Over the past decade or so, I’ve probably watched more movies from North and South Korea than any region outside the U.S. This is not on purpose. By no stretch am I a Koreaphile. After all, the only words I know in Korean are bulgogi, banchan and kimchi. “Bulgogi,” as defined by Merriam-Webster’s, is the kind of meat I like at the Korean joint. “Banchan” is all that delicious free shit that comes with the bulgogi. And kimchi, which gets served as part of the banchan before the bulgogi, is, of course, kimchi.
Now that we’ve been through this history lesson, I’ll get to a new word that speaks more specifically to the films I’m about to recommend. That word is “Han.” The problem with discussing “Han,” in my limited research, is that it has no English equivalent.
The great theologian Suh Nam-dong, whose work is rivaled in my intellectual storehouse only by my knowledge of the Korean language, defines Han as a “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.” Wait, I think we do have a word for that: “Coldplay.”
I bring up Han because it speaks in many ways to every Korean film I’ve seen. And even if you’ve only seen a few Korean movies, you’ve probably been dosed with the Han as well.
If one Korean film comes to mind for people who like the film genres I discuss on this blog, chances are its Oldboy (2003 original—not the bland remake starring Brolin and the Olsen Twins’ hot younger sister. If that was a “Spike Lee joint,” then dude must be rolling oregano into his Rizlas).
I apologize if I’m misappropriating the term Han, but it would appear that many of the primary themes in Oldboy—vengeance, gut-wrenching pain and helplessness—are all part of it. And so it is with every other movie I’ve seen by the masterful South Korean director Park Chan-wook, whose Vengeance Trilogy was my gateway into Korean cinema.
These movies are pretty much as grim, savage and unapologetically violent as anything this side of a snuff film. Chan-wook summons narratives straight from hell and puzzles them together in maniacal symphonies. His photography and imagery are stunning, and his actors constantly deliver riveting performances. In short, these are magnificent films—they’re just completely fucking sick and twisted.
This brand of Han-inspired horror seems to be a prevailing theme in Korean thrillers. Directors such as Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Mother) and Kim-jee Woon (I Saw the Devil) have employed the same grotesque violence and soul-shattering bleakness to similar degrees of cinematic success. In all, this recent Korean horror-thriller-Han movement can perhaps be best described as the eloquent, sophisticated cousin of “torture porn” (or whatever you want to call that Saw and Hostel stuff.)
If you’ve got the stomach for it and aren’t scared away by subtitles, there is a treasure trove of evil to access via the lands of Kim Jong-il and Psy.
Let’s start with a few of my favorite South Korean flicks on Netflix Instant (consider this Part One in a series):
I Saw the Devil
You might recognize the bloody visage above as that of Choi Min-sik, the South Korean A-lister who starred in Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. In I Saw the Devil, Min-sik plays Kyung-chul, a psychopathic murderer who berates his victims in a cavalier tone as he goes to town on them with all manner of blunt objects.
The film’s first sequence opens in true slasher form, as a beautiful woman sits in her car in a desolate rural area, waiting for roadside assistance to fix a flat tire. Before the tow truck can get there, a school bus driver stops by and offers to give a hand. Within a matter of minutes, we’re introduced a villain who gives Hannibal Lecter a run for his money.
After this grim opener, what follows is two-plus hours of the most diabolical, depraved Han. Kim Soo-hyeon, the fiancee of one of Kyung-chul’s victims, happens to be a trained special agent. He uses his investigative wiles to track down the killer, and engages in a carnage-riddled game of cat and mouse, wherein the hunter becomes the hunted. Soo-hyeon’s mission is to inflict as much pain on Kyung-chul as possible before killing him. But someone should have told him that its much safer to bludgeon the devil to death than to dance with him.
I’ll leave any further details of the narrative to the viewer. But one scene that really stands out is an impromptu dinner party at the house of Kyung-chul’s cannibal buddy. The flesh-eater is one of those grimly goofy caricatures that these films tend to rely on for comic relief. He fiendishly chuckles and cries as he feasts on some raw, human bulgogi complemented by a mean banchan spread.
