The Most Beautiful Fraud: Revenge

Yermek Shinarbayev’s Revenge had, to put it mildly, a bit of a struggle facing its path to cinematic glory.  For one thing, the world wasn’t exactly focused on Kazakh cinema at the time (not that that world has seen fit to alter that lack of focus today), and the Soviet Union was too busy collapsing on itself to give the film a lot of PR hype.  For another, it suffered damage to the original print, and it wasn’t fully restored until 2010, when Martin Scorsese made it part of his World Cinema Foundation project.  That landed it a brief re-issue as part of the project’s Masters of Cinema series and, eventually, a Criterion release, but it’s still a pretty scarcely reviewed film in the West; even devotees of Soviet cinema have tended to overlook it thanks to its placement at the ass end of the evil empire’s motion picture industry.  To make things even more confusing, it was released under its original title — Revenge — in 1989, just in time to have to compete with a Kevin Costner movie of the same name, and was re-released under the completely unrelated title The Red Flute.

For all that, though, it managed to nail a spot in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes (albeit in 1991, two years after its initial release and at a time when the Soviet Union was even more of a mess than its film industry), and it’s considered the zenith of the Kazakh New Wave amongst the five people outside of Kazakhstan who actually know anything about the Kazakh New Wave.  It’s a film rich with history just going into it, but equally dense and obscure to Western sensibilities; the author of the novel on which it was based was a member of, and was trying to represent in a mythopoetic way, the Korean minority of Kazakhstan, which is something of a cultural mystery even to those of us who know a bit about the country.  However enigmatic the historical and cultural background, however, and that is considerably enigmatic, Shinarbayev turns it into a cinematic production that is both distinctly Soviet and curiously modern, blending the fairy-tale mythological qualities of the high Russian theater of the ’70s with a curious, sanguine magical realism that at times seems to anticipate Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

The 15-minute prologue is the most profound and least direct of the story threads that make up Revenge; it begins with the slow, lumbering movements of a huge tortoise, respirating with great effort as it attempts to make its way to the sea.  It is watched by the Korean king, who waxes philosophic until he sees his young son engaging in a tussle with another boy.  The king devises an elaborate decree to punish the boy for shaming him, and it ends with the young prince growing into a cruel, powerful, and cocky king whose combative demeanor is at odds with his close friendship with a thoughtful and introverted young poet.  Though it is stripped down in the manner of a simple allegory, this segment contains some serious and contradictory intellectual notions within its fairy-tale narrative — questions about power and duty, strength and restraint, friendship and obligation, and, perhaps most tellingly, the relationship between humanity and violence, and whether the noble qualities of our characters can survive in an atmosphere of oppression.  As the poet notes, “Poetry is not borne from the din of an execution.”

The next segment propels us forward in time hundreds of years to 1915, while remaining in Korea.  Jan, a temperamental and self-pitying schoolteacher, is evicted from the home where he has been staying; when the landlord’s daughter’s attention drifts in his class the following day, he vents his frustration on her, stabbing her to death in a harrowing scene.  (The way the sun creates geometric patterns on the ground as the remaining children slowly crawl towards the bloody sickle at the center of the frame is one of Revenge‘s most visually striking moments.)  In the following chapter, Caj, the murdered girl’s father, follows Jan all the way to the silver mines of China, only to see him escape at a crucial moment, aided by a mysterious traveler; returning home, his wife allows him to bear a son by another woman.  This boy, Sungu, is the exiled poet from the prologue reborn:  a sensitive soul created in a world where violence is the only means of expression, a child who sees and feels deeply but who has literally been bred to kill on behalf of someone he will never know.

Revenge is a lovely-looking film; Shinarbayev eschews fancy tricks and flashy camera movements, tracking his characters naturally from an almost too respectful distance, but his directorial prowess comes through in the impressive use of natural light.  In daylight scenes outdoors and at court, the midday sun floods the screen with bold color and enhances the eerie beauty of the landscapes, while at night and early morning, he finds just the right amount of light to make the action comprehensible while still allowing the dark blues, pinks, and shot-through streaks of black to do their work in setting the mood.  The actors are entirely unknown to me, but all do a creditable job, with a few performances standing out, particularly the reckless Jan and Aleksandr Pan as the ill-fated Sungu.

It is not, however, an easy film to understand.  In addition to the central metaphor of the exile of Korean Kazakhs under Stalin — a quality Shinarbayev insists is essential, but which may be largely lost on most viewers — Revenge is deliberately working on a lot of different levels, as befits a film that is as much about poetry as it is about vengeance.  Mystical imagery is not overdone, but is never absent, particularly in the recurring motif of animals that distract moments of great portent; and while the message of the futility and hardness of revenge, even subsumed into the greater theme of violence as an inhibitor of humanity, is clear enough, there are many other things going on here, ideas about family and religion and the state and the nature of filial love, which can be very heavy on a first viewing.  But the overall elegance and beauty that Shinarbayev makes of such an ugly story, along with surprising elements like the humanity brought to the story by Nemaja, Sungu’s mother, break through all the background elements and make Revenge into a film worth entering into such a symbolically and historically fraught world.

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