Revenge in Korean Thrillers

Revenge in Korean Thrillers


Vengeance is a feeling often considered but
rarely acted upon. It starts with a sense of personal injury,
an injustice committed…that requires a resolution. A longing for a missing variable to an equation. A primal need to right a wrong… A gut-aching, teeth grinding indignation that
boils into vivid musings of an unresolved anger. Vengeance thrives inside the four corners
of our imagination. Which is why we find ourselves relating so
viscerally to cinematic fantasies of revenge. Movies that offer a satisfactory scratch to
a universal itch. At the start of the 21 century, stories of
revenge have become synonymous to South Korean cinema. There is just something in their exploration
of vengeance that feels distinct. Something about the violence, the grit, the
rage that let’s you peek at a vaguely perceivable shared resentment. An idiosyncratic element that adds weight
to their external ruminations of revenge. In today’s video, we will be exploring how
this theme of vengeance is used in several of their movies and what it’s trying to say. Since the nature of these films has a lot
to do with how they end, a few spoilers will follow. Be on the look out for the visual cues. Most revenge movies have a very simple premise
but an extremely effective one. An evil deed made, the search for retribution
and vengeance taken. A pattern that feels almost musical, if the
journey is anything but a cathartic experience it would certainly feel out of tune. We follow a main character with an understandable
motivation…like getting payback for the death of a dog… And that’s all we need… it’s enough to validate
a main characters’ parade of punishment. The characters on the screen become surrogates
to our satisfaction… and there are a lot of these types of movies where the focus stays
on the elaborate vengeance, like A Bittersweet Life and The Man From Nowhere but there are
others that go a little bit further with what they are trying to say, like the harsh I Saw
the Devil and the notorious Oldboy. Two extremely inventive journeys of revenge. In I Saw the Devil, a serial killer has brutally
murdered the fiancée of the main character; Kim Soo-hyeon. Soo-hyeon is a secret agent, a well-trained
man of the law that decides to point his expertise towards the devilish Kyung-chui. He plans out an elaborate game of catch and
release. Soo-hyeon finds the serial killer, tortures
him and then surprisingly…sets him free, only to repeat the process over and over again
as a punishment. In Oldboy, Oh Dae-su is the one who is initially
receiving the punishment. He is imprisoned for fifteen years in a small
room, being groomed, fed and kept alive and then set free. He has no idea why he was held captive or
why they even let him go. He embarks on a ruthless scavenger hunt to
find out who is responsible for his imprisonment but most importantly; what he did to deserve
it. Dae-su and Soo-hyeon both follow a crimson
path to fulfill their need for avengement, but the curious thing is that the filmmakers
aren’t interested in glorifying violence (although it is very bloody) but to warn of the consequences
of acting out your vengeance, that the ultimate revenge no matter how cathartic can be corrosive. Soo-hyeon starts getting obsessed with the
punishment of Kyung-chui, pushing towards more extreme acts. A process where he starts losing himself as
he begins taking pleasure in the violence. It shows a continuous cycle where the abuser
becomes the victim and the victim becomes the abuser. Director Kim Jee-woon is trying to present
that vengeance has an attractive pull that will eventually draw you in and transform
you into what you are supposed to be fighting. The thematic core of the movie comes from
a passage of Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”:
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss,
the abyss will gaze back into you.” The same can be said of Dae-su. He was a normal person at first, an ill mannered
drunk but still someone human that wouldn’t actually kill or torture anyone. Once his family, freedom and life are taken
away, he is only left as an instrument of vengeance. We see this with the other characters of the
trilogy of vengeance. Ordinary people faced with an inhuman injustice,
push themselves to do an equally brutal act. Vengeance becomes an intoxicating lapse of
judgement that emotionally justifies our actions, but it only deals in the negative. The director of Oldboy refers to it as a “fruitless
endeavor” at the end the characters are left hollow. Soo-hyeon’s efforts don’t just punish the
serial killer or himself, it also ruins the lives of the people in the way of his game. What we start to realize in Oldboy is that
the story is actually about the vengeance of the antagonist. The well orchestrated and patiently executed
plan by Woo-jin in response to the death his sister. It became his whole life, he even thanks Dae-su
because his over fifteen-year vengeance has been a good distraction and invites him to
relish in his own. After finalizing his revenge, his words become
a self-fulfilling prophecy as his short-lived satisfaction can’t hold back the haunting
memory of the death of his sister and he can no longer bear it. “Revenge is about something that has already
happened, and when you are trying to achieve vengeance, you are investing your everything
into a venture that will lead you to no benefit at the end.” Vengeance is the search for justice… but
it splits into two kinds. The first is an internal justice formed by
our own personal upbringing, life experience or belief system. The second is an external justice decided
by the laws we live under so we can maintain social order. These two help us make sense of what is right
and what is wrong. Our personal justice lives inside what is
socially acceptable but there are instances where these two can be in conflict with each
other. We see this dilemma be explored in Mother. The main character is trying to prove the
innocence of her mentally challenged son Do-joon, he is quickly found guilty of the murder of
a young girl. The mother is sure her son is incapable of
committing such a violent act and starts making her own investigation. We begin to notice that perhaps the main character’s
natural motherly instinct might be clouding her judgement. Justice, from the main character’s perspective,
is to protect her son at all cost…so, can protecting her only child go beyond what is
lawful? In The Chaser we see the inefficiency of the
justice system and how the law can get in the way of itself. A serial killer is murdering call girls and
the main character Joong-ho, an ex-cop turned pimp, is trying to catch him before another
girl goes missing. The antagonist actually gets caught before
the midpoint of the movie and even confesses to his current and past crimes, but he is
