Sunday, June 3, 2012

Devil! Take the Train to Hell (South Korea, 1977)

It turns out that YouTube’s lifting of its length restrictions has been one of the greatest boons to world popular cinema fans to come along in a good while, with the only inherent difficulty lying not in finding the gems, but in knowing what gems exist to be found. The latest mother lode comes courtesy of the Korean Film Archive, who recently uploaded a large collection of vintage Korean popular cinema to the site -- with English subtitles, no less -- for our enjoyment and edification. Given the previous unavailability of such films in our part of the world, we Westerners have a lot to learn from them. For instance, from Devil! Take the Train to Hell I learned that -- like movie audiences pretty much everywhere else in the world during the 1970s -- South Koreans had a healthy taste for funky revenge thrillers.

D4TH is one of a handful of films directed by the actor No-Shik Park, a prolific star of action films with a career spanning back to the 1950s. Here Park casts himself as Donghyuk, a blind saxophone player leading a double life as a Korean national living in Japan. Following his gigs at the smoky burlesque club where he works, Donghyuk, using his specially honed skills, determinedly feels his way along the darkened city streets, seeking to mete out revenge against the four former Japanese soldiers who, eighteen years earlier, blinded him and murdered his father. Arriving at the home of one of these men to find that someone has already done his dirty work for him, Donghyuk is reunited with Yeji (Bo-yeong Ahn), a girl from his village who also lost her father in the same incident. As Yeji has clearly assigned herself to the same mission of vengeance as Donghyuk, the two decide to pool their resources and take on the three remaining scoundrels as a team.

Having thus established itself as a film that doesn’t put too high a premium on credibility, D4TH proceeds to place our two protagonists in a series of increasingly outlandish and coincidence dependent scenarios. As Yeji and Donghyuk’s targets have all in the intervening years gone on to become powerful crime figures, breaching the walls of security around them requires some improbable, “Mission Impossible” style escapades on their part. One of these involves the sightless Donghyuk learning to both drive a car and to catch arrows in mid flight. Another involves a box containing poisonous snakes upon which Yeji seems to exert some kind of psychic control. And finally, in order to trap a victim who is an amateur photographer, we have Yeji infiltrating a model shoot dressed as a sexy cowgirl.

Throughout, D4TH distinguishes itself by saturating its oddball thriller trappings in an almost comically heightened level of melodrama. Truly, it’s a wonder that Yeji and Donghyuk ever get around to killing anybody, given all the time they spend crumbling into a collective heap of tears and self recrimination. Donghyuk is perhaps the least stoic disabled person in the history of cinema, never missing an opportunity to go on a self pitying tirade, and furthermore -- for reasons I won’t go into here -- considers himself partially responsible for what happened to Yeji’s father. Yeji, for her part, feels Donghyuk’s pain perhaps a little bit too acutely, and for some reason finds herself unable to tell him once she realizes that she’s fallen in love with him. She does, however, tell us -- in a series of voiceovers that are increasingly utilized to make us privy to the leads’ tortured internal monologues. All of this extravagant hair tearing builds up to an appropriately absurd and bathetic last minute twist that has to be seen to be truly appreciated.

Stylistically, D4TH is a bit bare bones, with the odd, attention grabbing flourish here and there. Park exhibits a shrewd use of slow motion to heighten dramatic scenes, and elsewhere strategically drops the audio out to underscore a character’s subjective isolation. A brief nightclub dance worthy of a Jess Franco film also bears mentioning. But what the film otherwise lacks in aesthetic razzle dazzle it more than makes up for in its loopy conceits. Donghyuk and Yeji clearly live in a world in which the rules of everyday logic that the rest of us have to contend with don’t apply, yet we are nonetheless asked to identify with their tragic humanity. After all, whether you’re a blind jazzman with preternatural martial arts skills or a woman who can inexplicably telepathically command snakes, you’re still not immune to the pain of loss, the depredations of war, or the ravages of personal guilt. As the film’s title seems to suggest, that’s a train ride we’ve all got our tickets punched for.


Idrian said...

Congratulations Todd on your first review of a pre-Hallyu, popcorn S. Korean movie!!!!!!!!!

Oh wait, there's Super Batman...

But then again, I guess you've never reviewed a Korean movie like this before, if I'm not mistaken.

Todd said...

Thanks, Idrian. Hope you liked the review. Super Batman comes before everything. It is pre-genre, primordial. It is all.