I Saw the Devil is most definitely not for the faint of heart. This is some bleak, sick shit that makes Silence of the Lambs look like CSI: Miami. The story is superbly woven and gets bleaker with each step (and Devil‘s narrative is also much less muddled than some of Chan-wook’s stuff). Director Kim-jee Woon’s film is also beautifully photographed, almost to the point where you wonder how something so unabashedly gruesome could be so aesthetically appeasing. The crowning achievement, however, is Choi Min-sik’s portrayal of the homicidal maniac. The man is simply a fantastic actor (no wonder Hollywood recently tapped him for the big-budget Luc Besson flick Lucy).
If you can stomach suspense with a hefty dose of ultra-violent horror, I Saw the Devil is one of the best thrillers you’ll find on Netflix Instant.
GRADE: A- / A
The Man from Nowhere
Despite featuring a main theme of child-organ harvesting, The Man from Nowhere is actually pretty tame when it comes to bleak, Korean thrillers. This relative tameness is mainly because when a guy is maimed with a hatchet or immolated via a jerry-rigged propane-to-gas-lamp device, we don’t get a prolonged shot of his head being split in half or his body burning as he wails in pain. Somewhere, Park Chan-wook is shaking his head.
The Man from Nowhere begins with a drug-bust sequence where the estranged Korean cousin of Game of Thrones‘ The Mountain is ambushed at a nightclub. Amidst the shattering of tables and bottles, a junkie prostitute manages to sneak off with a brick of heroin.
Fast forward to an apartment building where the junkie lives with her young daughter. Here we meet our protagonist, a brooding man who lives in the building and runs some sort of pawnshop. He doesn’t say much at first. He mostly just mopes around, looking like a K-Pop heartthrob who can’t bear the weight of the world.
Much to the chagrin of junkie mom, the man strikes up a friendship with the daughter, a bullied loner nicknamed Garbage. “Pawnshop Ghost and Garbage,” she says to him of their monikers. “Sounds like a rock band, doesn’t it?”
The close tie between the two becomes the reason Pawnshop Ghost breaks out of his gloomy shell and emerges as the Korean Jason Bourne. To keep spoilers to a minimum, Garbage gets in trouble, and Pawnshop Ghost is the only man who can save her (think Taken, but with much prettier male hair).
What ensues is a grim, fast-paced action-thriller that toes the line between mayhem and melodrama. And our man proves that he will go to any length to exact revenge. He eventually goes so far as cutting his hair, which defeated my theory that the final twist to this film was gonna be that Pawnshop Ghost is actually a modern-day Samson.
As in most dark Korean films, there’s an array of oddball villains and inept cops who often serve as comic relief. One of the most effective of these is the devilish Jong-seok, an androgynous crime boss who deals in kidnapping and organ harvesting. He’s really fucking creepy, and like our protagonist, doesn’t seem to realize that bangs covering his eyes might be a hinderance to his ability to fight or operate a vehicle.
The Man from Nowhere excels as both an action-packed thriller and a dark drama that has a little more heart than what Park Chan-wook fans might be accustomed to (or at least a little more still-beating heart). This movie is also a lot more accessible to your casual American viewer than other Korean organ-harvesting gems like Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
My only reservation with this film is that while the relationship between Pawnshop Ghost and Garbage is certainly moving (and the child actress is fantastic), this connection is also used as a platform for a level of melodrama that verges on sappy. I understand that this smarmy, emo shit is a trait inherent to many forms of Korean entertainment, but personally I prefer my Han served a little less soap opera. Still, bolstered by a compelling narrative and incredible fight scenes, The Man from Nowhere emerges as one of the stronger films in this genre of dark, Korean thrillers.
GRADE: B+ / A-
Note: All three films in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy are available on Netflix Instant. If you’re interested in this post and haven’t seen Oldboy, check that out before you watch either of the films I’ve recommended. It’s the gold standard—I just assume that most folks reading this blog have seen it.