혈의 누 (Blood Rain)

A Sidus Pictures Production
Distribution: Cinema Service
Rating: 18 and Over
Genre: Sageuk
Running Time: 119 Min
Shooting Time: N/A
Release: 2005/May/04

WITH 차승원 (Cha Seung-Won) as Lee Won-Gyu; 박용우 (Park Yong-Woo) as Kim In-Kwon; 오현경 (Oh Hyun-Kyung) as Kim Chi-Seong; 지성 (Ji Sung) as Doo-Ho; 윤세아 (Yoon Se-Ah) as Kang So-Yeon; 최종원 (Choi Jong-Won) as Choi; 박철민 (Park Cheol-Min) as Officer Choi; 유해진 (Yoo Hae-Jin) as Dok-Gi; 정규수 (Jung Gyu-Soo) as Jang; 최지나 (Choi Ji-Na) as Mudang; 천호진 (Cheon Ho-Jin) as Merchant Kang;

CREW Director 김대승 (Kim Dae-Seung) Executive Producer 김미희 (Kim Mi-Hee) Planning 강우석 (Kang Woo-Suk) | Screenplay 이원재 (Lee Won-Jae) 김성제 (Kim Seong-Je) 김대승 (Kim Dae-Seung) | Director of Photography 최영환 (Choi Young-Hwan) Lighting 김성관 (Kim Seong-Gwan) Editor 김재범 (Kim Jae-Beom) 김상범 (Kim Sang-Beom) Music 조영욱 (Jo Young-Wook) Art Direction 민언옥 (Min Eon-Ok) 양홍삼 (Yang Hong-Sam) Action Choreography 정두홍 (Jung Doo-Hong) Assistant Director 김보경 (Kim Bo-Gyeong)

BOX OFFICE
KOFIC Nationwide
TOTAL REVENUE: 12,367,924,506 Won
TOTAL ADMISSIONS: 1,926,681
BUDGET: 5,000,000,000 Won

REVIEW

Sitting down after a long day of work, drinking with the other staff members on the set of 번지점프를 하다 (Bungee Jumping of Their Own), someone joked with director Kim Dae-Seung: "Shouldn't you at least try Bungee Jumping once, like the title?&" Kim quickly answered: "Why? Did Park Ki-Hyung attend an all-female school to make 여고괴담 (Whispering Corridors)" Kim never really liked horror, he never even enjoyed the thrill of roller coasters or bungee jumping. When producer Kim Sung-Jae approached him with the idea of directing a film tentatively titled 혈우 (where the English title 'Blood Rain' comes from), director Kim wasn't exactly known for Historical Dramas: after all, his first film was a slightly off-kilter melodrama, with two big stars and a controversial story. But what could the producer do? Most of the fresh new talent in the industry was either working in producer-driven, commercially safe genre Cinema, or doing their own thing. Even though 사극 (Historical Dramas) were all over TV, most directors knew how difficult directing one was, and avoided them like the plague. Finding appropriate locations to shoot a Historical Drama in Korea was becoming increasingly hard, the dialogue was too much of a burden for most actors, and the fact that it was a genre seldom translating well on the big screen made things even worse. Attempts to make serious Historical Dramas set in the late Joseon era were made in the past, but the scale had gotten so big, the stakes so high, too much was at risk.

In 2005, could you realistically spend 7-8 Billion Won on something like Park Jong-Won's amazing 영원한 제국 (The Eternal Empire), a simple murder story turning into an indiction of the corruption and hegemony of the Noron Party in Joseon politics? Could you spend two hours building political intrigue that most people who go to the theater (teenagers) had only a vague idea about? There's a reason why 70% of the Historical Drama audience on TV is made of 30 to 60 year old males. There's also a reason why a lot of the recent big hits on TV (including 해신 (Emperor of The Sea)) made huge changes to the format of those shows, to appeal to a wider audience. 대장금 (Dae Jang Geum) might be a feast for the eyes (and mouth), and a tour de force for Lee Young-Ae, but it pales in comparison to the complexity and historical relevance of its older, more prestigious colleagues. So, in making 'Blood Rain', they had to pack an emotional punch, involve the average viewer, satisfy genre Cinema fans, be realistic enough to convey which era the film was set it, and connect the dots to make a good film. Not the easiest of things. But Kim was chosen because he went through all that before, being a longtime assistant director and disciple of Im Kwon-Taek. They worked together on 춘향뎐 (Chunhyang), he knew what he was getting into.

