Gosh, I remember — and don’t you dare deny that this happened — I remember when Parasite was at the height of its celebration, and one of the ideas floating around online was that Korean cinema isn’t only defined by violence and revenge. And if you look, a lot of the blockbusters of the past few years were romantic-comedies or historical dramas. However, my experience with Korean film is absolutely defined by violence and revenge. That’s how it was marketed, that’s what got me interested. So consider this a disproportionate response to something I saw on Twitter a year ago. I think Korean revenge is important. And today, I want to explore three of its examples and ask the question that bubbles at the edges of your mind while in the throes of these films: why? That scurrilous online claim had to come from somewhere — why is there so much Korean revenge? And should revenge define the nation’s cinema?
Here’s a question I’m really interested in the answer to — for those who would know and those who wouldn’t, what was the breakthrough Korean movie? Was it Parasite? Was it Shiri? Do we take the historical track and say The Housemaid? For me, it was Oldboy, which explains this whole episode. Not the first Korean movie I saw, but the one that arrived as part of an outreach. It was a zeitgeist movie; it’s got a viral promotional clip built in and had the Quentin Tarantino seal of approval out of the Cannes Film Festival. That era, the early to mid-2000s, is to me the Korean New Wave, but I don’t know if that’s true. Actually, I believe the term “hallyu,” which means “Korean Wave,” refers to the general exportation of pop culture, of which film is a part alongside K-pop and K-dramas. Whatever the answer, something I have to keep in mind is that breakthroughs don’t come out of from nowhere, and South Korean cinema took a long road to reach their hallyu, like, “last half of the 20th century” long.
What’s the problem we got? America. Following the Korean War, the South Korean film industry produced fewer than 30 films a year, which is less an industry and more like a slow YouTube channel. The government intervened, and starting out, they seemed to hurt as much as help. Surprising, right? Smaller production companies went bankrupt, limiting regulations were put in place by President Park Chung-hee. In 1984, you see a policy innovation with the screen quota system, which would soon mandate that each movie theater screen played Korean films for 146 days out of the year. And while not unique to Korea, the quota system is often cited as instrumental to the industry’s success. Many countries have either implemented quotas or desire to as a defense against the domination of American cinema, which just goes everywhere and gets in everything. By 2011, the Korean box office crossed the billion dollar mark, so you know the US wanted a piece of that pie, but you got to give them more credit — they’ve been trying to weasel their way in from the beginning. Whether it’s the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, every time the US talks about abolishing the quota system as part of a trade agreement, Korean industry figures come out to protest. The Oldboy himself quit acting for four years over this shit. Where in America, we might refuse to see a subtitled foreign film, if we happen to spot one at the multiplex, other countries take protective measures to ensure their multiplexes aren’t playing exclusively American films — subtitled and foreign. If the FTC and American distributors had their way, that is how it would be. And that is a lot of reading.
With the quota system in place, Korean films could flourish — granted, against the principles of the free market. Oh, my heart. Nowadays, Korean cinema is popular at home and abroad, so the necessity of the quota is legitimately questionable for the first time, although let us not forget that Hollywood is producing films with budgets that massively outscale the largest Korean films, and everybody loves a blockbuster. Another outstanding question, however, exists of the system’s other uses, that being whether or not it can be connected to the quality of product that we saw in the ‘90s and 2000s. This is in dispute. My read on the situation is that it was an element of a larger governmental interest in the industry, that the people holding the purse saw the cultural importance of film, and pursued policies which over time contributed to its growth. From a creative perspective, that’s not regulation, it’s encouragement. The quota system was perhaps one of those policies, as were tax incentives during economic recession and the establishment of film festivals by local governments, including the Busan International Film Festival. In 1999, the very-Hollywood and Hong Kong-inspired spy thriller Shiri broke box office records in Korea, and is considered the nation’s first blockbuster. Joint Security Area came next in 2000, then films like Silmido and The Brotherhood of War, bringing us to the modern day.
