There are a lot of distinctive differences between Asian and American films, which is generally why we like them. Some of the differences are just straight about quality in the sense of being better: They are more aesthetically shot, for example. They are not self-loathing (Koreans and Chinese are proud to be Korean and Chinese, warts and all). They’re less likely to feel safe or by-the-numbers. But, of course, some of the differences are about quality in the sense of being different. Other cultures of course have their own tropes, styles and even genres. Think of the scary-spooky-little-girl horror sub-genre, for example.
The Koreans have a distinct revenge genre. American revenge movies are meant to be cathartic: You are supposed to cheer, after a fashion, when the good guy takes the bad guy out. This is not my favorite genre. I don’t really identify with Paul Kersey—at least not Charles Bronson’s Kersey—and I always felt like the 1974 Death Wish was exploiting the sensational brutality of the crimes. (The current one not so much.) I enjoyed Death Warrant but more for Kevin Bacon’s portrayal of obsession (he was great in Stir of Echoes, too) and its destructive effects than for any presumed catharsis. But the thing about the American revenge flick is that it is supposed to be, after a fashion, fun.
Not so the Korean revenge flick. At least I hope not. The Koreans, when they make a revenge picture, they are going to instruct you fully on the destructiveness of pursuing revenge. Justice, such as it is, does not focus narrowly on ne’er-do-wells like a sniper’s rifle. Oh, no. Revenge is more like a bomb that doesn’t just blow up large areas of space—it blows up large areas of time. A most famous example of this is Oldboy, which was famous/notorious enough to get an English-language remake by Spike Lee (!) and starring Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen. (This remake did about $2M on a $30M budget.)
Seven Years of Night is a revenge story in that model. The movie opens with a young man visiting his father in jail. The father has been accused of murder and then also mass murder and he is to be put to death on this day. His son is none to happy with him, to say the least.
Flashback to our hero—this would be the mass murderer, so let’s call him the protagonist—driving down a lonesome rural road to look at some kind of house/job situation. He’s drunk and his shrewish wife is raking him over the coals because he’s so late (he got drunk before going out to see this house) when this psychotic rich freak blocks his way on the road. Psycho guy is driving slow because he’s busy on the phone with his wife, issuing not-really-veiled threats to murder her. He waves drunk protagonist to pass him and then blocks him, tries to run him off the road and generally convince the audience that he’s a psycho. Because of this the protagonist misses his turn-off.
Psycho guy goes home and beats his seven year old daughter for talking to her mother and using her makeup and whatever other reason he contrives. She escapes from him and runs through the woods. He chases her. Then she runs out into the road and the protagonist hits her with his car.
Psycho guy then spends the next seven years trying to destroy him.
You might be tempted to draw good-and-evil lines around Protagonist and Psycho (I was) but while the movie has no problem reaffirming that the Psycho is generally psycho—even his moment of sentimentality is utterly detached from reality—the protagonist is much, much worse than we originally realize. The amazing aspect of this movie is that it begs forgiveness even as it shows us the protagonist make bad choice after bad choice. It’s challenging. We’re clearly in the position of the son trying to understand his murderous father.
The Boy liked it more than I did, but we both liked it quite a bit. There is some great photography, as always, as the Koreans don’t seem to feel the need to make a movie about ugly things itself ugly. The shots are stark, and spooky enough that you wonder if the movie’s going to go horror. (There is a ghost, but a feature of Asian movies is that the presence of ghosts means nothing more than it does in Shakespeare. They’re just…around.)
We were not disappointed, and the next movie would be even better—and completely different.