The other day I saw Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, a simply fantastic Korean film. It turned up in a local film festival and it was a real thrill compared to some of the poop that’s on everywhere else right now. At its heart, the movie is a stylish revenge story, and one that encourages the viewer to relish the revenge as much or even more than the protagonist does!
After mulling over the film a little, I am reminded of how much I love a good revenge story, yet it’s one that’s seldom touched on in Hollywood (or elsewhere?). Some examples come to mind, with Taxi Driver and Leon/The Professional as particular favourites, but perhaps the dubious morality of a good revenge story is a bit much for most people.
This is interesting, as the Elizabethans and Romans loved a good revenge play. I first came to notice them as a stand-out genre in a Shakespearean Tragedy class at university. Hamlet is the obvious one, but there are others, I love Richard III in particular, although it’s probably not strictly a revenge play. The Revenger’s Tragedy by Thomas Middleton, is a richly wicked example of the genre, with the lead killing his near-blind nemesis by painting poisoned lipstick on his wife’s skull and having the old man make out with it!
Why is revenge so alluring to us? I think it comes down to the simple fact that we can see the most exquisite punishement inflicting on the most deserving. Revengers are driven beyond any sanity to enact their revenge upon their enemy and in the process, their characters undergo exciting and dramatic transformations. There’s something thrilling about seeing good people do very, very bad things, for entirely the right reasons.
Revenge also allows the writer to concoct the most bizarre and unusual punishment for the antagonist and yet it still rings true to the audience. In Leon we see our hero take apart a SWAT team single-handed and then work over the thugs of Gary Oldman, before finishing off the big cheese himself. Hamlet orchestrates a play which is a parody of his Step Father’s murder of his Father, before a stylish duel sees half the actors expire on stage. In Taxi Driver, Robert Dinero goes postal on just the right kind of wrong people, and does it with relish. I won’t spoil Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, but I will say that it includes a visceral, twisted and engaging ending worthy of the best revenge plots!
While Hollywood doesn’t seem keen on revenge (perhaps it’s just not PC enough?), computer games seem to embrace it, particularly first person shooters. Think of just about any modern shooter and you’ll have strong elements of revenge, with a common theme being hacking, shooting and blasting your way through hordes of bad guys to get to the boss who has put your character through some rough time. Games developers have always been happy to touch on visceral subjects more readily than mainstream movies so perhaps it’s not surprising we see this theme here.
So, lets see more revenge! It’s cathartic, exciting, righteous and decadent. What’s not to like?