A movie set in Korea, made in Kazakhstan, and everyone is speaking Russian. All right, let’s do this.
Available in Australia, France, the United Kingdom, and perhaps a few other countries. It is also available in the United States and probably Canada. I don’t know why JustWatch says that it is not. Anyways, it is approximately 100 minutes.
Ooo…there is a prologue.
The King observes the tortoise and wonders aloud why it always crawls in a specific direction. An advisor reminds him that it was brought to them from the sea, which is in that direction. If even the lowly tortoise has an aim, says the King, then what should be man’s aspiration? The lowly men must serve his majesty, says the advisor. Well, that takes care of most people, I suppose.
The young Prince is play fighting with some other boy. Or real fighting. A guard offers to take the other boy away, but the King decides to just keep watch to see how his heir does. Eventually the Prince runs tearfully back to daddy, who is unhappy at his son’s poor showing. The King orders the Minister of the Army to fetch the mightiest warrior in the kingdom. That would be Chon Guk, Head of the Palace Guards.
Oh, there he is.
The King relieves Chon Guk of his duty as Head of the Palace Guards and appoints him mentor of the heir apparent. Chon Guk must ensure that the Prince is the strongest warrior in the kingdom by the time that he is 20-years-old, and the King gives him permission to do whatever he deems necessary to achieve that goal. I hope that does not involve ordering the execution of all of the better warriors, but the King does not explicitly exclude that option. And if Chon Guk fails, then he will be executed. So…
Time passes and…oh, Chon Guk is dead? But I guess that he fulfilled his duty. The Prince was put through absolute hell and emerged invincible, in his own words. And he seems no worse for wear. And since the King is also dead, the Prince is now the King.
Apparently, though, the Prince, now King, may not have been the greatest warrior. It seems like he ordered a subject to duel with him and that man got the better of him, but avoided killing him. For his loyal mercy, the King ordered the man to be executed. I am not sure if it is due to the humiliation or because he failed to display his full force when fighting the King. Either way, the King goes over to the guy and offers a rematch, but the guy declines, preferring to…be beaten to death. Well, so it goes.
The King asks his dear friend the Poet to recite a poem…in full view of the soon-to-be-fatal beatdown. The Poet…wait, is this the same person who was fighting with the Prince all those years ago? In any case, the Poet is obviously unsettled by the execution. He tries to stall and comes very close to voicing outright objection to the execution. The King, however, notices only that his friend has been unhappy for a while, and asks what is wrong. The Poet begs for permission to leave the palace, saying that his inspiration has been sapped by the King’s strength and will perish if not set free. The King is not happy about this, but he allows his dear friend to leave. Heck, he can leave right now if he so desires. But he is to never see the King again. And then the King stomps off.
And the Poet leaves. And in his poem, he wishes to depart as a nothing, remembering nothing, meaning nothing, as like before his birth. He regrets his poems ever seeing the light of day, and hopes that in returning to nothing, his soul will regret nothing.
Hey, that’s the poster image.
Oh, well…that’s nice.
And now that the prologue is over, we reach our first tale: Yan
It is 1915…wait, what?? What year was the prologue? You know what, whatever. It is 1915.
Yan runs through a village to the house of Master Tsai. He yells to be let in. Just climb over the fence, dude. A woman comes over, throws his bag of belongings over the fence, and tells him to go somewhere else as her family refuses to feed him anymore. He asks to stay just one more night. Nope. So, Yan cries himself to sleep in a barn.
The next day, Yan is teaching a group of children in the barn. He has not slept well, and is coping by verbally abusing the amused kids. When he notices Tsai’s daughter being particularly inattentive, he singles her out for a scolding. Though her father had forbidden Yan from punishing her, he runs after her and…uh…kills her with a scythe? Well, he runs out of the barn while the other kids…go to see what he did.
Tsai’s wife goes to Tsai, crying about the murder. He leaves his field and takes his horse to the river, where a boat has just departed for the Chinese coast. He yells at the boat to stop, but to no avail. He falls in the water and can only cry out in futility.
And now on to tale two: Tsai
Tsai goes to a Mr. Gu. Tsai is leaving his land due to a great crime and asks Gu to look over it for…ten years. He offers half the harvest and the promise of earning three times that in the ten years. Is that a good deal? I don’t know. Gu agrees for eleven years, and will give Tsai half the sum in bonds which can be cashed in China. Oh, I guess that Gu knows why Tsai is leaving.
So, Tsai embarks on his journey. And it goes on for years. Also, here he is riding a horse while blindfolded.
Finally, Tsai learns that Yan is in some silver mine. He goes to the…sleeping quarters and…um…just waits, frightening the heck out of Yan. But he still waits.