If you mentioned '혈의 누' to Korean people, most would bring up Lee In-Jik's masterpiece, one of the first Korean novels to use Western-style storytelling. But this script, written by Lee Won-Jae, had nothing to do with it. The moment Kim finished reading it, he called the producer right away: "I want to do it.&" It had that immediate human quality, like Umberto Eco's 'The Name of The Rose' or Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables,' with a man coming to terms with his inner self, his emotions and weaknesses. The script had caught the attention of the film community for being a sort of 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder) set in the Joseon Dynasty, but Lee's inspiration went back centuries ago. To make Lee Won-Gyu's (Cha Seung-Won) murder investigation a little more realistic, he cross-referenced the '無寃錄' (Mo Yuan Lu in Mandarin/Mu Won Rok in Korean, the 'Book of No Resentment'), a forensic medicine book about murders in the Song Dynasty, written by Wang Yu in the Yuan Dynasty, which King Sejong's scholars later translated in Korean as 신주무원록 (新註無寃錄, add 'New' to the previous title). He also distanced himself from the lavish glamour of the Joseon portrayed on TV, using the island background of the film as a sort of 'hell on earth.' As the film begins, we're introduced to Donghwa Island, a small and mysterious lot of land surrounded by perennial mist. The villagers, controlled by the elder Yangban Kim Chi-Sung (the great theater actor Oh Hyun-Kyung, father of Oh Ji-Hye) and his son In-Kwon (Park Yong-Woo), run a successful mill, producing the best paper in the Province, with trade routes extending even to China. The bi-annual tribute to the King is paid through the manufacture of the best possible paper, a situation that allows the village to sustain itself independently, even if isolated from the Mainland's affairs. It was 1808, a very turbulent period in Korean History.

Just a few decades earlier one of the most famous incidents ever recorded in the Land of the Morning Calm, King YoungJo killing his own son Prince Sado to save Joseon, under the influence of the Queen Mother Sun-Hee, ruptured the country. YoungJo worked hard to eliminate a long and agonizing strife between the Noron (노론, Old Doctrine) and Soron (소론, Young Doctrine) parties, engulfing most of the country's political history for the better part of the 17th and 18th century. During his long rule, he promoted officials from both parties to government positions, trying to tame down all the background intrigues that influenced the fate of the throne for decades. The Noron party split in two further factions after the tragic death of Sado in 1762. Those who agreed his death was inevitable, given his madness and danger posed to the throne, formed the 시파 faction (ShiPa, 時派, Clan of Expediency). Those instead who criticized YoungJo's move formed the rival 벽파 (ByeokPa, 僻派, Clan of Principle) party. When YoungJo's grandson JongJo came to the throne in 1776, all the years of hard work trying to stop all the corruption created by the Noron party's dominance and abolish party strife went to ashes. The Hong family of Pungsan (from which King JongJo's faithful ally Hong Guk-Young came), ByeokPa members, started fighting vigourously with the Pro-Catholic ShiPa members of the Kim family from Chongpung. The ByeokPa clan subsequently tried its best to kill two birds with one stone: the increasingly popular Catholic sentiments, and any influence the ShiPa clan had.

Joseon's fight against the Catholic 'invasion' might be simply seen as trying to defend their Confucian beliefs, but there's more to it. Party strife, and also the relatively insular policies of the previous Joseon rulers were to blame. They saw the advent of Catholicism as a dangerous new wind that could corrupt the commoners' minds. Its promise of equality was too appealing to people who had to live under corrupt Yangban for centuries, never able to make anything out of their lives. They also worried about the military consequences this new religious movement could have brought to a country which always struggled in between foreign powers. A major incident pointed out to this belief in 1801, when aristocratic Hwang Sa-Young sent two silk letters to Bishop de Gouvea, stationed in China, asking for intervention from the West, to invade the country so that freedom of religion could be obtained. Although the plan was already in motion, his attempt to steer Western sentiment towards Joseon's problems might have accelerated that process, starting the persecution en masse. From 1801, Catholics had to either renounce their religious beliefs or be persecuted for high treason.

