‘Only fools abide by the rules’, arrogantly proclaims singing professor Park after jumping a red light while driving his pretty young student In-jeong back to Seoul after an audition. ‘You must be mistaken, I always abide by the rules’, grovels the same professor Park a moment later when stopped and given a ticket by incorruptible, stony-faced policeman Moon-jae. Ten minutes in, the film has clearly established the pecking order: policeman at the top, professor below, young female student at the bottom. Status, and the authority associated with it, is everything here, and to Park’s dismay, the flashy white Mercedes he is driving loses out to Moon-jae’s uniform. This is the start of A Bloody Aria‘s anarchic, absurdist, clever, complex and darkly funny investigation of the power games that dominate human relationships.
Humiliated by his encounter with Moon-jae, Park won’t leave it at that and his rash two fingers at the law forces him to take the Mercedes down a back road to the kind of psychotic bumpkin country mapped out by Deliverance or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Having stopped at an isolated creek by a river, Park and In-jeong are confronted by a gang of dim-witted thugs led by the insanely jovial Bong-yeon, who soon enough reveals himself to be a sadistic bully. Far more astute than he lets on at the beginning, he starts playing elaborately cruel games, not only with Park and In-jeong, but also with schoolboy Hyun-jae, his unfortunate habitual target.
This may sound like a predictable scenario but the plot wrong-foots the audience at every turn. Director Won Shin-yeon sets us up beautifully, playing with the familiar staples of the horror genre all the better to twist them. Key to this is the disorientating, incongruous sense of humour that accompanies even the most violent moments. Just as Bong-yeon teases his hapless victims, Won Shin-yeon toys with the audience, alternating moments of tension with a humorous release that feels both pleasurable and disturbingly inappropriate, playing a cat-and-mouse game with our emotions.
All the possible variations in the power relationships are explored, with the bully in one scene becoming the victim in the next. There are no innocents here, all play the game the best way they can. The girl and the schoolboy may seem like the most blameless characters, but – and this is one of the most chilling aspects of the film – it is not a moral choice; they simply lack the necessary strength to be bullies. When Hyun-jae gets a chance to turn the table on his tormentors, he does so with frightening gusto. And Park’s attempt to force himself on In-jeong comes after she flirtatiously tries to manipulate him into helping her singing career. ‘I had a huge crush on you when I was at school’, she says, before asking if he will coach her. In-jeong’s weapons in the game are her youth and beauty, but of course they are of no use against brute force.
For ultimately, everything comes down to who can bang their chest the loudest. The rural setting, together with the animal imagery that punctuates the film (the soaring bird of prey in the opening shot, or in a later scene, the half-witted thug crudely killing another raptor with a baseball bat), point to this essential truth: men are ruled by no other law than the brutal law of nature. Most disturbing of all, the final scenes suggest that the character who should best represent order and civilisation may well be the most savage of them all.
But the film’s truly brilliant touch, and what makes this mordant fable all the more effective and original, is its use of music. In an early scene, Park tries to use his professorial authority to force In-jeong into his arms by making her sing the Papageno/Papagena duet from Mozart’s The Magic Flute – basic animal urges masquerading as high art. And at the end, in a typical tonal shift, the sombre vision of humanity propounded by the denouement is relieved by a ferociously ironic coda: the utterly defeated professor is towed away in his wrecked Mercedes to the triumphant strains of the ‘Toreador Song’ from Bizet’s Carmen. What we’ve witnessed previously is no glorious struggle between bullfighter and beast, between savage and civilised: in A Bloody Aria, there are only beasts.
Read this article and much more in our autumn print issue. The theme is cruel games, from sadistic power play in Funny Games to fascist games in German hit The Wave and Stanley Kubrick’s career-long fascination with game-playing. Plus: interview with comic book master Charles Burns about the stunning animated film Fear(s) of the Dark and preview of the Raindance Festival. And don’t miss our fantastic London Film Festival comic strip, which surely is worth the price of the issue alone!