Originally, the three movies I wanted to talk about were The Chaser, The Man from Nowhere, and I Saw the Devil, and it would be the first time I’d ever seen The Chaser. Always heard about it, always seen it on Korean revenge lists. Watched it — nothing to say. I hate when that happens. But more than that, I didn’t like it, and as you’ll see, there’s already too much negativity in this video. So I called in a pinch hitter, and — oh, my God. Yeah, so, as The Chaser was playing and sparking nothing in my brain, I was just filled with dread, because my only option was Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. I’m not rolling the dice again, so for as painful as it is, I’m very familiar with this film, and we’re gonna talk about it. But first, I do want to squeeze what little I can from The Chaser because I think it still works as an example here.
Relevant, but not as thrilling or gory as a lot of other Korean revenge movies. I’d almost say it hews closer to Memories of Murder — another unflattering comparison — it’s got the desaturated look, and the themes of serial killers and the failures of bureaucracy. Like with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, The Chaser follows a regular joe, inasmuch as a police officer turned pimp is regular — he’s not, like, a secret agent, and believe me, we’ll talk about secret agents. Unlike the police who follow orders filtered down a politicized system, he can go anywhere and do anything, but the police keep getting in his way. Ultimately, their interdiction enables the killer to finish the job, among other things, and it’s really quite powerful to remove that traditional symbol of morality from the equation. In the end, it’s just about getting even, not justice, not law — punishment. And I think that begins to speak to the hysterical why of these films. Our hero was cast to the gutter, one prince of garbage among many in the underworld. He’s battling against forces larger than himself, sometimes literally, because there’s always gonna be enough cops to hold him back from, well, the chase.
And so, there’s something strong in the final confrontation, but it isn’t catharsis. The killer preys on young women, prostitutes, who are already in a position vulnerable to the worst of male behavior. Then there’s the police whose actions are motivated more by politics than anything else, and finally, there’s our hero. He’s an agent of this system, too, but begins to see the big picture when confronted by the victim’s daughter. There’s a problem in this society, which is violence against women — all kinds of violence — and a question of who is responsible for it, what can be done? Maybe by 2008, even, we were tired of masculine deconstructions that necessarily trade in the imagery of gender violence, but it’s interesting how there’s a soft-spoken criticism turned inward. So, we have the ambivalence of revenge, the mistrust of authority. The betrothal of penitence — if I could just keep talking, maybe I wouldn’t have to move onto Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance?
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
Imagine for me, if you will, a revenge movie where no one is at fault and everybody dies a horrible, prolonged death. Well, you don’t have to imagine. This is Chan-wook Park’s second major film after the megahit Joint Security Area, and in many ways feels like the truer directorial debut. Where Joint Security Area was a relatively conventional story with action and plot twists and drama, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance goes full arthouse, at once recalling the ironic zaniness of American independent cinema of the ‘90s and the splatter of contemporary Takashi Miike. It’s absolutely a director’s showcase, a film with no commercial pretense and which is the conquest of style. It is also to date one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen, and not just for the violence level, which is at maximum. There’s imagery and ideas at play here that get under my skin, and they’re depicted with such a black humor, it’s nauseating. You begin to do that wondering, like, “What kind of human being makes a movie like this,” but for me, that question has always been tender.
Park’s Vengeance Trilogy has been in my life for a long time, like the xenomorph for Ripley in Alien 3. The last time I saw Oldboy, I watched it with a friend of mine, podcast cohost Donovan Morgan Grant, who is a very compassionate and genuine young man who did nothing to deserve such wrath. If you could’ve heard his screams, it was the most delightful symphony, and that was basically my teenage years. I got into Korean cinema in high school and I showed these movies to everyone I could. Graduated high school with not a lot of friends. It was Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, The Host, Memories of Murder. At the end of it, I tried to get A Bittersweet Life going, but I only had this weird region 2 Italian DVD. Looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking. I was never a particularly sadistic person, and now the thought of inflicting Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance on my beloved Donovan is unconscionable. I don’t know that it’s an unpleasant movie but it is so cruel, and it eases you into a false sense of security before shocking you with these turns and at least one flash image where you’re like “I didn’t just see that.” But you did. You did.
