The excellently titled “Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley” is a Korean revenge thriller, directed by first timer Ji Ha Jean and originally released back in 2011. Though vengeance is an all too common theme in Korean cinema, the low budget indie production takes a different approach to most genre films, Ji aiming for more of a spaghetti Western type feel, with interesting and entertaining results. Indeed, since this might well have marked the film as a possible cult hit, it’s a bit of a mystery why it’s taken so long to make it to DVD, especially given its solid performance at a variety of international festivals, including winning two awards at the 15th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival.
The plot follows actor Lee Moo Saeng (“Our Town”) as Chul Ki, a young man recently released from prison after a 12-year stretch and now looking for revenge on the men who murdered his sister, the film opening with him torturing and killing his first victim. Heading off on his motorbike to a small rural town in Gangwon province to track down the others, he finds the corrupt place filled with illegal gambling dens and overrun with vice. Hiding out at a Buddhist monastery, he hooks up with a young woman (Choi Ji Eun) working at one of the local casinos as a prostitute and who is looking for revenge for her own reasons. The monastery comes under threat from a ruthless property developer, who sends in the villainous Ghostface to clear out the monks – who just happens to be the man at the top of Chul Ki’s kill list.
It doesn’t take long to realise that “Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley” is indeed very different to the average Korean revenge flick, which given the never ending stream of films about sombre, angst-ridden retribution, is no bad thing. Director Ji Ha Jean proudly wears his influences on his sleeve, chiefly Sergio Leone, and the film really does have the feel of a kind of laid back western, with a dash of Robert Rodriguez thrown in for good measure. The sound track echoes this, as does the performance of Lee Moo Saeng, who comes across part Clint Eastwood and part Charles Bronson, though with somewhat of a laid-back charm.
With its reasonably complex plot depicting layers of corruption and schemes involving water distribution, the film also recalls Polanski’s classic “Chinatown”, and the mix is a good one, livening up the basic revenge theme with some dark and cynical social commentary. Ji also scores points for above average storytelling, the film working in good use of flashbacks and a vaguely fractured narrative which unfolds at its own, unhurried pace, making for a languidly pleasing slow-burn feel.
With the film having been apparently shot in less than a month and for just $35,000, it’s unsurprisingly a bit rough round the edges, Ji at times showing his inexperience. However, it’s still a very accomplished and impressive piece of work, with some excellent visuals and a great dusty and dirty atmosphere. Though the theme of evil property developers is nothing new, it’s freshened up by the rural setting and the Buddhist monastery location, suggesting a conflict between tradition and the merciless tide of modernity. The film also manages a decent amount of action and violence, frequently getting pretty bloody and inventively nasty, and though the choreography can be a touch shoddy in places, it’s generally effective. Ji does a good job in spacing out the action scenes, the brutality tending to come in sudden and shocking spurts, and this fits well with the protagonist’s oddly easy going and low key approach, more so than the usual high-octane, all guns blazing approach to vengeance would have.
This also helps “Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley” to stand out from the crowded playing field of Korean revenge cinema, and though flawed, it’s an amazing achievement in many ways, and one which should be enjoyed by genre fans. Ji Ha Jean will hopefully return in the near future, armed with a bigger budget, and given the strengths displayed here, the results will definitely be worth checking out.
Ha-jean Ji (director) / Ha-jean Ji (screenplay)
CAST: Lee Moo Saeng … Chul Ki
Choi Ji Eun