1973, and although was presumed to support and promote the South Korean film industry, it was there to control and help feed political correctness and support for censorship, propaganda and government ideals until his 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 allowing 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, through their investments, prior to the crisis, they built a solid foundation for a renaissance in South Korean filmmaking by supporting young directors and inspiring further business models that elevated ‘New Korean Cinema’ that began to take on the shape of their own distinctive blockbusters.
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 — 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.
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 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 foreign filmmaker to win an Oscar for best film with Parasite in 2019 — it would seem that they 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 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 (2014-2023) so far. The first John Wick displays a heady mix of ’90s Hong Kong Action movie homage, injected and refreshed through the lens of South Korean vengeance as Wick is slowly dismantled throughout. Charlize Theron’s spy on the other hand is perhaps closer in line with Jason Bourne as she punishes and brutalises her male opponents throughout, replacing biros with rope and a 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 action films 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 — that delivers a phenomenal opening of innovative camera work, choreography and digital trickery.
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 of 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.
Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil 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 judgment — 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) by 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 Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi deliver remarkable performances and despite the film’s grim and explicit nature, you remain drawn in and unable to switch off. I Saw the Devil is one of several 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 on to direct Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback vehicle The Last Stand (2013), which was a lot better than it had any reason to be.
Park Chan Wook goes on to highlight that “The point of revenge is not in the completion but in the process.” In these films, it seems it is all about the long game and, whether it is the hero or the villain, the plan is 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 with the dramatic changes in format that streaming has presented. 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 a street-level superhero 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 delivers an unforgettable single fight scene. Shot in one five-minute take, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) proceeds to take out the trash of Hell’s Kitchen via a corridor heavily inspired by Dae-su Oh’s hammer fight in Oldboy. It is 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 senses as we listen to the fight when it falls off camera into a room. Matt returns into frame, beaten and fatigued — there is nothing showy, no heightened foley, just a raw Korean-inspired showdown painted with familiar greens.
The theme of vengeance runs rampant in the majority of South Korean cinema. Whether it is historical epics — 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 and tell the conflicts and internal struggles faced against the Japanese over the years — the exploration of conflict, especially against Japanese invaders, becomes somewhat customary. The Tiger — 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 the vengeance is both allegorical and historical with the animal in question very much representing a nation’s loss of identity but 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) 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 as they revert 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.
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. Their transition to democracy 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 they make the most of their resources, their films 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 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 the 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 is through the eyes of a tiger or an assassin, vengeance is a deep wound the nation shares. On another level, it has allowed filmmakers to explore the power of cinema as a major art form.
Through this 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. It would make complete sense that the audience wouldn’t blame a central character for carrying out actions... because they are that character, toying with those notions. Any film dealing with deep-seated emotional and physical impact questions us on how we would act in a similar situation. Although the acts themselves may not explicitly portray a real person or part of Korean history, it is implied.
Vengeance is retribution and with it comes restoration. South Korea clearly heals itself through these stories — sometimes it appears more transparent, other times a metaphorical way of delivering justice within a highly competitive society — 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.