Broken (Bang-hwang-ha-neun kal-nal)

Korea (2014) Dir. Lee Jeong-ho

It’s fair to say that Korea has pretty much cornered the market in making violent and grisly revenge thrillers over the past decade or so, with such disturbing yet intensely engrossing fare as The Chaser, I Saw The Devil, Oldboy et al.

Broken, based on the novel Samayou (The Hovering Blade) by Japanese author Keigo Higashino, is an often sparse but still upsetting tale centred around widower Lee Sang-hyeon (Jung Jae-young) whose long working hours means he rarely gets to see his teenage daughter Su-Jin (Lee Soo-bin). One night Sang-hyeon returns home to find Su-Jin is not there or answering her phone. Assuming she is staying with friends Sang-hyeon thinks nothing of it.

The next day Sang-hyeon is called to the police morgue to identify his daughter’s body after it was found in a bathhouse. Sang-hyeon then receives an anonymous text message with the address of one of the culprits, Kim Chul-Young (Kim Ji-Hyuk). He visits the house and sees Chul-Young watching a video of the attack on Su-Jin and in a fit of rage kills the boy. Using Chul-Young’s mobile, Sang-hyeon hunts down the other attacker Jo Doo-Sik (Lee Joo-Seung), while the police go in pursuit of Sang-hyeon.

As revenge thrillers go, this one cuts deep through largely resisting the same traps as its predecessors. There is one brief chase sequence yet it is a tense viewing experience; there is little violence but is disturbing to watch; it isn’t glossily shot yet it is visually pleasing; and despite a few unnecessary burst of evocative overtures, music is used sparingly with silence being more effective.

What makes this so uncomfortable to watch is the relentless passing the buck of responsibility by characters on every level, usually for selfish reasons. It raises questions about the morality of crime and whether there is such a thing as a league table where one act can override another in terms of gravity, culpability and punishment. Lee Jeong-ho’s adapted script doesn’t offer any answers but lays out a muddy scenario for us to think long and hard about it.

For Sang-hyeon it is pretty black and white – as a father who recently lost his wife to cancer he wants revenge for his daughter’s senseless murder. The video he saw Chul-Young watching shows she was drugged and raped before her death, so as a grieving father it is difficult not to sympathise with him or understand his motives to see justice served in the most basic and instinctive tit-for-tat manner.

The police, lead by hardheaded Detective Eok-Gwan (Lee Sung-Min) is keen to avoid another homicide but it is his flaccid advice to Sang-hyeon to go home and let the police do their job which sets off this journey of vengeance. Once Chul-Young’s death makes the news the police are more interested in saving face in the eye of the public, with Sang-hyeon’s capture a priority over bringing Doo-Sik to justice.

Where the situation becomes most clouded and debatably quite infuriating is when Chul-Young’s parents are interviewed after his death. To their astonishment they are told about their son’s abduction and rape practices, complete with video evidence, which they ignore, claiming HE is the victim now he is deceased. We can’t fault them as grieving parents but this instant and blanket dismissal of this news leaves a nasty taste in one’s mouth.

As much as the central theme is vengeance over justice permeates through the every frame of this film, it is this particular scene which hits the hardest and clouds our judgement the most. Its long lasting effect sees us suddenly seeing things from the police’s perspective and we no wonder whether Sang-hyeon should cease his quest for revenge and hand himself in.

No-one comes out looking good in this film, from teens to adults, which makes it such bleak and depressing viewing. Having seen enough Korean films of this nature, the attitudes and actions depicted here are, for wanting a better term, par for the course, although we should consider that the source material is Japanese, which Lee Jeong-ho quite conceivably could have altered it for his native audience.

Sang-hyeon isn’t a crazed man seeking vengeance, he is a broken man running on auto-pilot, unsure of what he is doing yet still focused on his mission. He suffers on every stage of the journey, enduring the vicissitudes of the harsh weather conditions of the Korean winter. He is mentally fragile, confused, hurt and not a natural killer, he is simply acting as wronged parent instinctively would who finds himself out of his depth.

It is a testament to the cast that we are able to be so emotionally invested and affected by the characters behaviour. Jung Jae-young gives one of his richest and deeply involved performances as Sang-hyeon, reaffirming his status as one of Korea’s most reliable and bankable actors. His portrayal is a master class of subtlety and nuance, raw emotion and physical commitment to the role.

Jung may be top billed but he doesn’t dominate the screen time, allowing the capable support of Lee Sung-Min as the stressed veteran detective and Seo Jun-Young as the younger detective Park to represent the other side of the moral dilemma this story conveys.

In just his second film as director Lee Jeong-ho deliberately subverts the usual thriller formula in terms of pacing, mood and camerawork for the first half before bowing to conventions for the final act, albeit retaining a hefty dose of the emotional resonance steadily built up beforehand. Handheld cameras are used heavily, creating an intimate and jaunty visual narrative, the close-ups of Sang-hyeon’s tortured face are particularly haunting.

Broken is very much a different take on the revenge thriller, and while not as visceral as others it offers the requisite drama while its fresh approach to exploring the moral implications of revenge are suitably thought provoking. A quietly taut and affecting chiller.

2 thoughts on “Broken (Bang-hwang-ha-neun kal-nal)

  1. One of the key themes of the film was the lack of respect for women for lack of a better way of phrasing it. There are many female victims of violence and exploitation which is horrifying but what makes it worse is the way that society can overlook them, that the parents of the boys can ignore the evil acts and defend their offspring. It was something that you saw in Poetry and Han Gong-Ju where parents would rush in with petitions asking for their sons to be absolved.


    1. This is true and thanks for pointing it out. I was aware of this but with my imposed word limit chose to focus on the general angle of which crime is worse.

      There are two key scenes which highlight this issue, one is particularly sickening while the other is subtle and gets a retrospective explanation later in the film.

      But yes, there is an abhorrent patriarchal bias in Korean (and let’s be frank Asian in general) society which needs addressing, although whether a film, like this or the excellent “Poetry”, can open eyes to this is naive optimism personified.


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