July 28, 2015

For the Emperor: Nothing to Learn from Beautiful Bashings

How does violence affect the brain? Well, the first time I saw the prolonged, audio-enhanced knifing sequence in For the Emperor, during which our antihero Lee Hwan (Li Min-ki) and his fellow thugs stab away in a shadowy hallway packed to the gills with rival gangsters, I flinched repeatedly. When the scene was repeated (I'm assuming, unchanged) after we'd learned the sad story of Lee's downfall from pro baseball player to pro kneecap basher, I barely winced at all. This does not bode well when you consider all the murder and mayhem we choose to watch and re-watch in movies, TV series and video games. Within two hours I'd already become pretty much inured to all those knives puncturing bodies to a Foley soundtrack.

Not that the butchery ever feels totally real in For the Emperor. The merciless, long, lean killing machine that is the mop-headed, dead-eyed Lee Hwan is a sinewy cartoon of cruelty. He doesn't respect elder mafiosos Jung Sang-ha (Park Soong-woong) and Han-Deuk (Kim Jong-goo) so much as he's intent on learning their ways so he can take their place. His prostitute lover Madame Cha (Lee Tae-im) is more reward than relationship. It's as if Lee has viewed this movie more times than we have. He's absorbed director Park Sang-jun's message entirely: Violence pays! But whose message is it? Maybe comic book artist Kim Seong-dong on whose work the movie is based...

I've never thought graphic novels had very deep truths to tell. Even those I've enjoyed — Nick Abadzis Laika, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood — felt like children books for adults, and were nothing to rival a novel like Lee Chang-rae's A Gesture life or an autobiography like Cullen Thomas' Brother One Cell. Is it that drawn pictures can't speak as powerfully as words? And is there anything to be learned from the orgy of blood that sometimes erupts in For the Emperor? Or should we be chastened for finding it entertaining? Probably the latter. So how to explain I like this movie nonetheless? Shame on me!

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