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Ko - production in Busan
  • Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Korean
  • by Pierce Conran /  Sep 27, 2021
  • Past and Present Vendettas on Korean Screens 



    Along with romance, revenge is about as a universal theme as you are likely to find in cinema. It has been a fixture of every type of storytelling since the dawn of time, one that readers, listeners and viewers have never gotten tired of. And yet, at the mention of ‘Korean revenge drama’ film fans will immediately conjure up a very particular film style.


    Just as elsewhere, revenge stories have always existed in Korean cinema but the Korean revenge drama which has been popularized around the world came to international prominence when Park Chanwook’s seminal Old Boy exploded onto the scene, first pulverizing local audiences through its October 2003 domestic release and then creeping up on unsuspecting viewers at the Cannes Film Festival, including that year’s Jury President Quentin Tarantino, the following spring when it won the Grand Prix there.


    Old Boy (2003) 


    Old Boy drew attention to the whole Korean film industry but particularly to a specific breed of stylized and often violent thrillers that were frequently built around the theme of revenge. At the expense of the expressive melodramas and thoughtful arthouse films that the industry was also regularly churning out, these dark and slick thrillers and horror films came to symbolize a resurgent national cinema in the eyes of foreign viewers.


    Director Park had actually gotten the ball rolling for this breed of cinema a year earlier with his vicious drama Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, kicking off a thematic trio of films that would come to simply be known as the ‘Vengeance Trilogy’, culminating with the lush and vivid Lady Vengeance in 2005.



    I Saw the Devil (2010)


    Around Director Park, other emerging filmmakers were also signing their names to revenge-fueled narratives, such as Jang Joonhwan, with the deliriously inventive SF-horror-thriller Save the Green Planet (2003), and Kim Jeewoon, who made the effortlessly cool gangster revenge saga A Bittersweet Life in 2005, in the process turning Lee Byunghun into one of the faces that would come to be most associated with revenge films. Over the years the subgenre has remained at the forefront of the broader realm of thrillers, an evergreen genre that never fails to attract local crowds.


    Kim Jeewoon doubled down on revenge with his brutal and brilliant I Saw the Devil in 2010, once again with Lee Byunghun, the same year that Won Bin sliced and stabbed his way into movie history with the smash hit The Man from Nowhere. 2010 also gave us another seminal example of the genre, Jang Cheolsoo’s ferocious island tale Bedevilled.


    Over the last decade, notable cinematic sagas of retribution have included Jung Byunggil’s high octane action-thriller Confession of Murder (2012), the pulpy webtoon adaption The Five (2013), and the hit Inside Men (2015), featuring another memorable performance by Lee Byunghun.


    Hard Hit, On the Line 


    Fast forward to 2021, and the theme shows absolutely no signs of dying down. Among the few commercial films released this year, as the raging pandemic continues to delay theatrical releases, many of the most notable titles were also built around themes of vengeance. These have included the ticking clock car bomb thriller Hard Hit, and this month’s gritty voice phishing thriller On the Line.


    Revenge used to be the exclusive domain of films, but as TV dramas have grown more global and sophisticated, the theme has also seeped into screen narratives, to the point that these days it’s the main hook for a significant amount of Korea’s top-top-rated shows. This year alone, small screen vendetta-driven hits have included Vincenzo starring Song Joongki, Taxi Driver with Lee Jehoon, and The Devil Judge featuring Ji Sung, all playing suave vigilantes avenging the masses wronged by the corrupt power brokers of society. Next month, Netflix will launch its own vengeance-themed drama, My Name starring Han Sohee. 


    Parsing through the release calendar of any year over the past two dozen will yield a vast number of revenge dramas, but what is it that makes Korea’s revenge films so compelling and so enduring, both for local and foreign viewers?


    One of the reasons modern Korean cinema has been so popular in general is how successful it has been at engaging with its complicated modern history, which has included being a colonized nation before splitting into two nations, enduring a Korean War, and evolving through several authoritarian regimes.


    Revenge narratives have been an effective way of focusing the repressed rage of society as audiences follow protagonists they are deeply able to identify as they engage in their bloody vendettas before reaching violent but often cathartic endpoints.


    Though foreign viewers may have had little foreknowledge of Korea’s complicated modern history, even for the uninitiated, these savage tales feel grounded in something that is real. Rather than gratuitous, the violence carries thematic weight and is coupled with the rich characterizations that draw out our empathy. 


    The Villainess (2017) 


    Not only are foreign viewers hooked on Korean revenge dramas, but Hollywood itself has also been inspired. Spike Lee remade Old Boy with Josh Brolin in 2013, but while that wasn’t well-received, the hugely popular John Wick franchise also owes several debts to Korean cinema. Keanu Reeves’ besuited protagonist calls to mind The Man from Nowhere, while one of the biggest set-pieces in the recent third installment, involving black-clad bikers dueling with swords during a chase, is a clear nod to Jung Byunggil’s The Villainess with Kim Okvin, a film which is currently being adapted as an American series.


    Speaking of The Villainess, these days, we are seeing more and more compelling stories of women taking matters into their own hands and rebelling against a staunchly patriarchal society. The image of the female vigilante first burst onto the scene in 2005, a year which welcomed the double whammy of Park Chanwook’s Lady Vengeance, starring Lee Youngae, and Princess Aurora, the directorial debut of actress Bang Eunjin, featuring Uhm Jeonghwa as a mother avenging the death of her child.


    Bedevilled (2010) 


    Bedevilled, starring Seo Yeounghee as a woman abused by her husband and the rest of the residents of a small island who snaps and goes on a murder spree, was a memorable film that worked precisely because it tapped into fiercely patriarchal aspects of Korean society.


    Since then, other films have presented unique spins on women rebelling against figures that symbolize the extant oppression of women in the country. These have included Lee Kyoungmi’s The Truth Beneath (2016) with Son Yejin, the aforementioned action film The Villainess, the grungy indie No Mercy (2019) with Lee Siyoung, and the forthcoming limited series My Name.


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