Revenge is one of the big trends in Korean cinema. In previous decades, the inclination of the market to produce gory thrilling movies about vengeance has triumphed to capturing a great part of the Asian world and international audiences as well.
The rising popularity of South Korean cinema is no coincidence. The visceral way to portrait murder versus the morals behind those actions allows for empathizing and even justifying a character’s life decision. That double standard is the very contradiction of human nature.
There is a dark side in every one of us. Whether we want to admit it or not, vengeance is a feeling we can relate to. But what happens when you get what you desire and it’s not enough anymore? When you cross a line and it cannot be drawn again? When you become the orchestrator of your own destruction?
Such is the motivation of some characters in South Korean films whose search for revenge is very tight to a sort of righteousness behind his or her actions, no matter how extreme the consequences might be. In order to restore balance they must accomplish their vengeance to be able to transcend to a new level of existence.
In the list below are the finest examples of “revenge cinema” of South Korea with great names such as Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk, Jee-woon Kim, Bong Joon-ho, among others. All succeeded in creating believable stories full of drama that go straight to the human core, and where the ultimate quest for vengeance will force them to confront their own demons: once a killer, always a killer.
10. Bad Guy
The premise of this film is born from a man’s obsession for a young woman, which pushes him to abduct her and force her into prostitution in a very dangerous game. “Bad Guy” is a sort of chauvinistic allegory into many Asian men’s fixation on elevating themselves over the opposite sex, even if that implies submitting women against their will.
Han-ki is a street pimp who one day comes across with a pretty and privileged college girl, Sun-hwa; he sits next to her on a bench where the girl waits for her boyfriend. As she pretends to ignore him, Han-ki’s attraction grows. So, when her boyfriend actually arrives, the man jumps and forces a kiss on Sun-hwa who desperately tries to avoid it.
Eventually some soldiers come to action and separate the man from Sun-hwa who spits right on his face as a repulsion gesture and a sort of goodbye. Little did she know that this was far from being the end; that was just the opening to a relationship waiting to take a startling twist.
It is no coincidence that director Kim Ki-duk made it twice on the list with “Bad Guy” and “Pietá”. He is an excellent example of modern Korean cinema and elevates through his works complex themes as society, morals, violence, hate, love, sex and humanity in general.
9. The Yellow Sea
“The Yellow Sea” is a very intense crime drama that centers on the life of Gu-nam, a taxi driver in Yanji City, a region between North Korea, China and Russia. He has lost everything gambling and now he is in serious debt.
As result of this, his wife goes to Korea in order to earn money and send it back, but he does not hear from her again. From then on, his life only gets worse until one day he meets a hit man who proposes a simple “job” to repay his debt and recover his wife.
“The Yellow Sea” is an excellent, high adrenaline and suspenseful movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.
8. Secret Sunshine
This movie does not have an obvious quest for revenge, but it centers on the need of a mother to get even at someone after all the pain and grief she’s experienced in her life. In her way to recover from loss, she will find God but none of her prayers will find answers, which leads her to a bittersweet feeling of vengeance to something greater than her.
The story opens up with Lee Shin-ae who, after the death of her husband, decides to move with her only child to the small town of Miryang. Along the way she will find a mechanic named Kim Jong-chan that will help her fix her broken car, and soon they will build up some sort of relationship. Everything seems to be going good until Lee Shin-ae’s son is kidnapped one day and an ocean of tragedies push the woman to the limit of reason.
A very, very dramatic film and unconventional choice but serves for the same quest and the necessity of getting even at someone to forget a major loss.
7. A Bittersweet Life
Kim Sun-woo works for Kang, the crime boss of a Korean gangster organization, and for whom he feels great respect and unquestionable loyalty. He is a cold and distant man and has no real contact to the world outside his job.
However, his humanity will be put to the test when his boss asks him to watch over his young mistress and to prove if she is having an affair, in which case he is ordered to kill her. But Sun-woo’s duty gets compromised when his feelings enter in the game, and clouded with emotion, he hesitates on report to Kang after he comes to discovers Hee-soo’s lover in her own home.
Afterwards, Sun-woo is captured by a group who he initially thinks are commanded by one of his enemies, Mr. Baek, but he soon discovers that his own boss, Kang, is the one who sent them. From that point on, he is submitted to a spiral of brutality, violence and torture that will not only take his hand away but his very perception of the world he has been living all of those years.
“A Bittersweet Life” is a hypnotic and intriguing film that captures the imagination from start to end. After the amazing “Tale of Two Sisters”, this is a very solid work in Kim Jee-woon’s career, full of action and thrilling moments.
The story follows two women, Hae Won and Bok Nam, who after years of separation reunite again when Hae Won decides to go to the island of Moo Doo for vacations.
Eventually, Bok Nam shares with her friend her intention to leave with her daughter in order to escape from the abuse she has received along the years from everyone around her. But her friend refuses to get involved and somehow blames her for her circumstances. As Bok Nam intends to make her plan work, a dramatic change of events pushes her to take sickle and finally take vengeance on her hands.
There is a consequentialist standpoint on this film that elevates the premise of the ends justify the means. The rightness or wrongness of Bok Nam’s actions is subjective and associated with the moral perspective of society in severe circumstances: an extreme situation calls for extreme measures.