A Bloody Aria

A Bloody Aria


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The words ‘Korean thriller’ probably conjure up images of the extreme cinema - the likes of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy with its (in)famous scene of live octopus eating. But Shin-yun’s tense and blackly comic journey to the dark side is a much more low-key, realistic affair – and is all the more scary for it.

It opens with a blast of opera on the soundtrack and a shot of the countryside outside Seoul, with a solitary high-end Mercedes cruising along the freeway. It belongs to music professor and minor celebrity Yeong-Sun (Lee Byeong-jun,), who has just taken one of his students, a promising opera singer called In-jeong (Cha Ye-reon), for a long lunch.

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Away from the city and his family for a day, the professor feels pretty pleased with himself; a mood only slightly diluted when a motorcycle cop pulls him up and gives him a speeding ticket after a bad-tempered exchange. Stopping the car at a remote stretch of riverside near a railway bridge to calm down, he tries to force himself on In-jeong. Appalled, she resists and runs away into the woods – only to witness a couple of bikers busily torturing a teenage boy for no apparent reason. Meanwhile the professor, waiting to see if she returns, is joined by a Very Scary-Looking Man with a baseball bat and a brace of dead birds at his belt. Terrified, he tries to drive away but the car has become stuck in the sand of the riverbank. The hunter doesn’t speak but is obviously none too pleased – and he’s soon joined by the bikers, who turn out to be his old school friends.

In-jeong’s day isn’t getting much better, either. She reaches the main road but a cheery, chubby guy who gives her a lift on his moped takes her right back to the riverside, where – you guessed it – the other three have been waiting for him to arrive.

On paper, this sounds far-fetched and melodramatic, but Shin-yun very persuasively suggests that even the most normal, ordered life only needs to be knocked a few degrees off-kilter to turn into something nightmarishly strange. Teacher and pupil (plus the teenager, whose history of abuse at the hands of the quartet turns out to go back a long way) find themselves forced to play an increasingly brutal series of games at their captors’ behest. The conventional restraints and hierarchies of society cease to have any relevance – and help seems a very long way away...

The camerawork in A Bloody Aria has a low-key, almost documentary feel (mostly shot using natural light) and there’s almost no music, so the audience feels as trapped as the protagonists. And though it may eschew Park’s shock tactics, the violence (when it inevitably comes) is full-on. But it’s in no way glamourised, but shown for what it is - brutal and clumsy, degrading both victims and perpetrators.

The film is about bullying and power, in all its many forms, and Won constantly switches focus and sympathy, avoiding black and white characterisation. The four heavies are undoubtedly guys you’d cross several roads to avoid, but the script takes time to examine what made them thus. Only In-jeong, simply trying to escape the nightmare and persuade all the men around her to give up the cycle of violence, is a completely sympathetic character. The teenager is tempted to become like his tormentors and the professor is quite simply a coward, so obsessed with his own social status and personal safety that he seems unable to make a single courageous, selfless or morally correct decision.

But, as Won is undoubtedly asking, how would you react in such circumstances? As the nightmare continues and the educated sophisticates and the blue-collar misfits (and even the traffic cop) find themselves bound together by violence, family secrets and ugly history, his point seems to be that we need to look the monsters in our society in the eye, and ask what made them monsters in the first place.

Not the most original point, perhaps, and the unrelenting violence and nastiness (plus levels of swearing that would make the Gallagher brothers blush) put this firmly in the ‘not for everyone’ category. It’s also a little too long, diluting the impact somewhat. But as an examination of the sometimes narrow gulf between civilisation and savagery even in an apparently stable and prosperous country like Korea, and with a claustrophobic in your face combination of edge-of-the seat thriller and jet black comedy, it works very well. The performances are uniformly excellent. Perhaps the scariest element of this film is that the director says it was partly based on a real-life encounter, with some ‘losers’ having a cheap food and rotgut barbecue on a riverbank. Sadly, I can well believe him. The torturers in this film may seem like evil spirits from a Korean folk tale but Shin-yun persuasively argues that we’re closer to them (in every sense) than we’d like to think.

Reviewed on: 17 Sep 2008
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A Bloody Aria packshot
A music professor and a young student, on an illicit country drive, encounter a group of murderous young yokels.
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Read more A Bloody Aria reviews:

Anton Bitel ****

Director: Won Shin-yun

Writer: Won Shin-yun

Starring: Lee Byeong-jun, Cha Ye-reon, Han Suk-kyu, Kim Shi-goo

Year: 2006

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: Korea


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