1. Confessions/”Kokuhaku” (2010)
Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Writers: Kanae Minato (Novel), Tetsuya Nakashima (screenplay)
Stars: Takako Matsu, Yoshino Kimura, Masaki Okada
On her last day of work, a high school teacher declares that she will be quitting her job in order to avenge the death of her daughter. She reveals her shocking plan early on, but she takes everyone through a mind-numbing maze of trickery and deceit until her final move. She is largely absent from the screen throughout the film, and the story is told from the point of view of the characters believed to be involved in her daughter’s death. But in this collection of confessions, her presence keeps lurking in the shadows.
The film raises some grave questions about morality and justice. What makes one evil? When is one responsible for his actions and when is he a mere consequence of society’s ignorance? In the game of revenge, who is good and who is bad? I love this film not only for the magnificent cinematography, the eerie melancholy, and the sophistication of the revenge plan, but also for its inquisitiveness. It’s hard to watch this movie without questioning your own morality. Who would you root for? With whom do you sympathize? Why?
Confessions is a disturbing piece of cinema, but it is rightfully so. It will require an active viewer with a strong heart, but whether you become depressed or disgusted because of how the story goes, you’d have already seen an incredibly-shot film that unbelievably makes the sickest of stories look beautiful.
2. Oldboy/”Oldeuboi” (2003)
Director: Chan-wook Park
Writers: Garon Tsuchiya (story), Nobuaki Minegishi (comic)
Stars: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang
I didn’t see this movie in its entirety. I only caught the latter half of it on TV. Though I did see it twice, I never managed to see it from the beginning. The subtitles were also hardly readable and I was on my laptop so I barely understood the movie when I first saw it. But by the second time, the plan and the motive became clear-cut even if it wasn’t explicitly stated (and yes, still with crappy subtitles). And it’s what I like about this movie. It makes you think, yes, but the visuals are used very well that you can still understand the story even if you don’t follow the subtitles. What matters is you look very closely. It’s all in the images.
Now, this isn’t really a proper review. I don’t think I can say much about Oldboy without spoiling anything, because seeing the latter half makes it practically spoiled for me too. But I have to say, the cinematography is rich with grit. Min-sik Choi’s performance blew me away (it’s fascinating watching him as a good guy after seeing him in “I Saw the Devil,” which is the next on this list). The action, man, the action is so well-played. It’s not completely realistic (nothing compares to “The Chaser” in the fight scene realism department so far), but it’s far from the staged Hollywood choreography. Everyone actually gets tired and takes a pause to catch their breath. It’s equal parts humorous and exciting.
As for the topic of vengeance, let’s just say its genius can drive anyone mad.
P.S. I haven’t seen the remake, but just from the trailer, I doubt it lives up to the original. Just see this one instead.
3. I Saw the Devil/”Akmareul boatda” (2010)
Director: Kim Jee-Woon
Writer: Hoon-jung Park
Stars: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, In-seo Kim
I know, I know, this is supposed to be a recommendations list. But that doesn’t mean every movie here is going to be perfect. Yes, its IMDB ranking is 7.8 and it’s 80% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, so you can choose not to take my word for it. I mean, who am I right? But I guess I’ve just seen too much Cinema Sins lately (check their awesome channel here), that I couldn’t stop counting all the flaws from the very beginning. There were plot holes (the villain knowing certain things he had no way to find out), cliches (I actually started naming cliches in the voice of the Cinema Sins narrator), and the absolute perfection of the protagonist.
"I Saw the Devil" is the usual revenge film told from the point of view of the "good guy." But what sets it apart from other movies of the genre is the good guy is far from powerless. It’s the kind of revenge film where you who sympathize with the protagonist can get satisfaction from seeing justice getting served, over and over again. But I think Kim Soo-hyeon is too static. He has the upper hand, being a seasoned secret agent and we can say, "Yeah! For once it’s the bad guy getting his ass kicked." But as the protagonist, he hardly has any trouble achieving his goal. Almost everything just works for him. As the story progresses, there are minor setbacks, and in the end, he has to learn the lesson. But whatever he learns, it doesn’t seem to show.
I believe this is what the movie is about: how revenge transforms you. How, in the process of wrestling with the devil, you embrace it. It talks about how, when you trace the bloody trail of a murderer, you leave your own. But it doesn’t seem to show. To be clear, it is stated. Rather blatantly, in fact. As in, the bad guy practically tells Kim Soo-hyeon that they are just the same. As if the viewer wouldn’t know and he would have to be told what is going on. Any attentive viewer would know, but you don’t see it on the images or the situation. You don’t see the character change or think, or feel. I believe that good movies don’t tell you what happens, they show you. And I think the story had so much potential. It touches on the morality of revenge. It could have questioned the protagonist. It could have even gone as far as questioning the viewer for finding satisfaction in the protagonist’s actions or sympathizing with him. But it seems to just touch the issue too lightly. It doesn’t bother to settle its hand on the question of how far you should go to fight evil. The film doesn’t come to grips with how evil can consume those who face the devil head on.
But I’d like to make it clear that I don’t hate the movie. I enjoyed it somehow, but I felt it became ridiculous halfway through. At most, I’m disappointed. But it is something that can be enjoyed. And since we’re talking about master manipulators and plans that just work the way they’re supposed to, “I Saw the Devil” truly fits the bill.