Low-budget filmmakers love to dabble in genre fare and, despite inexperience and other shortcomings, they often wind up making more pertinent and exciting works than more established helmers, who may have lost their youthful filmmaking pizzazz. Horror is particularly popular for budding cineastes: it is cheap; relatively simple; and offers many opportunities for experimentation. Sci-fi, though trickier, has also been thoroughly mined by young filmmakers. Westerns on the other hand are among the hardest genre films to realize.
Film lovers are drawn to this genre and it is no surprise. Its sweeping vistas, epic stories and enduring iconoclasm remain popular among directors looking to make their mark. However, this is a difficult feat to accomplish. First of all westerns are visually demanding and feature the type of careful attention to mise-en-scene that requires time, effort and money. Other genres can cut back on this in certain ways, especially horror, but not the western. The next thing and perhaps the hardest, is striking the right balance and tone. Horror and sci-fi films, depending on their angle, may not need to be taken seriously, but a western will sink or swim on its ability to properly engage a viewer and for a neophyte in the director's chair, this is often too much to ask for.
Let's get this out of the way first: Ji Ha-jean's Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley is a low-budget Korean western that was shot within a month, as such it isn't perfect. That said, it more than makes up for its financial shortcomings with deliberate pacing, evocative lensing and atmospheric staging. It's a film that knows what it wants to be and, in mining its bounty of generic tropes, winds up both playful and ambitious, if amateurish at times.
The film begins somewhere at a crossroads between Sergio Leone's 'Man With No Name' trilogy and the many Korean revenge thrillers that have regaled modern cinephiles. A man (with no name) is released from prison and immediately makes his way out East (sorry, this is Korea after all) to the lush Gangwon province where he plans to exact revenge for reasons that are not immediately revealed to us. Of course there is a gang full of misfits and sadists, a wheel chair bound boss, a prostitute with her own agenda, a rifle-toting local whose had it up to here and a Buddhist temple. All the elements are set in place.
However they don't immediately gel and it does take a little meandering until the atmosphere becomes suitably rich and ominous. When things do click Bloody Fight becomes exactly what we want it to be, and given its limitations, probably all we could expect it to be. The home stretch of the narrative is teeming with double-crosses, barren landscapes, duels and quick draws.
What saves it from being thin, because it isn't all that far from that unhappy distinction, is its aforementioned ambition. It's a genre film with a social agenda: incidentally my favorite kind and part of what drew me to Korean cinema in the first place. It's not a huge social agenda but it does touch on some of the woeful instances of corruption that were so commonplace in yesteryear's Korea (though one could debate how much things have really changed).
Rather than being asearing exploration of society and history, like Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder (2003), the success of Ji's approach here is that his film's backstory and subtext give some much-needed weight to the two-dimensional characters. It creates a real narrative and gives us something to care about. So by the time we've plunged headlong into the big generic set-pieces, we have cause to root for the unnamed and stoic protagonist and we can share in the ambivalence he begins to feel regarding his vendetta.
I've been looking forward to watching Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley ever since I heard about after last year's Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival and I'm happy to say that it did not disappoint. Just know what you're getting yourself into, as from an aesthetic standpoint, while the film is well shot, it is very rough around the edges and may be off-putting for some. It's staging is not always convincing and the film's early sequences aren't immediately engaging. These minor misgivings aside, Bloody Fight stands as one of the most successful low-budget genre efforts to hail from Korea. Now let's see if Ji gets the chance to make and impress us with that all-important sophomore feature.
Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley is currently on limited release (since July 12th) in its native Korea following a successful run on the festival circuit.
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