[GUEST POST] Michaele Jordan on Korean Horror, Part 3: Psycho Killers

Michaele Jordan‘s novel, Blade Light, is a charming traditional fantasy that was serialized in Jim Baen’s Universe and is now available as an ebook at Amazon or at iBooks. Her newest novel, Mirror Maze, is available now.

Korean Horror, Part 3: Psycho Killers

Horror movies generally play off three main themes: monsters, ghosts and psycho-killers. The makers of Korean horror movies know these rules, and try to stay within the general guidelines. But they are artists (really, they are!) and they frequently end up re-inventing the genre. In particular, they cast a whole new light on slasher flicks.

Let me bring to your attention a few truly splendid films that are undoubtedly horror movies, and yet so far removed from Friday the Thirteenth that you wonder how they can co-exist under the same name.

I will start with the Vengeance Trilogy by Chan-wook Park: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003) and Lady Vengeance (2005).

I should admit up front that these are not exactly psycho killer movies. I am not suggesting that you show them to young children. Death, mutilation and gore are dished up with an open hand. But there is no real insanity, at least not the Adam Lanza kind of insanity which drives a lunatic to mow down strangers for no comprehensible reason. As the title proclaims, the characters in these films are driven by a desire for vengeance, an understandable desire, as seen through Chan-wook Park’s eyes. The ills these characters have suffered are real, their pain is visible, their need for redress is palpable. And therein lies the horror of these horror movies. The killers are not crazy.

Oddly, it is the latest of these three, Lady Vengeance, that is the simplest, and the closest to the basic horror movie mold. A young girl spends thirteen years in prison for a murder she did not commit. When she finally gets out, she wants to get the guy that really did it, to repay him both for the death of the original victim and for her own long ordeal. It is easy to preach forgiveness—as Miss Geum-ja Lee (played by Yeong-ae Lee) knows all too well—when it is someone else’s pain. But it is hard for real people to take solace in such platitudes, and Geum-ja becomes very real to us.

Going back to the beginning, in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, we see vengeance on a more complicated level. We see layer after layer of hurt piled onto the story as likeable people in a desperate situation are driven further and further over the edge. We want to see these people win. We fear for them as they make bad decision after bad decision, hope until the end that they will find a resolution and grieve for them when they finally slide past all hope of redemption. This film is not just a horror movie, it is a classic, almost Shakespearean, tragedy.

Most complicated of all is Oldboy. The story opens as Dae-su (played by Min-sik Choi) is kidnapped and thrown (without trial or explanation) into a solitary confinement cell for fifteen years. Of course, there’s a reason, although by the time we learn it, we have come to sympathize, even identify, with Dae-Su. It’s impossible to say more without committing gross spoilers, but in this story, competing and conflicting claims for vengeance are played off against each other, leaving Dae-su and the audience alike struggling to separate right from wrong in a world that cares for neither.

Do not suppose that this trilogy’s preeminence suggests tha Chan-wook Park is the only Korean director worth mentioning. Before I close, I must recommend I Saw the Devil (2010, Jee-woon Kim). In this movie, we see at last that staple of American horror, the psycho-killer (played by Min-sik Choi of Oldboy), a sociopath who hugely enjoys his killings. He is pursued by Soo-hyeon Kim (played by Byung-hun Lee) a special forces officer whose fiancée was one of the victims. As the film progresses, we see that Soo-hyeon is not much better than the killer he is hunting, just a little more controlled, a bit more adept at channeling his inner violence toward a socially acceptable target. This is undeniably a gory film, more than gruesome enough to satisfy those who are simply looking for a good slasher flick, but it is also a reasoned examination of the nature of evil, and the human instinct toward violence.

There are so many more, but these—I hope—are enough to get you started. Please, give Korean horror (or, for that matter, the entire Korean wave) a try. This is the future of the world entertainment market.