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San Francisco International Film Festival

A classic theme in cinema, vengeance features prominently in some of this year's most exciting SFIFF picks.

There’s just something fabulous about suspending our real-life concerns for a few hours and immersing ourselves in one of cinema’s most enduring themes: Vengeance. Truth be told, it’s something we all want from time to time. That most of us will never act on our desire for violent revenge is, yes, a good thing. There are a lot of people out there who would argue that we shouldn’t even see vengeance represented in cinema; that these enactments of our most vivid revenge fantasies are incitements to violence.


So, what is it about vengeance in movies that we’re so crazy about? Is it the violence and gore? Is it the inspiration to go out and eliminate our enemies a la Kill Bill? No, I think not. These lush depictions of vengeance that we find ourselves drawn to in cinema are a sort of safety valve. They let us release our anger and let go of our more horrible desires for revenge because they give us a place where we see the fantasy played out without any real harm coming to others.


In celebration of this sort of cathartic release, PopMatters is taking a look at three high-stakes vengeance thrillers making the rounds at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.


 
Doing Penance


Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is best known outside of Japan for haunting horror films like Cure and Pulse. With Penance, Kurosawa revisits themes of family struggle that have appeared in previous works (Tokyo Sonata) while conquering a new medium, television. In Japan, the five episodes that make up Penance aired simultaneously in theatres and on TV. Speaking before a screening on Wednesday, May 1, festival programmer Rod Armstrong shared that the project was birthed in part because financing a television project had proved much less challenging for the acclaimed director than securing financing for a feature-length film. Penance reads effectively in both mediums, appearing either as a particularly cinematic piece on TV or as a particularly well-plotted and nuanced piece on the big screen. It’s a hopeful new model for crossover production.


At the heart of the miniseries is the story of Asako (Kyoko Koizumi), a mother deeply affected by the murder of her daughter, Emili, in a school gymnasium. The story also revolves around three of the girl’s fourth grade schoolmates, who saw the murderer but were unable or unwilling to provide a good description of the perpetrator to the police. Six months after Emili’s death, Asako summons the three girls to her house and gives them a charge: do penance for your idiocy in being unable to provide the police with useful information about Emili’s murder, or else. It’s a rather weighty burden to put on the shoulders of the girls, of course, but it’s also a burden that Asako takes seriously.


We rejoin the story 15 years later when Emili’s three young friends are busy constructing their own lives. In the first three episodes of the series, Asako visits each of these young ladies to remind them of the promise that they made to do penance so long ago. The still-outraged mother extracts the promise from each of the girls again and awaits their reports of how they’ll pay their dues. Here Kurosawa has created a world for his characters that is at the same time full of promise and definitively limited by the gravity of their forthcoming penance. The duality of the story has a peculiar effect on the viewer, who knows that every glorious moment the girls enjoy is likely to be mitigated by some sort of unspeakable tragedy.


Penance remains strong until the very end, painting a complex and rich portrait of what the lust for vengeance does to an otherwise loving, sane mother. For the theatrical viewer, the whole affair might seem like a bit too much to take in at once. The last episode seems drawn out after watching the previous four in succession. However, Penance is still worth viewing on the big screen. Those who can catch the show online or on TV might even find themselves bingeing on the series in order to reach the suspenseful and well-executed conclusion.


 
Outrage Everywhere: Outrage Beyond


This Yakuza drama from Takeshi Kitano follows a corrupt organized crime cop who is intent on waging war against two Yakuza super families. To carry out his quest, he enlists the help of fallen Yakuza boss Otomo (Kitano). Fresh out of prison, Otomo jumps right back into the game with the help of organized crime connections in Korea. What follows is two hours’ worth of blood, vengeance, and betrayal. The ending of the film seems to come out of nowhere, making it even more shocking than the most astute of observers will expect.


Like many vengeance-themed films, Outrage Beyond uses relatively simplistic concepts of personal honor to explore the complexities of fidelity and trust in the underworld. Though it’s not the most spectacular thriller showing at this year’s festival, it is certainly a solid offering that fans of Yakuza-themed work in particular will enjoy. It’s a delight to see Takeshi Kitano taking on the role of Otomo, whom he plays with characteristic passion.


 
Looking Ahead to The East


Director Zal Batmanglij’s second film is also a piece about the underground, albeit a very different underground than featured in Outrage Beyond and the other gangster films at the festival. Instead of opening a window on the world of organized crime, The East examines an anarchist collective taking action against corporate powers accused of taking advantage of humans, the environment, and the economic system. An intense thriller, The East is at its strongest when it asks viewers to carefully consider if one extreme is worthier than another.


Actress Brit Marling, who plays Sarah, co-wrote the film with Batmanglij. The pair’s writing brings depth and understanding to the characters that is not typical in thrillers backed by big studios. Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, and Danielle Macdonald turn in excellent performances that keep the viewer interested in the film’s ethical weight even when doing so is difficult or painful.


Rating:

Dorothy Burk is a full-time writer and media fiend from Northeastern California. Her work has appeared in Matter journal and on Antartika.tv. Dorothy loves talking about crime on television, Homicide: Life on the Streets and John Steinbeck. She shares thoughts and critical impressions over on Twitter.


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