Some rich members of the newly established middle class (so called 중인, 'middle people') saw an opportunity in Hwang's ideals, and supported him financially, going down with him when his plot was discovered. One of them was Commissioner Kang (a fictitious character, played with great panache by Cheon Ho-Jin) of Donghwa Island, who was murdered under suspicion of being a Catholic follower. He and his entire family killed in five different, cruel ways (impaling, boiling in hot dye, strangling with paper, crashing his head with an arrow, and finally tearing one's limbs apart). The man was respected by the entire village, loaning money to many people at low interest. But for a village that lived of simple things, like work, food, the warmth of the family, the easy superstitions bandied around by the Shaman of the village, a new line of thinking clouded their mind. Greed made its unwelcome appearance in Donghwa Island, and from that moment on, their life became a living hell. People went crazy, believing the vengeful words of the dying Kang like a mantra, expecting his bloody revenge to be consumed soon. 'Bloody rain is coming! We're all going to suffer the consequences!' screams one of the many people who betrayed Kang's honesty. When the five terrible murders of Kang's family make an unexpected re-appearance in Donghwa, seven years later, Lieutenant Lee Won-Gyu is summoned to the Island to find out the culprit.

Cha Seung-Won ironically said, in an interview after the screening of the film: "I finally graduated from middle school. Now the real studying begins.&" He's got a point. While Koreans have elected him as one of the few bonafide box office draws, it was a long and painful process for him. Starting with modeling in the late 80s, getting a few decent roles in TV Dramas, finally debuting on the big screen, with only one-dimensional characters which did little to further his career. Then came 리베라 메 (Libera Me), not exactly a great film, but his performance there raised more than a few eyebrows. Do we have a good actors on our hands? It wasn't until Cha met and started working with Kim Sang-Jin and writer Park Jung-Woo that his potential got fulfilled. Several surefire comedy hits followed, establishing him as the (male) King of Comedy. Women loved him because he showed warmth, he was masculine without unnecessary machismo, and had a great sense of humour; men respected him because he was like the older friend next door, who acted tough but was always great fun to deal with. But the moment you realize people really like your work, something changes. You stop thinking about the quick bucks, and start worrying about your future. For how long could he continue to do comedies? Until people got tired of him? Then that positive greed and hunger to become a better actor comes out. One could safely say 'Blood Rain' is the turning point of Cha's career. Assuredly stoic and stubborn in the first part, slowly allowing his conscience to get the better of his rationality in the second, Cha gives what could be considered his best performance to date. Charisma and ability to deliver ad-lib aside, this role required a lot of focus: he couldn't explode with his screen presence, because Won-Gyu's tongue is sharper than his physicality. For that reason alone, his efforts doubled, and although it'll take time for him to adapt to his new 'clothes,' and maybe even more to be accepted by critics as a 'serious' actor, I think he's got all the potential in the world to do that.

Even the rest of the cast had that 'comedian' image to get rid of, at least for this film. Choi Jong-Won, a regular of TV Sitcoms and silly mid 90s comedies, but also someone who starred in great films with historical settings, like the aforementioned The Eternal Empire, Im Kwon-Taek's 태백산맥 (The Taebaek Mountains), 서편제 (Sopyonje) and 아제아제 바라아제 (Come, Come Upward); Yoo Hae-Jin, hilarious in many of Kim Sang-Jin's films, but also able to show his serious acting in somber Historical Dramas like 토지 (Land) and of course 무사 (Musa: The Warrior); Jung Gyu-Soo (a Jang Jin regular), Park Cheol-Min, Park Yong-Woo, who played bit characters for years but then impressed in the Historical Drama 무인시대 (The Age of Warriors). It's a peculiar cast, but a very good one, taking advantage of the charisma of its veterans (Cheon Ho-Jin, Oh Hyun-Kyung), masking the evident weaknesses of its youngsters with less dialogue (a very uncomfortable looking Ji Sung). And, the fact even the main characters never take center stage, but instead the general sentiment and emotional statement of the film is allowed to come alive is another of Kim's merits.