let go for lack of evidence and also because the police want to save face from a previous
public blunder. Joong-ho’s personal justice is frustrated
by the incompetence of the law… a notable pattern in Korean movies. We usually see a slow-witted characterization
of cops. It’s a commentary on how slow moving, comically
absurd and ineffective justice can be. Individuals that happen upon a situation they
are unprepared for and lead to an outcome that will inevitably be unsatisfying. We encounter this problem in Memories of Murder,
we follow a rural police force struggling to capture a serial killer. They are unable to control crime scenes, they
use irregular investigative methods and coerce suspects into giving false confessions. After the amount of murders start to rise,
a desperation for justice sets in even affecting the more level-headed detective Seo. Seo in contrast, is an adept, by the book
detective that only follows the facts in front of him but his rationality is tested by his growing need for retribution. Seo is about to kill the prime suspect in
the case until he’s confronted with evidence that they might have the wrong person. But at this point the detective’s blinding
need for personal justice supersedes any proof that goes against what he feels is right. The case represented in Memories of Murder
is actually referring to South Korea’s first recognized serial killer. He murdered ten women between t 1986 to 1991. These murders traumatized South Koreans especially
the director Bong Joon-ho. That’s why he set out to make the movie to
answer a personal question: “Why did we fail to catch the murderer?” He found that it was due to the darkness of
the age. There was just a certain darkness in South
Korea in the 1980’s that facilitated these events to continue uninterrupted. We see one of the detectives having a very
simplistic view of criminals. Detective Park states that he can recognize
a criminal just by looking at them and throughout the movie we see the deterioration of this
belief. After going through a league of suspects they
are only left with uncertainty. They are not close to knowing what the murderer
looks like. He finally realizes that the world is far
more complex. Justice remains unattainable when it’s shrouded
by doubt. At the end, the only resolution that Bong
Joon-ho allows us to have is when Park looks directly at the camera as if looking thought
the cinematic veil searching for the unknown face. The murderer among the audience. After several years the killer has been recently
identified and Bong Joon-ho has finally been able to see that face that’s been haunting
him. Justice can be an elusive ideal that if fulfilled
can feel incomplete… or too late. The lack of personal justice can feed into
growing resentment. Being kept at arms length from what we feel
is right resigns us to a bitter frustration. A character that represents this state of
being extremely well is Lee Jong-su in the metaphorical Burning. He lives with an internalized anger that rises
from a simmer to a boiling point throughout the movie. Jong-su is an aspiring writer going through
the motions of life. He lives at the mercy of decisions that aren’t
his, swallowing back familial and societal grievances trying to make sense of his place
in the world. One day, Jong-su’s childhood neighbor re-enters
his life and they are seemingly on the path of starting a relationship until he’s undramatically
pushed aside by the enigmatic and well-off Ben. The trio then spark an awkward friendship. The main mystery of the movie is the unexplained
disappearance of Hae-mi. One day she just vanishes without a trace. She is not answering her phone, her apartment
has been cleaned out and no one else has heard from her in a while. The only lead Jong-su has is an odd conversation
with Ben, the last night the trio were all together. Ben randomly confesses to him that he enjoys
burning greenhouses…rundown ones that no one would miss. At first, one would see this information as
somewhat concerning but as Jong-su continues his search for answers it’s obvious to see
this as a sinister metaphor. There are a lot of little mysteries peppered
across this movie made to make you question what is real. Is the well Jong-su saved Hae-mi from when
they were kids also a metaphor or something he just doesn’t remember? Who keeps calling him at night? Is Ben really a killer and if so, how did
he do it? Even the act of vengeance at the end could
just be a fantasy. We see Jong-su starting to write and the scene
drifting away…we then switch to Ben’s perspective. We get to see what he does with the kit Jong-su
found in his bathroom earlier in the movie and then we are at the bloody final confrontation
between the two. “This last scene could have happened in reality,
but at the same time it could have also been a part of this novel that Jong-su is newly
writing, […]” The last scene could be attempt from the main
character to give himself answers in world that won’t share any. Be it fiction or reality, Ben is meant to
represents the mystery of the world, and Jong-su’s vengeance is the wish fulfilment against it… The director Lee Chang-dong wanted to: “[…] discuss the ambiguities of the world
we live in and how there seems to be no answer to the questions that we have today – especially
for young people. I feel like young people these days have realized
that there’s something wrong in this world, but it’s very difficult to figure out exactly
what is causing the problems and what lies underneath.” We are left not knowing. No resolution just growing resentment…from
a vengeance unfulfilled…. justice unattained. And it makes sense… If you asked a South Korean what these words
evoke, they would probably refer to the concept of Han. Han is said to embedded inside the DNA of
every South Korean, the word has no English equivalent, so I won’t attempt to explain it with my own
words, but I will leave you with a quote that does good job of describing it:
“a feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness
because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and
bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and
to right the wrong-all these combined” Revenge in Korean cinema seems to be the manifestation
of Han… A shared national wound, visible for everyone
to see. Thank you for taking the time to watch our
video. We invite you to like share and subscribe
if you haven’t done so yet. I was really struggling with the Korean names
for this video. I’m not exactly sure I pronounced them all
correctly. Today’s musical composition was made by Eduardo
Gonzalez. If you liked his work, you can find his information
in the description bellow. And also, if you want to contribute to our
channel so we can keep making videos like this one, you can take a look at our Patreon
page. Until next time.

