Revenge has become so ubiquitous with Korean cinema in the last decade that it often overshadows the very films in this subgenre. Lumped together, the Korean revenge thriller, like the American noir genre, is linked not merely by narrative structure, the genre’s affinity for a grungy visual aesthetic, or even geographic proximity. In fact, what primarily ties all of these seemingly analogous films together is the grandiose, bordering on mythical, conflicts between two opposing forces. I hesitate to use hyperbolic terms like hero vs. villain or good guys vs. bad guys because these terms go against the moral themes that many of these films perpetuate. Revenge and, by extension, the violent acts committed by the players in these films are ultimately pointless and resolve nothing. In short, the trauma of the past cannot be undone and as such, there are no heroes in a Korean revenge thriller, merely victims.
Terracotta Entertainment’s new DVD release of Desire to Kill (a.k.a. Enemy at the Dead End) (Joogigo Sipeun, 2010) has plastered on its front cover the quote, “Oldboy in a hospital room.” That five word quote does a fine job of encapsulating the overall mood, atmosphere, and even the film’s major plot twists, but it sadly shrinks the film down and attributes its success, be it as entertainment or art, to Park Chan-wook’s now emblematic work. Though Kim Sang-hwa and his co-director Owen Cho are indebted to Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, this debt is a collective bill that all revenge films made post-Oldboy must pay, just as any film that has as its central premise a team of men gathered together to accomplish a specific task can be considered direct offspring of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).
Opening on a rocky cliffside, the film is intercut with scenes of a man lying in a hospital bed, his beady, bloodshot eyes staring at us. In voiceover, we nbso online casino reviews learn that his wife died many years ago and that he, like all protagonists in a revenge film, was unable to catch the killer. Unable to save her and unwilling to move on, Min-ho (Cheon Ho-Jin) punishes himself through a series of suicide attempts, each one a failure and each taking a toll on the man’s health. Damned to continue living, the grey-haired, wheel chair bound, and half paralyzed Min-ho spends his time reading the Talmud, taking to heart the “eye for an eye” philosophy that that ancient book preaches a little too seriously. Of course with all those thoughts of vengeance on his brain, it might have served him well to dip into a few Buddhist texts to be reminded of the old Chinese proverb, “He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself”.
One day, Min-ho’s Old Testament God bestows upon him a gift. Lying in the hospital bed across from him is a new patient, heavily bandaged and unconscious. Eavesdropping on the doctors, Min-ho learns that the man suffered major brain damage and has lost all memory of who he was. The man’s only link to his past is the ID card in his wallet and a name, Sang-Eop (Yu Hae-Jin). For Min-ho, his face is all too familiar. That harmless lump of flesh sleeping across from him is the man who murdered his wife.
This premise, dripping in the inky black of the very best pulp stories circa the Black Mask magazine era, is raised to the level of Grand Guignol horror as every night, Min-ho devises ever more Rube Goldberg-esque ways to kill Sang-Eop, but every morning Sang-Eop just wakes up alive, chipper and far healthier than the day before. How is Sang-Eop able to survive? Why have these two men been forced into the same room as one another? And more importantly, what sort of experiment is Min-ho and Sang-Eop’s doctor conducting on them? Mysteries abound in this film, but luckily for us Desire to Kill doesn’t hinge on out-of-leftfield plot twists. In fact, a viewer well versed enough in Korean/Asian cinema or the thriller genre won’t be all that shocked by the film’s major narrative beats.
I was surprised at how darkly comical Desire to Kill is. Though it doesn’t shudder away from the grotesque or infantilize the violence onscreen, Kim Sang-hwa and Owen Cho, doing double-duty as the film’s screenwriters, are well aware of the ludicrousness of two invalids lying across from one another, waging a violent bloody duel night after night. However, what ultimately separates this film from being just another Oldboy clone is that it doesn’t revel in pain, torture, or violence like copycats have. In fact, Desire to Kill is more akin to Greek tragedy. This is especially the case midway through the film, when Min-ho, like Oedipus, is shocked to discover that the “truth” that he held so close to his heart was just a fabrication of his broken mind, woven together from bits of truth and a fiction that he could believe in. Desire to Kill does not end with a grand battle but rather with a few harsh truths being revealed. Truly, a tale worthy of the best Greek tragedies.
Terracotta Distribution has recently released Desire to Kill on Region 2 DVD which is available at most online retailers.