Just like the director's intention to leave the burden of genre conventions at bay, Jo Young-Wook focuses on rhythm instead of genre preconceptions. Looking at other Historical Dramas, even the great ones like 'The Eternal Empire,' traditional Korean instruments - like Gayageum, Daegeum, and so on - are predominant, but Jo goes back to the basics: the music doesn't carry the film on its shoulders, making a louder statement than the images (like the average John Williams score would do), but it slowly captures the mood, underlines the atmosphere of the scene, helps the images convey a certain tempo, rhythm, like the best Bernard Herrmann scores. For that reason, he's not afraid of using Western inspired music, like an adaptation of Rachmaninoff's 'Piano Concerto No. 2 1st Mov.' whose pumping trombones perfectly highlight the tense finale, or Chopin's 'Waltz No.3 in A Minor.' But only someone unfamiliar with Jo's style and past works would be surprised at such a choice. Since his first soundtrack, Jo has always combined Eastern and Western music, mixed genres in an almost diabolical way, and classical music has always been a staple of his soundtracks. He used an eclectic mix of Bach, Dusty Springfield, The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits and Sarah Vaughan in 접속 (The Contact), still one of the best selling Korean OSTs of all time; Mozart, Otis Redding, Graham Nash and Carla Thomas in 해피엔드 (Happy End); his mixing of Enya, Placebo, and of all people Shostakovich (the same 'Jazz Suit No. 2 - IV Waltz' used in Stanley Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut') in 텔미썸딩 (Tell Me Something); and, last but not least, Vivaldi in 올드보이 (Oldboy). There must be a reason if every time I hear The Four Seasons (it's all over TV!) I'm reminded of that scene. The way he's able to mix the power and rhythm of the music he chooses with the images is something only the best can do.

What distinguishes the best Korean films of the last half decade from their foreign competitors is their ability to find a new milieu between genre fundamentals (which is different from conventions, mind you), and the creative will to distance themselves from easy labeling. Jang Joon-Hwan's 지구를 지켜라 (Save The Green Planet) and Ryu Seung-Wan's films ooze love for Genre Cinema, but they're not just content with simply following the rules, they give a fresh and invigorating personal spin to them. Embarking on a genre like that of Historical Drama was like walking blindfolded on a mine field. There are too many established preconceptions about the genre, from the obsession with attention to details, historical accuracy, traditional music and tempo. But director Kim decided to take that blindfold off, and jump the entire field, abandoning genre preconceptions, and any need to follow particular rules: if anything, he used whatever he needed from the genre (like the obvious historical setting, forensic medicine, enough political intrigue thrown in to be able to make an allegory on the modern man's psyche), and went along on his own. That, in short, is the main reason why Blood Rain works. Take it within the Historical Drama genre, and it might fail, for its flaws in historical accuracy (which are not many, but if you need to nitpick, you can have your day), its penchant for shying away from the period's political and social turmoil to make a more general statement; take it as a whodunit thriller, and it might fail as well. While a lot of the tempo of the film embraces the atmosphere of many giallo's, there isn't any obsession towards the identity of the murderer. 'Who' is the murderer is not important here, it's 'Why' he did it what the director cares about.

Choi Min-Shik's character in 주먹이 운다 (Crying Fist) talks of how boxing is a metaphor for life. In this film, the 'collective' personality of the Island becomes a character of its own, and eventually a metaphor for life, telling us the only thing we should be afraid of is ourselves. For greed, ambition, jealousy and envy are scarier than ghosts or superhuman appearances; for a society that places all the attention on catching the killer without trying to understand why and what led him to do it is bound to repeat the same mistakes. In a way, the final allegory of the bloody rain, more than a 'Magnolia'-like McGuffin, is a warning that every single person's judgment can be blinded by such weaknesses. And the fact a film can carry all the burden of genre formulas effectively, and at the same time say something so simple yet so powerful, is in itself a great feat.

Originally Published on Twitch - 2005/Sep/12

ACTING GRADES

79 박용우 (Park Yong-Woo)
77 오현경 (Oh Hyun-Kyung)
77 차승원 (Cha Seung-Won)
75 최종원 (Choi Jong-Won)
74 최지나 (Choi Ji-Na)
73 천호진 (Cheon Ho-Jin)
70 정규수 (Jung Gyu-Soo)
67 유해진 (Yoo Hae-Jin)
63 윤세아 (Yoon Se-Ah)
60 지성 (Ji Sung)
60 박철민 (Park Cheol-Min)

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