We’re heading into spoiler territory, except that I guess I already spoiled the movie. Everybody dies. That’s the thing — if anything is spoiler-proof: Korean revenge. But I would encourage you to seek these movies out on your own. And there I go again. No — save yourself. But just let me know how this strikes you. So, a young man named Ryu is caring for his sister, who’s dying of a terminal illness. When his plans to either donate or exchange his kidney are foiled by a no-good family of organ harvesters, he and his girlfriend hatch a scheme to ransom the daughter of a wealthy company man, President Park. So far, it sounds like one of those funny crime capers. Almost Coen Brothers-esque.
I say that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a director’s showcase in large part because it deemphasizes other formal aspects. It is light on dialogue, especially in the first third, and so we’re watching the plot proceed with entirely visual storytelling. And that storytelling is odd. While sometimes we see characters moving between spaces, like ascending the long stairs, sometimes Ryu just appears, revealed, like here in the bathroom. His relationship to the world around him is of constant interest to the camera. And I think it’s about configuring our brains to negotiate the world as he does. He is deaf and mute, but also very poor. His life is tedium and invisibility despite his visual indicator. So he drifts through this utterly indifferent space. The camera is at once dispassionate, so still and distant, but also vaguely curious, because we’re always locating a speck of humanity amidst the desolate urban sprawl. Like, does anybody live here? Ryu helps draw our eye to the humanity in the frame, and yet he’s composed opposite a contest of human worstness.
The world before everything spins apart is awful, but civil about its being awful. We witness both the poverty and the bureaucracy which automates that poverty. People don’t give a shit, or they’re so detached from reality, and this is how you arrive at the crushing hand of fate that slowly and painstakingly compresses the characters toward one another and to a vicious, devastating end. Because I’ve seen this movie so many times, my experience with it is marked by repetition, and that actually serves to underscore the dread. It’s this inevitability — of course everything will go wrong, the world is designed by accident for the maximum possible suffering. And you’re just sitting there, like, “fuck.” And what do we learn? I can sense the anger, but to whom is it addressed? Well, I suppose it’s the state of Korean health care that triggers these terrible events. And in the end, everybody’s dead, so talk about health care, am I right? No, that can’t be it. But it ought to be. I mean, movies like First Blood and Rolling Thunder make a connection between the setup and the revenge like that — if these Vietnam War veterans landed safely at home, maybe it would’ve gone the other way. Commentary achieved. That’s just not the case here, and so I’m tempted to say the movie is simply meaningless. Did I really scare all my friends away for nothing?
Oh, come on. This is an important one. Maybe it’s the minimalism, but this is the first movie I think of when I think of Korean revenge — it’s the template. It was for a time, the logical second step after you see Oldboy, but these days, people’s on-ramp to Korean movies is Parasite, which is also excellent, and less alienating. It’s funny, though, to see that the Koreans haven’t forgotten their roots. Parasite is yet another movie where Kang-ho Song stabs a man to death and where violence is shocking on purpose. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is roughly the origin point, and it’s the most concise example of Korean revenge out there because it’s got nothing else to share. But if you’d like to share, with friends and loved ones, this is the ultimate weapon. The only problem is that you have to survive it, too.
Like so many other crossover hits from Korea, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was gonna be remade during that initial boom period. To date, only a few of those remakes ever surfaced and they distanced themselves from the originals, like The Lake House or The Uninvited, though honestly, I don’t remember anything about A Tale of Two Sisters, either. I just can’t imagine a remake of this movie because its approach to character, for example, is so unlike Hollywood. I’m not talking about the inevitable redemption arc or something like that, but the origin story. We have to know every last detail about characters’ mundane lives before they get into the action, even though it is irrelevant and boring. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, character is a matter of the present. It is a consequence of the acting more than the script. And we don’t need to know a lot about these people for the film to work as designed. We don’t need to know that President Park has a tragic backstory, that his pregnant wife got run over by a truck, and that’s why he’s gonna get revenge — no. He’s gonna get revenge because of what we see through his eyes. And that is refreshing, but prickly to my sensibilities which were encoded by Hollywood.
