HKAFF 2011: BLOODY FIGHT IN IRON-ROCK VALLEY Review
[As Ji Ha Jean's award-winning film is screening as part of this year's HKAFF, I'm giving this earlier review a bump.]
As its title might suggest, BLOODY FIGHT IN IRON-ROCK VALLEY is a stripped-down, low budget Korean revenge thriller that resembles a sand blown spaghetti western more closely than the ultra stylish heroic bloodshed epics for which the domestic industry has become famous. Either way, BLOODY FIGHT turned heads at PIFAN, where it enjoyed its World Premiere, and walked off with two awards - Best Korean Independent Film and the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation award for Best Asian Genre Film of the year.
The debut feature from writer-director Ji Ha Jean, BLOODY FIGHT is the story of a newly released convict returning to his hometown in rural Kangwon province to avenge a family tragedy. His sights are set on a shady construction syndicate with ties to organized crime, and in particular a heavy named Ghostface. Along the way, this nameless angel of death crosses paths with a young prostitute employed by the gang to lure men from the nearby town into their gambling dens, and before long she has her own motives for revenge.
Filmed on a shoestring budget in less than a month, the film wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, from the nameless anti-hero (Lee Moo Saeng) riding into town, to the haunting Morricone-laced score. The actor playing Ghostface also bears an uncanny resemblance to Charles Bronson's Harmonica from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, although as with that film, it is our almost silent hero who is given a musical crutch (in this case a music box) to add mystery and menace to his persona.
Ji attempts to bridge the gap between old and new Korea as his story focuses on the industrialization boom that has wiped the countryside clean of its traditional heritage. A Buddhist monastery is targeted as the last remaining source of clean water after incessant mining pollutes the local river. Echoing films such as MR. MAJESTYK, FIRE DOWN BELOW and even Polanski's CHINATOWN, the gangsters hold the resident community to ransom in the hope of moving them off the land so their redevelopment can get underway.
It is a delicate balance Ji is aiming for, approaching authentic Korean themes with a Western-influenced eye for operatics and drama that makes a pleasant change for a Korean action thriller. The restraints imposed on the production by its meagre budget mean that the action beats and make-up effects are not as lavish or lurid as they might have been otherwise, but it helps the film steer clear from the more commonplace blood-soaked mayhem that has become increasingly commonplace.
That is not to say BLOODY FIGHT is without its moments of violence, and when they come, weapons such as hammers, wrenches and even blowtorches are employed, bringing us at least partway back to more familiar territory. But after the dust settles it will be for its stillness, patience and atmospherics that the film is recognised and applauded, rather than its adrenaline-fueled action or attention-seeking histrionics.