I like a good revenge film. Who doesn’t? Some of my favorite characters are those hell-bent on giving someone their comeuppance (which is really just a word that I like a lot). So I’ve got two very different revenge movies, both released in 2010. Simon Rumley, who directed The Living and The Dead, made his Red White and Blue on a small budget and with no names. It screams American indie and for better or worse has all of the director’s traits crammed into its relatively short running time.
The Man From Nowhere is the first Jeong-Boom Lee film I’ve seen. It’s less psychological than the Rumley film and, if it is ever remade in the US, would most certainly feature the phrase “high octane” somewhere within its marketing strategy.
I’ll start with Red White and Blue (and SPOILERS here). Basic plot: Erica (Amanda Fuller) is a southern ‘woman of loose morals’ if we’re speaking politely and archaically. She happens upon a wandering stranger Nate (Noah Taylor). He’s the one man in the small town who doesn’t try to sleep with her. Everyone else does. Then, the bomb drops that she has HIV and is spreading it. When Franki (Marc Senter), a local punk vocalist, finds out he has the virus things get a bit haywire. Franki kills Erica and Nate goes on a rampage.
Red White and Blue (RWB) has a few things going for it. The performances, aside from Franki who hits a false note throughout, are strong. The story is ambiguous but interesting. More so than those, it is structurally complex with a series of time jumps and flash-forwards. Rumley’s visual style, as with The Living and The Dead, oscillates between classic blocking and framing and hyper-kinetic, MTV style (is that even still a relevant comparison) montage and timelapse filmmaking. But more about the structure, because I’ll also cover this topic in The Man From Nowhere:
The small time jumps aside, RWB has a structure that is, on the very surface level, typical three act. Act 1 – Erica is introduced. She meets Nate. She sleeps with Franki. Act 2 – Eric and Nate’s friendship blossoms. Franki’s relationship with his cancer-ridden mother is developed. Act 3 – Nate kills everyone. Easily divisible, neatly placed. Still, certain elements make this strategy unique. For one, Rumley shifts his focus back and forth amongst three characters. We aren’t always sure who our lead is. These shifts also deter us from forseeing any of the significant action (the old ‘he/she can’t die. They’re the main character’ thought process). Further, the first two acts, in which Rumley tends to focus more on Erica and Franki than on Nate, also disallow us from recognizing many of the psychotic traits that will come to characterize the latter in the third act. What Rumley does, quite successfully, is set us up in what has now become the almost hackneyed collision course structure but then, rather than have one uniting/inciting incident that functions as the collision, simply have one character rudely intrude on the course of the others. It feels fresh.
RWB is far from perfect. The more I think about it the more I like it, but still, it has flaws. For one, Franki is really annoying. He’s underplayed, and, while it may be intentional that his outward appearance seems to be at odds with how he speaks and carries himself, he feels like a caricature of a punk-rocker created by someone who has only a stereotypical, detached feel for that culture. Secondly, so much more could be done with Nate. Rumley wants him to be this enigmatic, past-less, shadow of a man, who is lethal and brutal. Well, he basically is. But a cue from a film like Unforgiven, which expertly keeps its lead’s history hidden while at the same time revealing enough to make his motivations interesting beyond the point of sheer violence, would have added a layer of complexity. Some of the plotting is a bit contrived as well. The reveal of HIV isn’t shocking, and Erica’s dialogue-driven reveal of her own abusive past feels old-hat as well. Throw in the cancer subplot and much of this plays out like melodramatic plot points strung together to make the violent third act as dystopic as possible…a little cheap.
Now for The Man From Nowhere. Maybe this belongs in a similar, though far lesser, category as 2010’s I Saw The Devil, another Korean revenge movie. The Man From Nowhere (MFN) isn’t strictly revenge. It’s sort of adventure. It kind of plays out like The Professional + Taken. Plot: Bin Won plays Cha Tae-sik, a former military operative who goes on a rampage of his own (it’s rampage day!) to save his neighbor, Jeong So-mi, a cute little girl whose mother was killed by organ harvesters following her theft of a large amount of cocaine. Not as convoluted as it sounds, MFN does suffer from over-plotting and under-character development.