The Man from Nowhere (2010)
So then, from the arthouse back onto those sunny streets of Hallyuwood, we have The Man from Nowhere. The Man from Nowhere… I don’t like this movie. It is so Hollywood, taking in all of our worst tendencies and filtering them through the color gel of Korean cinema like a backdoor approximation. How dare you? So, stop me if you heard this one before: a mysterious man who turns out to be a “special agent” goes on the rampage after his quasi-daughter figure gets kidnapped by organ traffickers. Again with the organs, although to more gruesome effect this time, if you can believe that. So it’s not really a revenge movie, but one of those “chase the bad guys to rescue someone” movies, and that’s where the problems begin. There’s a moral clarity at play, as well as the baggage of the family unit — threats to that status quo cast in alien light, the violence that becomes justified in protecting it.
And baggage is really the key word. I mean, the plot is so weighted down with bullshit. You have to have the police guy investigating, which spins out into its own police world, and you have this gangster drama with a power grab and betrayal. I might as well have just described to you the fourth season of the television show Breaking Bad, which notably wasn’t two hours long. However, despite the police-happy prologue, the film opens with a sequence that works in part because it is simple. By the time the girl gets kidnapped by the gangsters, we’ve had a surprisingly effective establishment of the relationship between her and the hero. We see them interacting, expressing a range of emotions, and they undergo a story arc. And don’t worry, there’s a happy ending to this movie — these two characters reunite. So, it’s weird, because I like happy endings, but we could’ve also had a happy movie preceding it. Less eye gouging. The Man from Nowhere is grim, and that can be okay, but it’s handled here by fumbling hands pressed toward emotional manipulation.
Before John Wick, it’s almost like we didn’t know action movies could just be fun. And while John Wick is structured upon violence and that’s a worthwhile conversation, a movie like Taken instead structures on despicable storytelling habits — exploitation of women, patriarchy, xenophobia — just to stage a mildly entertaining action movie. I think this one, The Man from Nowhere, splits the difference — with a little hiya. It’s actually got a sense of humor, and tremendous action, but to get there, my God. How many calories did I burn watching this thing? There’s this ridiculous flashback where his wife gets run over by a truck. Jesus, that’s fucking hilarious, dude. What are you doing? My favorite part of the movie, though, and I’m not joking, is when he cuts his hair. It’s really satisfying, and it actually inspired me to keep my hair short all those years ago, to lesser results, arguably. The actor Won Bin is a very pretty man with a very pretty face. No need to hide it. Indeed, the remake of this movie made in India is called Rocky Handsome.
But this fucking guy, man. We’ve seen it so many times before, the unassuming but photogenic next-door neighbor who’s actually special forces guy and that means he can take a baseball bat to the elbow. The things he does, the way people talk about him, he’s the most interesting man in the room. A haunted widower with dad vibes and he’s only 32, ladies and gentlemen. And the bad guys by contrast are so, so bad. I mean, we’re talking about gangsters, they’re racist, they’re rapists, they hurt kids, they hurt each other. It’s uncomplicated, and I think that’s a problem: when he murders, it feels great. Final Fantasy XV over here pulls off some wicked cool moves and he kills people who you want to kill. And believe you me, you wouldn’t kill them as cool as he does.
