Ermek Shinarbaev’s Revenge is the only film in Criterion’s recent release Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 that I’d seen prior to the set’s arrival. That viewing was long enough ago that I couldn’t remember much of the plot (indeed, I’d even forgotten the most shocking and basis elements). The main thing that stuck with me over the years was how lovely it looked as the human characters went about their gruesome business. I was anxious to return to the film on Blu-ray and see what promised to be an even better presentation of the film: it looks beautiful, with its overblown(out), hazy lighting. What a wonderful revisit this was. I could remember the film as it was happening, making it feel like a lurking memory from my own past. That’s a fitting feeling for a film that crosses generations reeling from and trying to balance the world again after a single earth shattering event.
Before we get to that event, though, let’s begin where the film begins, in seventeenth-century Korea. The original novel and the adapted screenplay were both written by the Soviet-Korean writer Anatoli Kim, born in Kazakstan to a Korean father and Russian mother. The film is structured as a series of “tales,” with most centered on the revenge plot that runs through much of the first part of the twentieth century in Korea, China, and the Soviet Union. But we start with a prologue that doesn’t seem to have any solid relationship to the central revenge plot other than to set the thematic stage. In this prologue we enter the court of the Kingdom of Joseon. The king watches a turtle crawl slowly and contemplates the turtle’s goal, which he works toward slowly but surely. Meanwhile, his son and heir to the throne is playing with another boy. As happens, the son’s feelings (emotional and physical) get hurt a bit and he runs close to his father the king and starts to cry. The king is offended and ashamed of his weak son. Immediately, he calls forth the strongest warrior in his guards to drop everything else and raise his son to be the strongest warrior of all. The son watches all of this happen and contemplates his future with a few tears in his eyes. Years pass, the son does grow strong and is perhaps filled with his own vengeance. It’s possible that once he came into power he had the warrior who trained him put to death. We know only that the warrior is dead, and the son, now the king, doesn’t seem to upset. If he did execute the warrior, perhaps it was his own form of vengeance against what was surely a rough regimen, but also against his father. But the young king is also selfish and thin-skinned; the execution may have been the final piece necessary to make this son, now king, the strongest warrior in the land.
Or is he? In the beautiful, sunny courtyard, there’s another execution on display. Apparently the young king and a man now tied down to be beaten to death were sparring, and when the other man had the upper hand he refused to deliver the final blow to the young king. Now all around are saying the king would have been bested but for this man’s forbearance. How can the king live with this doubt among his subjects?
Alas, his friend from youth has grown into a wise poet/counselor. He refuses to compose poetry in the midst of such brutality and is banished. And then we move directly to Korea in 1915.
The prologue sets the stage beautifully for what’s to come. And that, my friends, is one of the slowest acts of revenge imaginable, played out across decades and generations. But it all begins in the Korean countryside in 1915. It’s there and then that a young teacher named Yan, drunk one day while teaching children barely old enough for school, has a fit of rage and kills one of them, the young daughter of Tsai, with a sickle.
By the time Tsai understands what has happened, Yan has escaped down the river to China. Tsai calmly makes arrangements for someone else to take care of his farm, knowing that for the foreseeable future his one and only work is vengeance. For the next ten years, Tsai hunts Yan down. And just when we think Tsai might achieve his revenge, he is thwarted.
For one, after a decade of hunting a murderer, the old Tsai is even older. But beyond that, a few monks and a mysterious woman step in to prevent him right at the moment he has Yan within his grasp.
Tsai returns home as a failure, and then movie really begins. This all happened in the first 15-20 minutes of the film.
The themes of violence, vengeance, rage, and exile have all been introduced nicely by the prologue and the first tales of Yan and Tsai. It’s time to bring back in the philosophy, poetry, and mystery. That comes with the strange woman who thwarted Tsai but also with a new vessel of vengeance. When Tsai returns home a failure, his wife, after questioning how he could return prematurely, tells him it’s time he take a young concubine and have a child whose sole purpose will be to avenge his dead half-sister. Thus is born Sungu. He’s very different from the similarly bred Lady Snowblood (see my review here); Sungu is a philosopher poet who has an uncanny resemblance to the poet the king banished in the prologue.
Of course, Sungu feels compelled to fulfill the destiny set out by his father, but he’s so much more than an instrument. Vengeance, especially for an act perpetrated over a decade before his own birth, conflicts his spacious soul, though he cannot escape. As the film proceeds forward, the beautiful imagery gives way to tight spaces, and, once the Korean diaspora of the 1940s comes up in the time line, to puddles and industry. Revenge is about the search for the soul, in the external and internal worlds.
The search for some elusive key to individual existence — I was delighted to learn in Kent Jones’s essay included with this release that Shinarbaev, along with others who graduated from Moscow’s VGIK film school in his generation, “worked under the sign of Andrei Tarkovsky.” As in much of Tarkovsky’s work, the humans wander a landscape too beautiful to contain them, searching the while for something they cannot even name, yet something they feel must be there.
As I mentioned above, it was wonderful to revisit Revenge, and I’m already looking forward to a third watch. It’s got so much going on with its already compelling tragic drama.