When the overseer comes the next day to wake everyone up, a woman arrives asking for shoes, despite not being allowed there. All of the workers walk by her as they leave for work; only Tsai and Yan remain, though the overseer returns to tend to her feet. Tsai worries that all of this will distract him from his plot. And, indeed, after the overseer gives her a pair of shoes, she turns to Tsai and tells him that he will be unable to carry out his plan. Huh?
Well, that apparently does not deter Tsai. He stands up to reveal his scythe. He walks over to Yan and…drops the scythe when a little hedgehog squeals. He gets a headache and has to sit back down. He says that he is weak, but must still kill Yan. The overseer tries to stop them and they tussle. While the overseer keeps Tsai pinned, the woman goes over to Yan and takes him away. After the two leave, the overseer lets go of Tsai, who says that his efforts to prevent the killing will be in vain.
Tsai eventually returns home to find…oh, what the heck?
Later that evening, Tsai’s wife asks why he returned home if he had failed to get revenge. He doesn’t answer. So…she tells him to take a peasant girl or young widow for a concubine. She will give birth to a son…and…?
Oh, here is the tale of the concubine: The Mute One
Tsai and his wife meet with an old widow and her daughter. The widow asks Tsai to not get angry with her daughter, saying that she is simple-minded like a child, but is a hard worker…and will surely give him a son.
And she does…isn’t he cute? His name is Sungu.
And here is Sungu at school. I guess that this is poetry class, and the teacher asks a question that seems to be along the lines of the tree falling when no one is around, but about a white lily. Then he tries to compare a just-written poem to a lily. Do poems live their own independent lives in nature or does they require people to create them? When Sungu says the latter, the teacher tells him to take care of himself, for he will bless the world with unique poems and earn great honor. Well, that’s nice. Maybe not so nice to say in front of all of the other kids, but it is better than what his half-sister got.
Sungu’s mother waves to him from outside. He goes to the window and waves back, provoking laughter from the other children. The teacher asks whether she is cold waiting outside, but Sungu says that she is fine; she just misses him.
The day finally comes that Tsai is on his deathbed. He tells Sungu that he was brought into this world for only one reason: revenge. Until the injustice is made just, Sungu is not to take a wife, father children, feel joy, or feel sorrow. That is his destiny…does…he even know about his half-sister? In any case, his father makes him promise, which he immediately does. Tsai’s wife gives Tsai the scythe, who hands it to Sungu.
Sungu walks out as Tsai breathes his last breath. He sits by the front gate for who knows how long, looking at nothing. His mother tries to console him, but she can see that something has changed in him, so she leaves him alone. Later, she returns and tries to shield him from the sun. She eventually builds a little roof on top of his head. It is only then that he briefly looks at her before turning back to nothing…for days. Weeks. Months.
A year passes and…Sungu is still there. A man in a horse-drawn cart comes around, asking if this is still the house of Tsai. Sungu says yes, so the man tells him to call someone from the family. Sungu says that he is the son of Tsai. The man is surprised, but Sungu says that he is the child of Tsai’s second wife. And with that, the man starts to leave.
Tsai’s wife emerges from the house just in time to see the man leave. It’s Yan, she shouts, almost fainting. After twenty-five years, he is still alive and unavenged. Yan mocks her, saying that he had returned of his own free will, having heard that Tsai has died. In tears, she tells Sungu to look at Yan and remember that face. That is the man whom he must cut to pieces with the sickle…oh, I had been calling it a scythe. Anyways, that man is Sungu’s target.
Yan laughs contemptuously as he leaves. His wife looks back rather stoically.
That is the end of this tale. There are four left, but I will stop now.
So, before I start talking about the movie itself, I want to talk about how all of these Koreans ended up in Kazakhstan. Even before founding China’s Qing Dynasty in 1644, the Machus invaded Joseon in 1627 and 1636, forcing the kingdom into submission. During…let’s say the early-to-mid 1800s, poor Koreans were coerced into moving towards the border with eastern Russia. Then, in 1860, that territory got ceded to Russia, making over 5,000 Koreans the responsibility of Russia. Still, more and more Koreans migrated to that territory through the various wars and whatnot.
By the time that Stalin took power, the Korean peninsula was under the control of Imperial Japan, which had a rather complicated relationship with Russia. For…some reason…there was suspicions that Japan was sending spies into the Soviet Union through these Koreans. So, in 1937, over 170,000 ethnic Koreans were deported to Central Asia. Around 100,000 were sent to Kazakhstan and around 70,000 were sent to Uzbekistan. Additionally, somewhere between 16,500 and 50,000 ethnic Koreans died because of this.