This is a buy-in. The violence in The Man from Nowhere trades on a presumption of the viewer’s idea of normal. When he kills people, I want to feel something other than the shoulder-check of a misguided appeal to my inner dad. I don’t give a shit. And now that shit’s in my head. I’m watching this and I’m like, “Oh, no, that’s not me, that’s not me,” and that’s distracting. It’s fucking distracting when you don’t fundamentally respect the ethos of a movie, I guess. And how could this have happened, because it sounds so stupid. “I didn’t like the movie because I didn’t agree with the character’s politics, which were not expressed?” Sounds like someone’s trying to carefully craft a contrarian opinion just to be a dick, because this was the highest-grossing Korean film in 2010 — and sometimes I think these things are just in the blood, like kimchi, probably the grossest national delicacy and I love it, but this — you people confound me. Honest to God, it was an emotional response. I mean, the character is such a blank slate anyway, I’m not getting anything from these quite cool action scenes. Beside the fact that he’s an unremarked-upon sociopath, and the movie is so boldly uncritical of violence, you’ve burdened the locus of my joy with these movies — the moment. It’s the hammer, or the Achilles tendon, the baseball bat. My appreciation of Korean cinema violence is admittedly perverse. That the excitement comes from my own discomfort. I don’t like to be scared by horror movies, but I do like to be unsettled by Korean revenge. This, on the other hand, is slick and cool, and for the first time ever, that’s bad.
And it only gets worse because it’s really, really good. I may not like this movie, but let me be the first to tell you, it has maybe the most effective action climax since The Matrix. So this is the fucked up part: I do recommend you watch The Man from Nowhere in its entirety, because what makes this action climax work so well is twofold — on a technical level, it’s a masterclass. The squishing, crunching sound design animating each hit, the clarity of motion with the starkness of the colors, and the chaotic, dangerous-looking choreography. It’s an angry choreography, character translated through action. And character is the other reason. You need that emotional buildup of the whole movie, because this is how it’s released. With that music; it’s the perfect expression of sorrowful rage. By the time I get to this scene, basically all is forgiven. It makes me forget how much I didn’t care about what came before because it gave what came before purpose. And then it keeps going.
At the roll of the credits, I wanted a revenge movie, damn it, not a one-size-fits-all everything movie. You got your social commentary, you got your character arc, your supporting character arc, the big ‘90s music cue at the end — the only thing missing was the love story. When you make this kind of movie, you’re a jack of all trades. So what was the motive behind its creation? What one special thing did you really want to showcase or explore? And gosh, that is cruel. Never let a critic say that. As I go on here, I realize I’m applying an external standard to a film that may not necessarily call for it, because “making a good movie” is a reasonable enough motivation without trying to be a specialist in some way.
A lot of my favorite revenge movies are simple. All you need is kill, and just enough narrative to stand people up so you can knock them down. The architecture of this body count is convoluted. We’re talking Victorian Gothic when I’m looking for modern or even New England. And this is a tightrope anyhow, because to be honest, I don’t like a lot of the genre trappings. I don’t like to see dead women, or women in bondage — in what’s supposed to be entertainment — but I’m willing to tolerate a little bit of the bullshit if you give me my body count. The Man from Nowhere has a respectable one — it’s got variety, it’s got brutality, but that only makes it that much more frustrating. And thus, we arrive at I Saw the Devil.
I Saw the Devil (2010)
So, we have another special agent, designation unknown, and this is what he gets into: his girlfriend is murdered by a very over-the-top serial killer, so he goes and gets revenge. And then he gets revenge again. And again. That’s the hook for this one, and it’s a smart approach to genre deconstruction. This is, like, four revenge movies in one, and so it’s all about process, and the questions arise naturally. We can more easily ask “why are we doing this?” when it’s “Why are we doing this again?” But cutting straight through that structure, the repetition, is the real strength of the movie, its uneasy, forward lurching through these suspense sequences which peak with the bloodiest violence I’ve seen out of Korean cinema, and as much as the character descends into his revenge madness, the movie too gives way to a barreling, breakneck pace.
It’s actually absurd, the violence, which is why I wouldn’t say the film is as disturbing as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. I Saw the Devil is a movie with a cannibal, which sounds ridiculous, and it is. As critics point out, director Kim Jee-woon guides us there with a deft control of tone. And his talents as a director unfold in this cannibal sequence especially. Our special agent has arrived at a mansion where the serial killer is tending to his wounds, and disturbing things are happening. There’s this issue sometimes where if you don’t have a great sense for the geography of a space, you don’t know where the characters are in relation to each other. Because the mansion here is so large, you might have that problem, but they show you the hero going from the first floor to the second, and that’s all you need to know — just a sense. There are two wild cards roaming around, these two women, though one doesn’t come back into play. And the two killers are closing the distance somewhere. So the suspense comes from that knowing just enough to know nothing — a subtle but important difference. And when that suspense breaks with the violence, it’s so wild and animalistic, you just have to laugh. I mean, it’s the cannibal guy. But I admit, there is something immediate to the physical act of being beaten atop the head. It’s uncomfortable in short order, but that’s what I wanted to see happen to him.
