October 10, 2017
Revenge (1989) concerns a vengeance that cannot be contained by time. It floats through the centuries, traveling from 17th century Korea to 20th century Sakhalin Island, a much fought over spit of land squabbled over by Russia and Japan. A free-form mass of condensed hate emerges during this period, one which causes the death of a little girl and the mission of her doomed half-brother, who is conceived and raised only to avenge her murder. A major work of what became known as the Kazakh New Wave, Revenge is elusive and incantatory due in part to the script by the Korean-Russian poet Anatoli Kim that does not provide as much of a narrative as it does a striking collage of decay. Add to this the fact that director Ermek Shinarbaev was born in Soviet controlled Kazakhstan, but after Revenge was filmed the Soviet system collapsed and Kazakhstan became a sovereign state. The film reflects the rootlessness, uncertainty and bitterness of no longer having a place to call home. Restored in 2010 thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, it is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion (in Volume 2 of their World Cinema Project series), and is now streaming on FilmStruck.
Shinarbaev studied at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (aka VGIK), the oldest film school in the world, having been founded in 1919. He was there for eleven years (1970 – 1981), but his time there didn’t overlap with the future Kazakh New Wave filmmakers (Serik Aprimov, Sergei Dvortsevoy, Ardak Amirkulov, Amir Karakulov, Darezhan Omirbaev) who all joined a workshop with filmmaker Sergei Soloviev in 1984. Shinarbaev would be lumped in with them anyway, as it was good publicity for all involved. After graduation Shinarbaev spent, as noted in Tanner Tafelski’s essential interview at The Brooklyn Rail, “three years in Kazakhstan trying to do something as a filmmaker,” and after no funding, he “decided to quit forever.”
But then he discovered the work of Anatoli Kim, who he blindly started harassing in an effort to adapt his work. They would make three films together, and their third and final collaboration, Revenge, was buffeted more than usual by bizarre production circumstances. Kim had originally written the script for a famous Russian actor to make, but it had been definitively rejected. Shinarbaev accepted the project sight-unseen, inherently trusting Kim’s talent. But the Russian state funding arm was reluctant to give money to a Kazakh filmmaker working on a Russian subject, so he was only given 30% of his proposed budget, a total of 800,000 rubles. Two directors of photography quit weeks into production, and the assistant DP Sergei Kosmanev would finish the job – astonishing considering the film’s hieratically beautiful lighting, which in his Criterion essay Kent Jones describes as the film’s “awed respect for the sheer power of light.”
The story is split into seven parts, and the main thread follows the aftermath of a senseless murder of a young girl by her schoolteacher Yan (Nikolai Tacheyev). Seemingly unmotivated, it is an act of pure evil. The girl’s father, Tsai (Kasym Zhakibayev), vows revenge at any cost, and after his first attempt fails, he has a child with a younger woman, vowing that this boy, named Sungu (Aleksandr Pan) will be trained to seek revenge in the face of his father’s failure (this plot is strikingly similar to that of Lady Snowblood , which I wrote about earlier this year). Sungu’s entire life will be focused on the murder of Yan. There is a prologue that lends a cosmic dimension to this tragic tale. It is set in 17th century Korea, during which a trifling king sentences a loyal subject to be beaten to death. His friend, and court poet, is also named Sungu, and is suitably disgusted by this act and requests to leave the kingdom. He is doomed to exile, wishing to depart “as a nothing remembering nothing, to become once again the nothing that means nothing, as I was before my birth.” Then he walks over the horizon into the blazing sun.
Violence follows Sungu across generations, to be reborn in the 19th century as a weapon of vengeance, though still touched with the spirit of poetry. Briefly anyway, for the weight of his mission grows so heavy that he makes his way eastward to Sakhalin Island, the contested spit of land that was split 50/50 between Japan and Russia, with a large population of Korean laborers. Sungu throws himself into a lumber splitting job, hoping to disappear into the routine, among other men trying to disappear in this non-place. But his past emerges as a wound, one that opens up and bleeds him dry. The film in this final section becomes ritualistically symbolic, as if Sungu had anticipated his own humiliation and was acting it out to fulfill a duty. Aleksandr Pan plays him as a blank, a tool rather than a human. The further Sungu heads toward his destiny, the darker the film gets. While his 17th century self departed into the sun, here is expires into darkness. The lights dim, flickering over the ghosts that he passes on his way to Yan’s house, surrounding a vision of his father, as well as the sister he never knew. He travels to Yan’s house the site of final reckoning, where he can collapse at last.