Tae-sik is, similar to Nate in RWB, played like the silent badass. His voice is low and he never raises it. He looks out through shaggy hair (that is, until he cuts it in what should now be known as the “I’m cutting my hair meaning I’m going through a personal transformation and by the way I’m an expert with scissors” scene) at anyone dumb enough to oppose him. His fists are lethal weapons. More on the comparison between these two later. Tae-sik has a past – surprise, surprise. His pregnant wife was killed. He’s been unseen since.
Visually, MFN plays out like, as my sister pointed out, a Tom Cruise flick. It’s very glossy, even when trying to be gritty, and the fight scenes are highly choreographed. Tons of foley too – like some battered an array of celery, peppers and tomatoes. The color scheme here is either gray for the present, or high-key and overblown for the past. Maybe that’s a bit of a reversal of the classic usage.
As in RWB, there are structural things to comment on. Tae-sik’s past plays out in a series of flashbacks. The flashbacks, while adding a bit of shock value via the car crash, don’t add too much. Here’s the equation the filmmaker wants me to make: tragic past + tragic present = inevitable revenge/redemption. A better film would have answered this question with more accuracy: “What about Tae-sik’s past makes him want to so urgently change his present?” The cheap answer, and the one we are supposed to swallow, is that this (present) is his chance to right a wrong, to correct something, to be active…all of which he was unable to do at his wife’s death. But that’s BS. Tae-sik has a friendship with So-mi. They’re both outsiders. She’s nice to him. He’s nice to her. She’s no “surrogate interpretation of his unborn child.” Pick one: make his past directly responsible for his present actions, or, forget it altogether (at least visually…I understand that it likely needs to remain in exposition) and have him save So-mi because of a simple act of mutual kindness.
Let’s look at these avenging characters, Nate and Tae-sik. Both have the silent thing going on, but Nate’s seems part of his character. This isn’t always the actor’s fault. MFN director Lee frequently dollies in on Tae-sik’s dramatic, silent, head movements. It’s hilarious. The camera here really wants to emphasize his coolness. It’s kind of voice-substitute, but laughably so. Now Nate doesn’t have great dialogue, and his southern drawl can get a bit annoying, but everything he does is in character and not for posing purposes. A more relevant talking point is the filmmakers’ approaches to each character’s past.
Nate’s past is mostly unmentioned. We assume he has one because he’s a) creepy, b) quiet, and c) a main character who we don’t learn anything about. We get a photograph, which he burns, towards the end, which does speak pretty loudly.
Tae-sik’s, on the other hand, is over-mentioned. The DEA agents investigating him tell us about it in a power-point presentation. There are at least three flashbacks of various parts of the event.
The obvious difference: Nate’s past is implied, with perhaps too little information, and Tae-sik’s past is directly stated, with perhaps too much information. I prefer, and very much so, the former. There’s no through-line that we’re forced to follow or make (an absurd) equation from. With Nate we just go with it. It’s like Lancaster in The Killers: “I did something once.” Classic old existential angst always trumps black and white hammering. Imagine if Lancaster, lying on the bed, awaiting his inevitable death, had responded to Nick Adams with, “One time I was minding my own business, and these two guys came out of the store, and they both had guns. Well luckily I had mine, too, so I dove behind the bushes and started firing…” Nick’s looking at his watch like, ‘pick up the pace here buddy, you’re about to die.’
Hand-in-hand, at least with MFN, with character description is structure. I won’t reiterate the differences, but another thing that RWB’s structure allows it to do that MFN’s does not, is to simply maintain suspense. It’s an odd kind of suspense in that it’s not necessarily ‘what will happen next,’ as much as it’s ‘why am I watching this event right now,’ but still, when compared to the video-game logic of MFN it plays out like high-drama.
What do I want from a good revenge film? Mostly three things, and one isn’t specific to revenge movies, which is interesting/unique/thought-provoking filmmaking aesthetics. The other two: characters whose revenge I want to watch and a plot that rises above the simple ‘I hate you and now I want to kill you’ thematics of the (admittedly enjoyable) exploitation films that made the genre start to tick.