Part of the fun with the Korean New Wave is the sense you get that it’s in this perpetual twilight state, that what we have cannot possibly last. Because what we have is extremely talented directors and actors involved in unconventional movies and taking them seriously. Unless you’re, like, Tatiana Maslany, I doubt actors have a better opportunity to demonstrate range than Korean actors working today. And this one is a double threat, with Choi Min-sik and Byung-hun Lee. As an aside, when Korean names come up, I’m not switching the order at random here — the more romanized version is just how I came to know people like Chan-wook Park, for example. The dialogue in this one is not great. They really hit you atop the head, as if you’re being beaten with a metal rod. So as much as I think this movie is a rare example of a film that could’ve worked completely without dialogue, I suppose that all the talking provides Choi Min-sik opportunity to really chew into his scenes.
He’s just got this overbearing presence, like he’s always hunched over you and glowering. It’s that quiet kind of scary. He only dials it up in bursts, when he loses himself to his rage. Otherwise, he’s always trying to keep his cool, and that becomes harder and harder, the more the hero gets to him. I really like that his motivations are not cast with mystique. Because of the enduring popularity of true crime, there’s this instinct to provide a basic behavioral analysis for any given serial killer in fiction, or to suggest, even encourage, that one could be written. With the character here, like President Park, he exists completely in the moment — you understand who he is based on his actions and the analysis is, he’s a dick. He’s petulant, entitled. And yet, you’re always unsure how much he means any of what he says. Is this all a big joke? Laugh and the world laughs with you? But of course, we all know Choi Min-sik is one the greatest actors of his generation, so I feel like I need to give special mention to Byung-hun Lee, who displays a rawness here in lieu of his usual detached, cool demeanor. For a guy who’s so pretty he doesn’t have to be good, he’s always really good, but when he’s fighting with Choi, for example, you can see the pain in his eyes. This is a guy who’s barely keeping it together.
I Saw the Devil is very much a machine, and it hums despite the bloviation suggested by its runtime. It’s a movie that builds and builds and takes care to establish the pieces on the board. And yet, that establishing pushes buttons for me, you know like, “I can’t believe I’m watching this half-naked woman crying for so long,” so our question “why,” central here to the deconstruction, is wringed out of me, not just spoken by the characters. Although there is a lot of that. But the answer to the question is primal and deeply human: anticipation and release. So “human” not in terms of morality but maybe psychology — or even neuroscience. Bear with me. The arcs of the narrative are speaking to your brain, tapping into your inner reptile, and the language is revenge. It’s like in Arrival.
Every revenge movie flirts with deconstruction, making textual often gratingly the morality and ethics. Dost thou becometh the monster?! One of the problems with telling this kind of story, offering a lesson about violence, as we saw with the hullabaloo over The Last of Us Part II is we ought to have already learned that lesson, indeed in the language of elementary school rather than high-resolution, self-conscious bloodshed. My read of I Saw the Devil is that it exists in pure form for about 30 minutes between the middle set piece and the climax, where the two characters are just fucking going, man. The movie hits this pitch of delirium in the stark daylight, this terrifying loss of control, and in that moment, we find ourselves at a loss, too. Revenge is all we have, it’s all we want, it is the only means by which we regain control. And we know what that will mean. (metal rod). It didn’t have to be this way, but this is where we are now. Like with The Chaser, our hero can’t go to the police, and like with Ryu, his people are at risk. He has to get this guy and he has to kill him, proportionately. It’s a magic trick.
