An interesting but not entirely memorable Korean revenge tale
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival. It is being reposted as a reminder that the film will be screening for free tomorrow evening at the Tribeca Cinemas in New York City. More information can be found here.]
Tales of revenge are often driven by a sense of moral outrage or a sense of emotional investment, sometimes a sense of mystery as well. There's something that drives people, that keep them going, that makes the final moment of confrontation cathartic (or, in some revenge films that question the nature of vengeance, absolutely empty).
What's important is that these kinds of films make you feel something, even if it's just revulsion or rage. Maybe it's just film festival fatigue talking, but Bloody Fight in Iron Rock Valley didn't make me feel much of anything. That's not for lack of trying, though.
Bloody Fight in Iron Rock Valley (Cheolam Gyekokui Hyeoltu | 철암계곡의 혈투)
There are a lot of great elements at work in Bloody Fight in Iron Rock Valley, but it's that odd thing where sometimes a movie just doesn't hit you when you feel like it's trying to. Or maybe in this case, the elements are there, but the movie just doesn't stick for some reason. The villains are a rowdy bunch of cusses led by a sociopath named Ghostface, and one of his henchmen is a sniveling, buffoonish little toadie that you want to see dead. The hero is stylish and stern -- a stoic machine with a snappy wild west fashion sense. And did I mention he wields a nail gun? (Unfortunately this sounds much cooler than it is in the film, and, if I remember right, it's only used in three or four scenes.)
Filmed on a shoestring budget, Bloody Fight in Iron Rock Valley is a modernized revenge western, with some shades of Once Upon a Time in the West. (The jazzy, smoky bass riff on the soundtrack even reminds me a bit of the harmonica melody from the Leone film.) It's stylish, there are some solid set pieces, there are moments of torture that carry some sense of poetic justice. An early kill turns the bad guy's weapon against him, a later one is a bit of karmic retribution for an offense against a Buddhist temple. The film follows a man with no name out to get some toughs for a wrong they committed in the past, but it winds up revealing a larger plot about dirty water.
A fair amount of Bloody Fight in Iron Rock Valley is spent away from our nameless avenger with the nail gun. Some of that time is spent watching Ghostface and his crew do their misdeeds, which helps reveal their ruthlessness, but another portion is spent with a hooker with a heart of gold. She's being used by her boyfriend to help rustle people into the makeshift casinos in town, and she's just starting to get a conscience about it. It's not that this isn't interesting per se, especially given the whole set up. An entire town full of undrinkable water is a den of grift and gambling and nothing else; our gunslinger has a nail gun instead of a six-shooter; our lead killer is named Ghostface. But it's all sort of diffused save for sudden punctuations of stylish violence.
In trying to upend the expectations of revenge movies (and specifically ultra-violent Korean revenge movies), director Ji Ha-Jean creates an uneven, meandering experience. It's a bit like having a soup where I like the individual ingredients but I just don't care for the broth. Maybe the taste is not as complex as it could be -- the revenge seems so one-note, the story of the town seems interesting but not fully integrated, the plot doesn't really punch. The result isn't something watery or something bland, but Bloody Fight in Iron Rock Valley does feel like it could be stronger or could have been prepared differently. With all the cool elements at work, I wouldn't mind seeing the unsubtle revenge film version of this without any genre dismantling; I also wouldn't mind seeing another take on all this with greater focus on the revenge and the nature of our nameless hero's pursuit.
It's only been a few days since seeing Bloody Fight in Iron Rock Valley, and I'm struggling to remember things about it. I recall snippets -- some of the action scenes (particularly interesting given the low budget); the savvy, snappy, cowboy outfit from our hero; the music box he carries with a spinning ballerina, which is the only thing he has left from his past, wound up and played as trigger point for memories and vengeance. But the overall impression of the film is getting lost in the fog of other NYAFF films. And even then, I can recall those movies distinctly since since they affected me more (even if the experience was negative and/or frustrating).
What I do remember I liked well enough, and I remember when the movie ended I felt it was okay -- not good, but just okay. I may give Bloody Fight in Iron Rock Valley another watch in the future just to see if I was experiencing movie fatigue at the time. Or maybe I'll watch another revenge film. Maybe both just to see how Bloody Fight works as a coolly detached palate cleanse.
Alec Kubas-Meyer: One of the things I like about Korean movies, and Korean revenge movies in particular, is that you really never know who is going to survive. Maybe the love interest will live, maybe she won't. Maybe that cute child will run away, or maybe he'll take a shotgun blast to the face. You assume that the good guy will get revenge in the end (Bloody Fight in Iron Rock Valley is a modern take on a Western, after all), but revenge doesn't necessarily mean victory. That ratchets up the tension of action scenes quite a bit, and tense action scenes are a good thing. Bloody Fight has some really great action sequences, but they are marred by a story that really isn't very interesting, and none of the characters are really fleshed out. Frankly, though, I think it's worth watching for the action scenes alone. I just wish they'd gone on a bit longer. Ax's death in particular could have used a bit more oomph. Ah well. 70 - Good