In May of 2004, I happened upon the trailer for Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy after its Grand Prix win in Cannes. Were it not for Farhenheit 911, it may've taken the Palme d'Or - and - were it not for Tarantino, it likely would not have taken anything at all.
Oldboy would open in limited release in 25 theatres in all of North America. One of these theatres was in Seattle. My best friend was going to university there at the time, and I immediately booked the 4 hour trip. Let's call it my "coming of age" weekend where cinema is concerned. There was my outlook on the world of film before that fateful weekend, and my life after. It became my filmmaking bible. To this day, (for my money) Oldboy remains technically, stylistically, and narratively flawless. It is exactly the kind of film I dreamed of making myself one day, and somebody else made it. Perfectly. There was a moment of trepidation with that thought - as in - why bother trying to make anything when your personal golden standard has been so soundly and convincingly met by another? At this point, all I can do is aspire to even half of Oldboy's mastery of storytelling and visual bliss. No, this is not a paid advertisement.
This also propelled me into the world of South Korean cinema, a subject I was only topically versed in at the time. These days, I am quite discerning with how I allot my viewing hours, but I'll still watch anything Korean you put in front of me, be it a drama, thriller, comedy, or the occasional TV series. The quality wavers dramatically, but there is a soft spot in my heart for even the worst of Korea's cinematic efforts. My adoration for this particular culture and its manifestation on screen is rarely shaken.
A clear favorite? Korea's crime thrillers. These are tightly intertwined with the sub-genre of "revenge flicks," and no one does revenge plots better than Korea. However, for fear of limiting myself and leaving a few gems off the list as they aren't necessarily weaving webs of vengeance, I decided to round them all out as general crime thrillers.
Regardless, the common denominator is the protagonist's search for truth. Some practice extreme revenge to get it, and others are kinder to the enemy in their pursuit.
I'm tempted to go full throttle film theorist here, but will refrain and stick to the basics. The gist of the matter is, films don't exist in a vacuum and are a product of cultural, social, political, and economic circumstance. In other words, whether it is dealing with historical trauma, or tackling the current national climate, even the most uninspired, cliched popcorn film at your local multiplex unwittingly serves as social commentary.
What is this sudden surge of millennium crime thrillers with themes of everyman-cum-avenger saying about the present state of South Korea? The most simplistic analysis yields issues of national trauma after a long and turbulent road to achieving democracy. A deeper look reveals an inferiority complex from living in China's shadow, the constant question mark that is the North, the presence of American military bases, anger at the prevalent high level business corruption, and the utter ineffectiveness of police forces on a catastrophically national scale. All this and more manifests itself in the protagonist's need to restore social order by any means necessary. Their actions often become at least partially justifiable even if they turn heroes into the very grotesque creatures they are trying to purge, and the audience continues to root for them. There are many more films fitting this bill, but here is a vetted list of the works I feel are the cream of the crop and are worth looking at first.
1. I SAW THE DEVIL (2010)
Quintessential revenge flick of a husband searching for his wife's brutal killer whilst morphing into a monster himself. Aside from a gripping plot with a twist at every turn, it's a stylistic feast for your eyes.
2. THE CHASER (2008)
A chilling tale of a sadistic serial killer targeting prostitutes while a cat and mouse game ensues with the always incompetent police detectives and the sympathetic pimp who goes far and wide to find his missing "property." Gritty. Unforgiving. And, certainly, not for the faint of heart.
Held captive for 15 years, a man is suddenly released without the slightest explanation of why. He must dig deep into his past to find not just his captor, but the reason for his imprisonment. Brilliant storytelling supplemented by a rich palette of visually striking compositions.
A hopeless crime drama about the country's first known serial murders of the 1980s. There's something quite dispiriting about the tone & I think it may be with this one that the "crime thriller renaissance" really started.
A little kid is snatched up as ransom after a scuffle with the mob, and a seemingly meek shut-in goes on a vengeful rampage to get back the one person he finally bonded with. Martial arts kicks this one into high gear.
A mix of police, the South Korean mafia, and some Chinese Triads. Everyone is looking for the same down-in-the-dumps taxi driver after he botches an expensive hit for a local gangster, but all he is looking for is his long disappeared wife.
7. MOTHER (2009)
A widow hunts for the real killer of a local schoolgirl after her mentally disabled son is framed for the murder. Simmering mystery is complemented by stunning cinematography.
8. BEDEVILLED (2010)
Stranded on a remote island, the sickle is a powerful revenge weapon for a woman scorned. That's all I'm going to say about this little film.
9. A BITTERSWEET LIFE (2005)
A hyper-violent look at the inner workings of the Korean mob ring and how its code of mafia ethics clashes with the shifting moral identity of one mobster after he deviates from his boss's orders. Once again, the film benefits greatly from a distinctive and gorgeous visual aesthetic.
A talent agent loses his mobile holding career ending evidence for his young starlet. The ordinary store clerk who finds it begins a vicious game of blackmail & violence.
11. A COMPANY MAN (2012)
A spry hitman becomes the target of a handful of former employers who don't take lightly his sudden leave of absence from the business after he falls in love with a single mother.
A ruthless loan shark is contacted and followed around by a mysterious woman claiming to be his long lost mother. This one is a real doozy on the scale of controversy and gratuitous, almost unbearable violence. Not many will get past that fact in order to "get" the message. Watch at your own risk. I mean it.
13. SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (2002) & LADY VENGEANCE (2005)
These bookends to Oldboy complete Park's famed "vengeance trilogy."
For anyone using a subscription service,
most of these are on Netflix Streaming & Amazon Instant.