We’re being pushed inward, like the proverbial cornered animal. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, these characters are all victims of circumstance, of external factors like economic inequality, terminal illness, black market profiteering, and then you add the final factor which is revenge. What else can you do? That might be why I’m so offended by The Man from Nowhere, because you can’t just tap into my bloodlust lightly, and how dare you say it’s there. The revenge comes from individual agency, from choice. These characters are paradoxically trapped, and there’s no hand-wringing about it. “You stole my organs and ripped me off, I’m gonna kill you.” “You let my daughter drown in a river, I’m gonna kill you.” And I Saw the Devil lives in that space. Korean revenge then is also an expression of powerlessness. By torturing and brutalizing people, these guys are not transgressing their world, they’re just being more honest examples. And that is the deep, ironic cynicism at the heart of these films, that there is no free will, and no violence just under the surface if that surface is already violent.
In the end, Special Agent is still searching for something he cannot get, that catharsis that his cinematic countrymen and even his own past incarnations have never achieved. I’m at a loss once again. I mean, it’s hitting me, but I’m one of those people who has to talk about a movie, otherwise it doesn’t count. And there’s not even any health care in this one. Of all the movies to not involve organ harvesting, I swear. Movies make points, and that’s why they’re important. Do you know how much “blog” I’ve based on that claim? Well, time’s up. Why revenge? Where does it come from? Where is it going? I might take a look at my book here… It’s empty. It’s a metaphor, because something I did not know about the history of South Korea, my nation of origin, occurs in roughly the period between 1945 and 2020 — that whole era, if you will, is kind of a blindspot. And a key piece I was missing in the almost complete puzzle is an event sometimes referred to as the Gwangju Uprising, which took place in 1980. Gwangju is a city in the southwest of the peninsula, and it was the site of an historic moment for which there is a national day of remembrance, May 18th. I mention my desert of knowledge because reading about the Uprising helped me truly appreciate how little I knew, as it’s a gateway to all these other important aspects of South Korean history stretching back to the war.
There was a promise, at the Armistice Agreement which ended the fighting of the Korean War on July 27, 1953, of democracy, that with the support of the Soviet Union, North Korea would become a communist state, and with the support of the U.S., South Korea would become anti-communist. If you want to describe early South Korean government as a democracy, it was a very weak one, characterized by authoritarian rule, the rejection of election results, impeachments, resignations, and that’s just the first guy. Syngman Rhee is the first president of South Korea, and all told, he did better than the first female president of South Korea, who is currently in prison, where she will die. Park Guen-hye was called the “daughter of a dictator,” probably not a term of endearment, and this is a reference to her father, South Korean President Park Chung-hee, mentioned earlier when he was playing with movie theaters. His assassination in 1979 paved the way for an ambitious general named Chun Doo-hwan to take power, which leads us to Gwangju.
Are you shitting me? This uprising we’re talking about wasn’t against Dictator 1, but the Dictator 2 who rose to power when the first guy got knocked off by someone inside the government? Chun’s ascendance was a coup, and that’s what the people of Gwangju stood against. I think they were tired of all this bullshit. So, they broke into stores and police stations and got guns, and they shot it out with special forces in the streets of their city. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people were killed — there is no reliable official death toll. I’ve been calling it the Gwangju Uprising, but another term for it is the Gwangju Massacre, because it didn’t start out with guns. For the people of South Korea at that moment and throughout all the infighting and corruption leading up to it, what was the government? It was backed by the U.S., and indeed, not only did the Korean military employ U.S. tactics in Gwangju, the use of that force against citizens was done with the permission of President Carter, as the situation in Korea looked perilously similar to that takeover of a U.S. embassy in Tehran months earlier. The government was imperial, faceless, and traitorous.
