Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 29, 2007

A Bloody Aria

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

A modern Papageno

Opening at the ImaginAsian Theaters in New York and Los Angeles on January 4 and 18 respectively, “A Bloody Aria” is a black comedy about revenge, a theme that is obviously inspired by Park Chan-wook’s “Old Boy” trilogy. While the desire for revenge in these films is obviously a function of the major characters’ psychology, there is also a social dimension as Won Shin-yun, the director and writer of “A Bloody Aria” pointed out in the press notes:

I had made numerous independent films, but I was still athirst to resonate with a larger audience by crossing the barrier between commercial and independent films. The unexpected break came one summer day while hunting for a movie location. I met the characters who could represent the modern history of Korea: an unending circle of lust for power and violence. Their faces were dark, as if light had turned its back on them and their eyes were sad, yet beast-like as they drank their sorrow away on a deserted riverbank. Rank exists even among losers and they were relishing their chain of power by abusing each other like animals.

“A Bloody Aria” begins innocently enough as Moon Jae (Han Seok-gyu), a middle-aged music professor and star opera vocalist, is out for a drive in the country with In-jeong (Cha Ye-ryun), a beautiful young female student, in his brand-new Mercedes Benz. As a member of Korean society’s elite, he expects the lower classes to act deferentially, including the motorcycle cop who has given him a ticket for going through a red light. To show that he is above the law, Moon Jae goes through a second red light and curses out the cop, who then begins a high-speed pursuit.

After a few miles, Moon Jae takes a sharp right-hand turn off the main road, leaving the cop behind. He follows the side road until it comes to a dead end at a river bank surrounded by hills. Not having had his fill of excitement for one day, the music professor–who has had too much to drink at lunch–begins to force himself sexually on his student, who bolts from the Mercedes Benz and begins climbing a path up a nearby hill.

Sitting in his car stewing over his misadventures with the cops and his student, he notices a sinister looking figure walking toward his car. Using the aluminum baseball bat he is wielding over his shoulder, the stranger clobbers a hawk that has fluttered to the ground and deposits it into a bag. Moon Jae soon discovers that the hawk has fallen victim to a poisoned mouse that the hunter has left as bait along the river side.

The bird hunter is a clever riff on Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” that the professor and his student rehearsed a few moments earlier on the river bank, including a romantic duet that led to his sexual advances. Moon Jae sings the role of Papageno, one of the main characters in “The Magic Flute”–a bird hunter who brings his prey to the wicked Queen of the Night.

Worried that he might suffer the same fate as the hawk, Moon Jae sits in his car trying not to be noticed behind the smoke-tinted windows. Eventually, the bird hunter is joined by two other scary looking locals who are his partners in misdeeds. While he keeps dead birds in his sack, they keep a high school student that they have beaten up earlier in their own. It is not clear at the outset whether the student is dead or alive.

Finally, the ensemble is joined by a fourth miscreant, who has arrived on a motor scooter with the professor’s student on the back seat. She has hitched a ride with him under the impression that he was going to take her to a bus station, but he is more interested in prying open the door of the Mercedes Benz and discovering who is inside. We soon learn that this character, despite his initially affable demeanor, is the gang leader and bent on humiliating and maybe even killing the professor, the student and the young man bound up in the sack.

From this point on, “A Bloody Aria” consists of a series of increasingly brutal scenes involving the four thugs and their hapless victims in what can only be described as a Korean version of that famous scene in “Deliverance” where the two hillbillies victimize Jon Voight and Ned Beatty. As the underclass masters of the isolated countryside that the urban couple has wandered into, they enjoy humiliating their victims whose success they obviously envy. Not only do they derive pleasure from imposing their will on their captives, not a moment goes by without the four thugs abusing each other, just as a reminder of the pecking order within the gang. This sadistic ritual continues until the film’s bloody conclusion, which uses violence in the same way that Mozart used harmonies.

Despite the continuous violence, “A Bloody Aria” is also quite funny, using bitter irony to make pointed observations about the characters and Korean society. At one point, after having recognized the professor as having sung the national anthem at a football game, they make him sing it again for their own amusement. The pompous lyrics of the anthem are in striking contrast to the debased circumstances of this performance.

Eventually, we learn that the ritualized violence of the characters, including that directed against the young man in the bag, is not exactly gratuitous. Despite their brutal demeanor, they too knew what it meant to be brutalized themselves. The haughty music professor learns firsthand what the penalty is for keeping a lower class in degradation, even if he was not personally responsible for their suffering.

The cycle of punishment and retribution on display is obviously influenced by the plot of “Old Boy”, the second film in Park Chan-wook’s trilogy. Both “Old Boy” and “A Bloody Aria” are meditations on the way that high schools serve as entry points into the rigid structures of bourgeois society. Without the hazing that goes on in the typical high school, young men and women will not be socialized into a system that requires proper respect for authority, even when it is not merited. Every so often there is an explosion against the system, as recent mass killings in Colorado and elsewhere would indicate, but the system never gets changed in its fundamentals.

Despite his appetite for gore in films such as “Old Boy”, Park Chan-wook has little for it in real life. While it has not garnered the same publicity as in other countries, there is a Korean anti-war movement that includes film industry figures such as him.

A number of celebrities, including Cannes award-winning director Park Chan-wook, are to support a hunger strike led by the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) to block the government’s plan to dispatch additional troops to Iraq.

The first television star to attend the ”relay” sit-in with Kim Hye-kyoung, chairwoman of the pro-labor party, on Thursday was Hong Seok-chun, the first South Korean television actor to openly admit his homosexuality, which he did three years ago.

Sitting beside Kim, who was on the seventh-day of a hunger strike in a park near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Hong argued that the U.S.-led war in Iraq was based on incorrect intelligence concerning Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

–Korea Times, July 30, 2004, Friday

Official “A Bloody Aria” website


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