In November of 1989, the Supreme Council of the Soviet Union considered all of Stalin’s deportations illegal and criminal. Was the release of this movie a factor in that decision? I have no idea. Probably not. But the coincidence is strange if not. These days it is considered an attempt at ethnic cleansing…which didn’t really even work, as the USSR had picked up some territory from Japan after the war that had Korean residents. In any case, though these ethnic Koreans in the late 1980s may have kept some parts of their heritage, most of them had been too distanced from their roots to be repatriated to either Korea. Now with the Korean Wave? Maybe…I don’t know.
How many of the actors in this movie are ethnic Koreans? I am not sure, as there is very little information about them in English. I believe that I had read that most of them are, but I cannot remember where, so don’t take my word for it. It was written by Kazakh author Anatoli Kim, whose mother was ethnically Russian and whose father was ethnically Korean. So…yeah. I do find it a little odd that this movie is not only made shortly before the collapse of the USSR, but also seems to feature the heritage of a people without mentioning that their recent ancestors were forcibly separated from their heritage during the timeframe portrayed in the movie without. But, anyways…
I cannot say that I am too familiar with Kazakh films or even Soviet films, so some of the things that I saw in this film may be common tropes and I wouldn’t really know about it. But that is how I am approaching it.
This movie is also called The Reed Flute, but let’s be honest, the movie is called Revenge. That is what the Russian title translates to. In the prologue, the king asks what must man’s highest aspiration be directed. Does the movie’s title answer that question? Maybe. But there is an alternative presented: poetry. The end of the prologue states that some of the world’s first professional poets appeared in Korea. Yet, the movie seems to suggest that poetry must be cherished and fostered. And getting diverted by violence could be ruinous to the beauty of the art. Yeah, no poetry of war here. But there is certainly beauty. Look at that light.
Well…is it violence or is it injustice? Young Sungu seems to have a wonderful life and his poetry comes from that. But then his dying father tells him of his destiny and his whole trajectory changes. It is not a matter of whether his poetry gets worse; he makes no more poetry whatsoever. His entire life is focused only on revenge. Is it a destiny of violence that turns him away from poetry or is it him finally learning about a grave injustice afflicting his family? In any case, it is then that he transforms from a boy who loved his mother to a tool of his father’s vengeance. A tool like the scythe…or sickle. He cannot show emotion. He must have no hope for a family of his own until he has fulfilled his violent destiny. It is notable that that is the only real time that we see father and son interact.
There is a story of generational trauma and a violent destiny placed upon parent to child. The play-fighting between the Prince and his friend becomes corrupted by the King’s desire for the Prince to become the best fighter in the land. And what happens? The Prince grows up to be a terror, alienating that very friend to the point of banishment and self-annihilation. This violent hatred carries on through the centuries, infecting whatever it wants. And what it wants is to infect the family of Tsai.
The movie starts just after the inciting incident that led to the big murder. What was the reason for Tsai kicking Yan out of the house? It is unclear. Perhaps Yan was unstable or simply too much to handle. Yet, at the same time, Tsai still let him act as teacher for his daughter and other kids. Of course, none of that justifies killing a little girl.
The segmenting of the movie into parts may initially make it seem like the story will concern the tit-for-tat murders between Tsai’s family and Yan’s family. That turns out not to be the case. Instead, it is about the long…very long…decade’s long quest for vengeance, that consumes one generation and threatens to consume the next. Tsai does try to kill Yan, but fails at the last moment. In his failure, he and his wife decide to place the burden onto a child who has not even been conceived yet. There is that generational trauma. And just like that generational trauma comes an illness, one that kills Tsai and occasionally afflicts Sungu. Is it punishing them for their violent souls? Or is it punishing them for straying from their path of vengeance?
The film can get a bit…odd, I suppose, specifically in the last quarter. I cannot profess to be able to pick it apart from any perspective. So, when I read reviews saying that the movie forced Soviet audience to come to terms with the forced displacement of Koreans from their homes…I suppose that I have to believe them, but I don’t quite see it. Sure, Sungu eventually does travel through Soviet territory, but there is little blatant reference to anyone getting moved around against their will by the state. Perhaps, they couldn’t without getting into trouble with the Soviet authorities. There is, however, a bit of a twist at the end.
Despite this being set primarily in Korea, almost all of the dialog in this movie is in Russian. Sure, that makes sense, due to who made it and who it was made for. The big exception is at the end. It is not exactly a spoiler as this part is not directly related to the plot, but the movie ends with two elderly sisters, whom we have never seen before. And they are speaking in Korean. Are they speaking Korean well? I cannot tell, partly because I am hardly a native speaker and there is a guy speaking over them in Russian like an interpreter. Is that a reference to the displacement? I don’t know. It is quite a decision on how to end the film. But I guess that the movie did start strangely enough, with that tortoise.
Life, death, beauty, ugliness, tortoises, hedgehogs. This movie has it all. It may not be very nice, but it is quite good.
WTF ASIA 229: Tanda Tanya (Indonesia: 2011, approx. 102 minutes)