By JANG Byung-won
‘Cultural discount’ is a concept used as an index for calculating the possibility of cultural exchange between regions. It is believed to indicate the rate of acceptance of a cultural product from a particular region by others. For example, pansori, a traditional Korean folk performance, has a high rate of cultural discount, which means that it is not easily translated or accepted in non-Korean territories. Cultural discount can highlight critical advantages and disadvantages for a cultural product’s possible global market. In the light of cultural discount, the thriller genre has a lower rate than drama or comedy has; meaning, it has a greater possibility to attract more international consumers.
<The Man from Nowhere>
Action and suspense being universal, a fine thriller can cover many different regions and periods, whereas humor is rather bound to its particular locality. It is noteworthy to recall that almost all the Korean filmmakers known internationally after 2000 including BONG Joon-ho, PARK Chan-wook, KIM Jee-woon and NA Hongjin obtained notoriety from one or more thrillers they made.
No one can doubt that it is the thriller that critically transformed the scene of Korean genre cinema since 2000. While thrillers were not highly regarded even a decade ago, it became a leading genre in Korean cinema owing to the remarkable success of gems such as Memories of Murder , Old Boy , Seven Days and The Chaser. Thrillers are at the top of the list for producers and financiers searching for the next project. Domestic theatres have been flooded by thrillers like The Man from Nowhere , Moss, I Saw the Devil and Bedeviled in the Summer of 2010 and there are more on the way including Midnight F.M . and Bloody Innocent . What turned these critically and commercially successful thrillers into a public syndrome and why are people mad about the genre these days?
A Genre of Displeasure and Vengeance
Again, it has not been long since the thriller became a hot potato in Korean cinema. Every particular genre, style or star will finally be noticed only after going through many trials and errors. Even just a few years ago, thrillers were not a hot item for Korean filmmakers, as they required a high standard of story structure that was rarely seen in the Korean film industry back then. Lack of genre literature in Korean also gave thrillers a bad name in cinema. Thrillers were not regarded proper for the domestic market.
If films can be divided into two groups, one of pleasure and the other of displeasure, the former will include comedy, musicals and romance and the latter will be horrors, noirs and thrillers. Of course, a film should not be viewed only through this black and white classification. A thriller can also provide unexpected pleasures, as The Man from Nowhere can. This smash hit from the summer of 2010 made females audience thrilled by watching leading actor WON Bin, a pretty face who became an action hero. Surely, pleasure can come from a cathartic moment when a handsome yet highly moral guy beats up all the vicious villains.
<The Man from Nowhere>
Apart from The Man from Nowhere , other Korean thrillers of the year are clearly bound up with displeasure. Man of Vendetta , Moss , I Saw the Devil and Bedeviled seem to be in competition for exhibiting the most visual brutality. Although the pleasure of genre cinema often depends on shocking images, it is purely orchestrated by genre dynamics for appealing to hardcore genre filmgoers. Most audiences cannot enjoy bloody, cruel images for their own sake. There must be something ‘enjoyable’ beneath these images of cruelty and violence.
Very often, crime thrillers strictly follow rules of genre dynamics. To unfold a good crime thriller, it is very critical to set up the proper procedure from the discovery of a crime and accusation of a criminal to sentencing and punishment, the procedure is actually the core from which pleasure is derived. In fact, the pleasure of watching thrillers lies in the logical reasoning behind the crime and the proper punishment for the criminal. The audience easily takes the place of detective or person wanting vengeance. It is interesting to see that most of the recent Korean thrillers focus on vengeance. In Korean cinema of 2010, the thriller is tantamount to a cinema of vengeance.
