The pre-glasnost era of Soviet Cinema, as rich as it was with luminary filmmakers, permitted a very narrow set of interpretations regarding Stalinism. The twin forces of state censorship and penal authority forced artists of the time to adhere to frameworks that preserve and promote the image of a harmonious and productive Soviet state. The relaxation of authoritarian censorship during the twilight years of the Soviet Union incited an iconoclastic epoch of filmmaking that transgressed the previous taboos regarding the depiction of Soviet history. One of the most energetic offshoots of this historical episode was the Kazakh New Wave, ushered in by a throng of graduates from the Moscow State Film Institute eager to use the state’s newfound permissiveness of artistic expression to experiment in new cinematic territory. One such forbidden topic was the deportation of over 170,000 Koreans to Kazakhstan in 1937, which not only bereaved hundreds of thousands of their homeland and heritage and led to a substantial loss of life. The first film to ever grapple with the enduring effects of this monumental displacement was Revenge by Kazakh New Wave filmmaker Yermek Shinarbaev. Shinarbaev documents the legacy of the Korean diaspora with a poetic sensibility that enshrines a tragic history in an epic odyssey for retribution.
Revenge’s central story begins with the disgraced teacher Yan murdering one of his pupils in drunken rage, prompting him to flee to China pursued by the slain schoolgirl’s father, Tsai. Upon failing to exact his revenge on his daughter’s killer, he impregnates a young concubine to produce a son, Sungu, whose sole purpose in life is to avenge his half sister. Sungu internalizes his father’s dying wish as his preordained destiny and lets his obsessive fixation on vengeance lead him to self-destruction. The lifelong plight of Sungu to requite a crime that he can only indirectly relate to unveils the rancid determinism of intergenerational spite. As profound as it is unsettling, the fate that Sungu finds himself unable to deviate from is congruent to the generation of displaced Koreans who must inherit the burden of hatred relayed to them by their parents and as such sacrifice some existential autonomy. The scope of the film is expanded by its prologue set in the seventeenth century, in which a tale of imperial cruelty establishes the desire for revenge as an innate human impulse, making it a force that permeates both temporal and political contexts.
The swirling toil and hardship created by the codes of filial retribution are backgrounded by the teachings of a wandering monk who seeks to liberate Sungu from his predestined duty. The monk tries to enlighten Sungu about the cosmic insignificance of his vain pursuit, and the universal grace that surrounds even premature death, reminding him that for the departed, “the waters that lap against the kingdom of earthly life pushed them back to the start of the eternal cycle”. The monk compels Sungu to abandon the illusory fate he is adherent to and seek a new path as a poet. The creative, redeeming work of poets is established as the antithetical force to the myopic, destructive pursuit of revenge, and the film recognizes the impossibility for the two to coexist. Revenge’s elegiac musings on the precarious existence of art as it is threatened by the overwhelming potency of violence reflects the Soviet Union’s suppressive past and underlines the uncertainty of Kazakhstan’s future as it entered the post-Soviet era. The film’s conclusion is a narrative non-sequitur of two sisters walking along a beach at dawn who, after a lifetime on the island, are compelled to part with the life they are living and embark outward towards a world that has remained a mystery to them. As the sisters face a sunrise that marks the dawning of a new era, Shinarbaev completes his vision of Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet future as one unburdened by vestigial hostility or filial predeterminism. The bloodshed that catalyzed the decades of fear and vengeful malice is reinterpreted in the film’s graceful coda with its closing line “It’s only the red of the dawn sky.”