The Gwangju Uprising is cited as the beginning of the end for authoritarian rule in South Korea, daughters of dictators notwithstanding, I suppose. This was the fulfillment of the promise. Now, we as Americans witnessed an election cycle where presidential candidates denied their support for the nation-building mission into Iraq — Operation Iraqi Freedom. Here we are, in 2016, affirming what so many dead critics of the war expended so much 2000s-era poetry and analysis on, the immovable stone underneath which is carved: manifest destiny. After the war, the United States helped support South Korea economically, but it also helped butcher its citizens. And those citizens fought for their freedom, developing a lasting anti-American sentiment along the way. I understand this to be one of many rationales for the epic that is South Korean rage, alongside the anger at Japan for World War II, and the anger at China for supporting the North during the Korean War. But those fronts were largely fought by soldiers, and I think that’s part of what makes Gwangju especially relevant to our question.
The story of the Uprising is one of the everyman grabbing a weapon and taking revenge. And it was ultraviolent, on a level unlike anything we know in the modern US. People burn down a Target here and that’s news, like they could never replace it — these fucking Koreans were burning down police stations. Ultimately, the root of democracy is within the individual — by function, you can’t count on institutions or the authority to curb a goddamn dictatorship. It’s got to be you, and you’ll have to match the violence of authoritarianism as much as an individual can. And so my theory is that that narrative enters into a cultural psyche. It is the narrative of an exchange. This is how you get what you need, maneuver out of the trap, and it’s gonna wreck you. For the American revolutionaries, freedom was also earned in blood, so the difference for South Koreans is that this was the 1980s. People alive right now remember that, including every film director we talked about today. And in the ‘80s, you also saw the government’s efforts to encourage the domestic film scene. The industry opened up in time for these talented filmmakers to tell stories which were likely influenced by very recent history.
With Eyes East
It’s human. It’s the transmission of something so abstract you truly need to develop a new language to communicate it properly. And that’s the point. Film as telepathy, and the message is pain. Maybe it is in the blood, maybe I’m predisposed to empathize with these people, but these movies made me more Korean than my genetic makeup. So, yes, Korean cinema is about more than revenge and violence. I know that, but fuck you. I think for people like me, this is just how our minds work, anyway, that it was important to define a national export. You get kung fu from Hong Kong, you get anime from Japan, you get revenge from Korea. Now we can say “Korean film” and it’s tangible — a Blockbuster Video shelf all to its own in our hearts, where all Blockbusters live. And that’s actually what With Eyes East is about. The mission is simple, as befitting a YouTube channel: to promote Asian cinema and culture. But I look over at Asia and I can’t help but notice that there are countries with no cultural presence in the American mainstream. What was the last Iranian film I saw? Well, they’re out there, and in other countries still, there are filmmakers waiting for their industries to take shape, and historical events have been shaping them toward stories that will resound internationally. And so, part of the mission, part of what I want to know here, is how a national film market develops so that we might one day gain access to it. Revenge is part of the story for South Korea, I believe, and we saw where that story ended, moments before the end of cinema itself. The next Bong Joon-ho is out there somewhere, and I can’t wait to see… how funny they are.
As much as I loved these movies, so much I wanted to share them, in that heyday, I didn’t know how to critically approach them. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the themes of economic inequality and health care didn’t appear to factor into the endgame, and how frustrating is that? These movies are exercises, they’re weapons. The endgame isn’t so simple, nor does it come at the end. I had to arrive at a point where it was okay for me to say that economic inequality and health care were not really themes as I understand that term. I mean, look at these movies, and what stands out? It’s the camera, the violence, the cynicism, the black humor, the authorial presence, and the exchange. That’s what’s sustained me for so many years, and why, to reiterate, I have no more friends. I’m actually gonna give Donovan a call right now. Excuse me.
Choi, Jin-hee. The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs. Wesleyan, 2010.
Havis, Richard James. “Shiri: how 1999 South Korean action blockbuster changed Asian cinema forever.” South China Morning Post.
Park, Moo-jong. “Dispute over ‘screen quota.‘” Korea Times.
Seol, Kap. “The US Didn’t Bring Freedom to South Korea — Its People Did.” Jacobin.
Shorrock, Tim. “The Gwangju Uprising and American Hypocrisy: One Reporter’s Quest for Truth and Justice in Korea.” The Nation.