Man of Vendetta (South Korea, 2010)
The third Terracotta Far East Film Festival will be held at the legendary Prince Charles Cinema in London from May 5 to May 8, 2011. The programme offers an eclectic selection of films from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan, with directors and stars in attendance. Festival passes can be purchased for £70 (£58 for Prince Charles Cinema members) and guarantee entry to all films in the programme. In the week leading up to the event, VCinema reviews three films from the 2011 Terracotta line-up.
While most thrillers that place children in jeopardy ask how far a parent will go in order to rescue their offspring, Woo Min-ho’s debut feature Man of Vendetta also asks how far a parent will go in terms of distancing themselves from the pain of such a situation once it becomes apparent that their child will not be retrieved. That parent in Man of Vendetta is Young-soo (Kim Myeong-min), a pastor whose little girl is abducted and held for ransom. This leads to an ill-fated exchange at an ice rink where negotiations are abruptly ended due to police presence, causing the kidnapper to disappear with the pastor’s daughter. Eight years later, Young-soo has swapped the church for commerce and set-up a business, although he is having trouble paying the bills. However, his wife Min-kyoung (Park Joo-mee) still believes that their daughter can be found and hands out flyers on the street while pestering the detective who handled the case (Lee Byung-joon) to reopen the investigation based on similar kidnappings that have since occurred. Young-soo and Min-kyoung have separated due to Young-soo’s personality change; religious robes have been replaced by leather jackets, while his temperament has become increasingly volatile and the former pastor has no qualms about dropping the F-bomb at every available opportunity. Yet his parental instincts return when the kidnapper gets in touch, revealing that his daughter is alive and will be returned if the ransom is belatedly paid; Young-soo has trouble raising the cash, but time and the harsh realities of the commercial world have hardened the former pastor and he is less compliant – and more resourceful – than he was eight years ago.
Following the success of The Chaser (2008) and the fierce debate surrounding I Saw the Devil (2010), the kidnap thriller Man of Vendetta is another South Korean two-hander which aims to maintain suspense by alternating between the activities of the bad guy and the efforts of beleaguered hero to locate the whereabouts of his nemesis before time runs out. Just as the hero in The Chaser was a police detective who had become a pimp, and his equivalent in I Saw the Devil was a government agent who had gone rogue, the hero in Man of Vendetta is also a once morally-upstanding public servant who is now operating in a rather shady manner. However, Young-soo is quite literally a ‘fallen angel’ in that he was previously a pastor, encouraging his congregation to, ‘forgive and love’, before dismissing his faith as ‘bullshit’ due to his daughter’s disappearance. For much of its duration, Man of Vendetta conforms to Young-soo’s newly cynical world-view as he finds he has few friends when trying to raise the ransom money, while the cop on the case complains about having a headache when being asked to do his job and the church is made out to be just as money-orientated as any commercial enterprise. The ruptured relationship between Young-soo and Min-kyoung serves to illustrate individual responses to the loss of a child, with the former’s mean-spiritedness contrasting with the latter’s unwavering faith that their daughter can still be found. Known in South Korea for her television roles, Park is particularly impressive as the estranged wife, using limited screen time to convey the quiet strength that enables her persistent parent to keep tiredness at bay.
If the characters of Man of Vendetta are rooted in reality, the narrative often lurches into the realms of implausibility; the villain is convincing enough in terms of hide-in-plain-sight monstrosity, but the methods he uses to keep Young-soo’s daughter captive for eight years are less than believable, as is the reappearance in the closing scene of a supporting character that seemed to have been killed off half an hour earlier. Still, the premise ensures interest despite these shortcomings; the manner in which Man of Vendetta is assembled is as matter-of-fact as its English-language title, with Woo maintaining a steady pace and paying as much attention to performances as to genre mechanics. In terms of the latter, the cat-and-mouse dynamic works well, with neither Young-soo nor the kidnapper being as smart as they think they are, leading to a series of mistakes and missed opportunities en route to the inevitable climactic confrontation. As with many South Korean thrillers, Man of Vendetta begins with panic and ends in tears as emotional outpouring replaces violent blood-letting. Some may cite this as being a further example of the ‘sentimental’ streak that is perceived to be evident in South Korean cinema, pervading even those films that are sold as tough genre pictures. However, it makes tonal sense here as Woo in unafraid of forcing his central character to confront the consequences of his actions, with regards to both his rejection of his faith following his daughter’s kidnapping and the measures he ultimately goes to in order to get her back. A powerful portrait of parental distress, Man of Vendetta is a solid thriller from start to finish.
My Terracotta preview piece for The Big Picture
Terracotta Far East Film Festival website