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20 Comments

  1. it's such a common pattern yet it's always so surprising and different, this is the beauty of korean cinema I guess (also super weird cause i was just watching "A bittersweet life") 🙂

  2. >When people make the argument of "two wrongs don't make a right"

    Korean thrillers: The satisfaction of getting revenge and justice is more than enough to justify my actions

  3. Spider-Man: He track down a robber who murdered his Uncle Ben and kills him as a revenge, motivated to become a hero.

    Every Korean thrillers: A normal protagonist kills people who takes away his freedom, which his satisfaction of brutality is a result of becoming a villain.

  4. What is your favorite South Korean tale of vengeance?
    Here is a list of thrillers you might be interested in watching: https://boxd.it/4GfU0

  5. I feel like Hwayi (화이) should be in this also. SPOILERS It’s about a kid who is kidnapped by the mafia, forced to kill his own father, then after he realizes he killed his father, goes and murders the mafia guys who kidnapped him

  6. I love your video essays. Korean cinema is definitely a new favorite. They force me to feel everything. I have come to appreciate my movie experience more and more.

  7. Thank you for making this video. I’ve seen all of these films over the last several years, and when you ended with a quote that tries to describe the notion of “han”(sp?), I was left speechless and stared blankly at the screen for a moment before realizing I had been sincerely moved by your interpretation of these films — particularly what they mean in the broader context of our own lives. I do not think my words are even coming close to conveying what I am feeling right now, so I will stop writing here. Just know that this was a much appreciated, and brilliantly executed video essay. I will no doubt re-visit it several times in the future. Cheeers.

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