Warrior Seoul: A Korean Cinema Primer

ManArchy Magazine, Aug. 8, 2012


They took your girl, man. Your girl. Her creamy skin and wistful smile now rendered only in flashbacks as those foul-breath motherfuckers are certainly committing acts of depravity against her will—if she’s still alive at all. Even if she’s not.

Or maybe it was your freedom they stole. Faceless captors locking you away in some windowless room for who-knows-how-long, your memories and timeframes all collapsing on one another, emaciated both in body and mind.

Definitely your dignity. Whether your nemeses are mobsters or bankers, they will humiliate you. Emasculate you. The ordeal to reclaim it will leave you but a shell of a man. So … whatcha gonna do about it?

You’re an ordinary Joe (or Min-Jun) who’s made some mistakes in a checkered past. Now, just when you’ve atoned and begun piecing your life back together, this shit happens. But oh, are you resourceful. You can embed yourself with the criminal underworld. Track down witnesses. Intimidate. Pick off conspirators one by one with improvised weapons and some rudimentary martial arts until you come face to face with the ultimate evil, both of you drained and bloody. As if you have anything else left to live for, anyway.

Welcome to Korean noir.

Of course, not all modern Korean films are revenge-fueled. Just the best ones. I’ll get you hooked with some gateway-drug-to-the-Orient films across multiple genres, and then you can expand your junkie horizons on your own time. First, we’ll tie off with the master, Park Chan-wook, creator of the so-called “Vengeance Trilogy.”


1) Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

I recommend beginning with Oldboy. It’s the most visually-stylish of the three, with great action, a tortured performance from the lead, and some imagery that will haunt you. Ever seen a man eat a live squid? Yeah. This one’s actually a double-revenge tragedy with a twist so sick, I’m still grinning typing this 10 years later.

Though the plots are unconnected, the other two films approach the theme from different angles. Mr. Vengeance seeks revenge after a failed black-market kidney deal he arranged for his sister, but leaves innocent casualties in his wake, bringing others’ vengeance upon himself. And Lady Vengeance, though less intense, is still quite violent, and actually more about redemption, which manifests from an unexpected place. All three films rely on a bit of irony, and feature some very clever transitional compositing effects.


2) I Saw the Devil

Perhaps the most popular export on this list, the film stars the same actor as Oldboy’s protagonist, in a role reversal. This could pass for a fourth film in the Vengeance, um … trilogy. Less stylish, though equally gruesome, it’s about the monster one becomes when driven by unflinching revenge. A murdered girl’s fiancé tracks down his love’s killer, surveilling him, and spends most of the film slowly torturing the murderer in a series of escalating encounters. Until of course the tables inevitably turn.


3) The Yellow Sea  

A destitute man accepts and botches an amateur assassination job, gets in way over his head with powerful figures, and next thing you know, all the heavies turn against one another, as well as this poor guy, in a game of last man standing. He just wanted to find out what happened to his missing wife who’d taken an out-of-town job to earn some extra scratch. The main villain is especially well-developed, exhibiting flaws and humanity in equal measure with his bad-assery.

Something I love about many of these films is the relative absence of guns. It forces the action into closer quarters, and the characters get creative with their instruments of choice. In this one, our guy totes a kitchen knife for most of the film, and one scene even features a large post-meal animal bone used as a bludgeon. When a gun finally is drawn—by a cop—his ineptitude with the weapon becomes apparent. Similarly, these films often portray how truly difficult it can be to snuff a person’s final breath. We’re tenacious in our will to live.


4) The Man From Nowhere

Similar to I Saw the Devil (same director), though more commercial, more action-hero, with a high body count. A former black-ops agent in hiding is extorted into becoming a drug mule to save his only friend from a kidnapping/organ-harvesting ring. She’s the junkie neighbor’s orphaned daughter, and will break your heart. Awesome knife fights, and even a few laughs, as one man takes on criminals and police alike.


5) Thirst

This is what you’d call “high concept”: What happens when a priest becomes vampyr? Our masochistic man of the cloth goes to great lengths staving off the urge to kill for his bloodlust, but finds his morality compromised by a manipulative love interest. Foreign or domestic, this one takes its place near the top of my favorite fanger films. No surprise, it’s directed by Chan-wook. Gorgeous cinematography, unpredictable plotting, and even a bit silly, especially the second half.


6) Joint Security Area (J.S.A.)

It’s about the awkward, budding, and ultimately tragic relationships forged between groups of border guards on opposite sides of the DMZ that separates North and South Korea. The sides are forbidden from communicating with one another, but are entrenched in a murder investigation that connects them. Well-crafted, with excellent acting and humanity.


7) Save the Green Planet!

Batshit hilarious, dark, and tons of fun, even while it’s lifting ideas from several other films. A paranoiac kidnaps a corporate fat cat in an effort to avoid what he believes is an impending alien invasion. I mentioned he was paranoid, right? Things go horribly wrong as the balance of power with his hostage shifts repeatedly. It reminded me a bit of a Takeshi Miike’s work, though far more palatable for your average viewer.


8) The Host

I’m not usually a monster-movie fan, and this one had some predictable spots, but it was overcome by quirk and humor, good characterizations, plus some cool CGI. The U.S. trailer is misleading, marketed as horror, so instead I posted a scene that captures the film’s tone.


Note: watch with subtitles whenever possible, not an English dub. The performances in these films are so emotionally gut-wrenching, you’ll want to experience the full scope of their casts’ abilities. All of these titles can be found on Netflix.