<Man of Vendetta>
Let’s cut to the chase. Why vengeance? Film narrative does not just tell a story but sets a frame that an artist can use for sharing attitudes and perspectives on the real world with the audience. In this regard, this particular film narrative of vengeance can lead us to symptomatic readings of Korean society these days. All these films of vengeance show a lonesome protagonist fighting against absolute evil with his bare hands. Evil is embodied in a small town where the vicious logic of power rules (Bedevilled , Moss ), or an underworld of mob business (The Man from Nowhere ), or a psychopathic serial killer (I Saw the Devil , Man of Vendetta ) menaces society. All of these absolute evils cannot be punished by social justice systems like legal systems or political power so protagonists have no choice but to carry a gun or sickle and start their own pursuit of vendetta. Every step of vengeance is entirely a burden on the
Raising Your Rage
These lone crusader, eye-for-eye vengeance dramas affect audiences differently, however. Each film has a different viewpoint even under the same umbrella of genre aesthetics. Moss , I Saw the Devil and Bedeviled never end with a cathartic moment of consummate vengeance; rather all three films emphasize situations where everything is still in confusion and they don’t draw a fine line between good and evil. Based on an original story, Moss , the new film of KANG Woo-suk (Silmido ) places gravity on the chain of dynamics between the dominating and the dominated. Bedeviled is a far-stretched drama of vengeance. Vicious violence and exploitation of a country woman on an isolated island are followed by unbearable scenes of horror when vengeance is delivered. Compared to the films above, Man of Vendetta and The Man from Nowhere seem to be more conventional, yet the two also exist in a blurred area of good and evil. The Man from Nowhere has a conventional and cathartic moment of vengeance brought out by the hero’s unrealistic physical abilities. Yet, the victory of the hero is temporary and partial. Both men of vengeance and the others being punished face nothing but moral panic altogether.
Korean thrillers insinuate social realities by showing the violent world of absolute evil and the cyclical chain of predators and victims. Actually, we all know there is a premise needed for spectacles of vengeance in commercial genre cinema; without a dramatic contextualization of vengeance, its cruelty cannot be justified. There should be something that can justify acts of bloody vengeance such as breaking bones and slashing veins (The Man from Nowhere ), guillotining a man’s head (I Saw The Devil ) and cutting throats with a sickle (Bedeviled ). Justification and the emotional acceleration of a cruel vengeance should be motivated by evil crimes as such. There is a fine balance of cruelty between crime and vengeance. While thrillers get on the fast track, crimes become more vicious and unspeakable. No mercy is shown for the evils ravaging humanity.
<I Saw the Devil>
Through these acts of vengeance, Korean thrillers mirror Korean society allegorically. In this light, Tae-sik, the protagonist of The Man from Nowhere , is a textbook character. He is a perfect hero of vengeance: this invincible man has a heart for others and a rage against injustice, let alone a great-looking face. It is interesting that this man of no flaw is actually a secret agent operative of the government. While the machine of governmental power grows out of control and fights against itself, the absolute power of the state mysteriously vanishes.
A Story of Disconnection in Society
One can read a concern over disconnection throughout Korean society from this oneman hero of vengeance who struggles for justice unassisted by public power. Madness and greed lie beneath the disconnection. Sometimes, state power is described as powerless, or even too ignorant to bring evil to justice and protect people from vicious crimes. Soo-hyen, the protagonist of I Saw the Devil , and Taesik are agents of the National Intelligence Service and Special Operations Forces. They work for the state but they have a somewhat ambivalent stance towards state power. Soo-hyen who becomes an evil himself in order to punish another evil implicates the two sides of state power: it is supposed to protect social justice but it can also give birth to crimes. Tae-sik who represents state power by being a dark warrior in the underworld makes the power itself problematic.
Not much is very different in Man of Vendetta , Moss and Bedeviled . Police are ambushed (Man of Vendetta ), cope with corrupted higher-up figures (Moss ) or are too blinded to see the truth (Bedeviled ). In Bedeviled , a detective comes to the island to investigate the murder of Boknam’s daughter but he’s not capable of seeing what happened and is totally lost, surrounded by the murderer, his accessories and witnesses. State power has nothing to do with solving the problem; it is just useless. This subversive imagination over authority stems from a strong distrust of state power. It is not very difficult to see an island like Bedeviled and an isolated town in Moss as an allegory of the southern half of the Korean peninsula.
These cruel thrillers also share a boldness to capture all the objects and images that were regarded as taboos in commercial films. Tossing away the safety net, these filmmakers prefer to take risks by showing radical, controversial and provocative elements on screen. It is not difficult to see kidnapping, obscenity, body mutilation, sexual violence against women, incest and pedophilia in contemporary Korean thrillers and cinematic expressions of these taboos continuously make a buzz. I Saw the Devil , a multi-million dollar film, had received a “restricted” rating from the Korea Media Rating Board, meaning the film practically could not be released. Even when re-edited for wide release, the film shows never-seen-before scenes of brutal images.
It seems to be apparent why such visual brutality is on the increase in Korean thrillers. We cannot but admit that we live in a time of emotional roughness, injustice, indifference and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. No film is scarier than reality. Crimes become more uncontrollable and brutal; cruelty and its victims are everywhere. Nothing can secure our wellness in this cold, cruel world.