South Korean Cinema and Revenge: Why Is It So Prevalent?

It seems that the theme of revenge, no matter what other sub-genre it’s paired with, is the key to both domestic and international success of South Korean cinema.

Oldboy, I Saw the Devil, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Tale of Two Sisters, Lady Vengeance, A Bittersweet Life, To Sir With Love and Nowhere to Hide all revolve around the theme of revenge and have all brought home the figurative bacon for South Korea’s filmmakers.

to sir 1A lot of Western fans of Asian cinema, when asked what the dominant feature of South Korean cinema is, will mention the theme of revenge. Whilst it is not the only genre that South Korean cinema depicts, it is certainly a prominent one – similar to Hollywood and the action blockbuster.

But why does revenge seem to dominate South Korean cinema? Is the repeat prevalence of themes in films an indicator of a national sentimentality, or do trends occur because someone made a good film that explores that theme and it inspires many more?

The heavy presence of revenge in South Korean cinema may have something to do with South Korea’s history and its transition to democracy. The road to democracy has been incredibly turbulent and violent for South Korea and its people, which undoubtedly could fill citizens with uneasy emotions and opinions on the country’s past, present and future.

revenge mrvengeance1996 saw two former presidents indicted for crimes that they committed whilst in office, and one was even sentenced to death. However, a year later both were pardoned for their crimes. Business leaders who stayed quiet during these regimes and got rich were and still are the target and focus for a lot of social anger. As well as this, military dictator President Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979 after 16 years in power in a failed bid for democracy.

South Korea’s history remained unpleasant until the last 50 years, as it lived under the shadows of its neighbouring states. Other reasons for the trend of revenge in South Korean cinema could lay in its complicated relationship with China, the American military presence, the separation of Korea as a country and the horrific war that followed and also the seemingly perpetual threat from North Korea.

Revenge in cinema also plays with ideas and concepts of rage, passion, forgiveness and moving on. The exploration of these themes could be seen as an attempt by filmmakers to discover and cope with the feelings of a nation and perhaps discover where they stem from and how they can connect with them.

All this suffering by a nation and its people is the perfect breeding ground for channelling these negative emotions into cinema.

mirror-image-who-is-the-monsterSouth Korean revenge films are almost always unrelentingly violent. Yet unlike with horror films, the directors hold back just enough to make the onscreen exploits truly alarming. This reflects South Korea’s past. Disturbing violence happening to real people transcends to cinema as disturbing violence happening to believable characters.  The perpetrators of revenge in South Korean cinema are almost always ordinary people in non-violent professions. This contrasts with revenge films from other Asian countries such as Japan and China, whose revenge films focus on violent professionals such as Yakuza members or drug cartel bosses.

asian-horror-movies-lady-vengeanceSouth Korean revenge films also often depict blameless protagonists. We as an audience don’t blame these protagonists for wanting what they want and executing the actions that they do. These themes also pose questions to the audience as to what they would do in the same situations. The revenge plots in these films do not exactly reflect South Korean history but the blamelessness is transferred and implied. No one outside of South Korea can blame Korean people for feeling the way that they do after the injustice done to both nation and people.

Plots that involve revenge are often about people attempting to restore social order after a wrong that has been done to them as a person. South Korean revenge cinema could be a plutonic way of a nation attempting to metaphorically right a wrong that was done to them.

PlutoSouth Korean cinema has other genres such as drama and comedy that are successful domestically, but revenge is what has grabbed the attention of international eyes and has sustained a reputation. Just as previous revenge films have, modern revenge films could spin off from current social issues. These could include issues such as a highly competitive society including rising standards of beauty, or the highly competitive education system. An example of the latter social issue being the inspiration for a revenge film is Pluto.

It is tempting to say that Oldboy may have kick-started the South Korean revenge cinema trend, but the violent and injustice rife history are definitely a contender for the inspiration and drive behind it.


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  • lolasama

    I also noticed it is a prominent theme in dramas. I would say its second to romantic comedies and even that has a little revenge subplot going on at the same time.

  • aimziq

    this is a very interesting article.