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-[Film Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema, European Cinema, Korean Cinema

‘Forgotten’ (2017), ‘Below Zero’ (2021), & ‘Red Dot’ (2021): The Existential Dread of Guilt

Directed by: Jang Hang-jun [1], Lluís Quílez [2], Alain Darborg [3] || Produced by: Park Joon-shik [1], Josep Amorós, Pedro Uriol [2], Niklas Larsson, Anna Odenhall [3]

Screenplay by: Jang Hang-jun [1], Fernando Navarro, Lluís Quílez [2], Alain Darborg, Per Dickson [3] || Starring: Kang Ha-neul, Kim Mu-yeol, Moon Sung-keun, Na Young-hee [1], Javier Gutiérrez, Karra Elejalde [2], Nanna Blondell, Anastasios Soulis, Johannes Kuhnke, Thomas Hanzon [3]

Music by: David Thibault, Jay Johnson [1], Zacarías M. de la Riva [2], Carl-Johan Sevedag [3] || Cinematography: Kim Il-Yeon [1], Isaac Vila [2], Benjam Orre [3] || Edited by: Heon Sun-mi, Jo Han-wool [1], Antonio Frutos [2], Magnus Häll [3], || Country: Korea [1], Spain [2], Sweden [3] || Language: Korean [1], Spanish [2], Swedish [3]

Running Time: 109 minutes [1], 106 minutes [2], 86 minutes [3] || 1 = Forgotten, 2 = Below Zero, 3 = Red Dot

Guilt can be as powerful a motivation for characters as revenge. For every Quentin Tarantino genre-hybrid about violent personal (Kill Bill [2003-2004]) or cultural (Inglourious Basterds [2009]; Django Unchained [2012]) payback, you’ll find a contemporary morality fable on Netflix about otherwise good people hiding terrible crimes (e.g. Caliber [2018]). For every Keanu Reeves actioner about a hitman avenging his murdered puppy (John Wick [2014, 2017, 2019], Brad Anderson has a film (Session 9 [2001], The Machinist [2004], Fractured [2019]) about characters losing their minds to shut themselves from a horrible reality of their making.

Top: Javier Gutiérrez kneels over the body of his incapacitated partner, Isak Férriz, after their armored transport is incapacitated in Below Zero. Bottom: Nanna Blondell (right) and Anastasios Soulis (left) catch their first glimpse of their mysterious assailant in Red Dot.

Forgotten, Below Zero, and Red Dot are Korean, Spanish, and Swedish films, respectively, about how guilt defines the lives of characters, some more sympathetic than others. Character development as a function of guilt in two of the three films, Below Zero and Red Dot, avoids unreliable narration and surrealist imagery, unlike much of Anderson’s filmography, while all three position revenge of the affected parties as secondary to the guilt felt by the sinful characters. Forgotten is the only film of these three in which vengeance is portrayed in an interesting, but still supporting role, while the elaborate, near comical revenge schemes of the antagonists in Below Zero and Red Dot are so over-the-top you may be grateful their filmmakers focused their attention elsewhere. In these films, unlike in most of Tarantino’s work, vengeful characters are convenient plot points, not the main event. The sympathetic yet justifiable regret of other characters is the important part.

To back up a bit, Red Dot, the most recent and least impressive movie of this bunch, is the first Swedish Netflix Original Film. It has its heart in the right place with its relatable central couple, Nanna Blondell and Anastasios Soulis, attempting a wilderness excursion in remote northern Sweden to reboot their relationship, only to come under attack by an unseen stalker with a high-powered rifle. The movie falls apart, however, following its major revelation of an inexplicable, unbelievable crime committed by Soulis and Blondell in flashbacks depicted in the third act. Even worse is the movie’s almost Fincherian villain, Thomas Hanzon, whose convoluted revenge plan and sizeable killing spree divorce the narrative from the grounded realism of the film’s first two acts. The way the screenplay drops the ball by its incredibly bleak conclusion is a shame given its impressive cold weather-cinematography throughout, but in hindsight the story’s numerous, obvious red herrings and comical gore (e.g. a severed dog’s head atop a bear trap) previewed the laughable self-seriousness to come.

By comparison, Forgotten, which features a way more over-the-top retribution strategy by antagonist Kim Mu-yeol against guilty protagonist Kang Ha-nuel, feels way more exciting and its narrative relations, far more impactful. Narrative twists feel natural, red herrings less telegraphed, and the story’s ultimate conclusion, more tragic than just “dark for darkness’ sake.” To that end, writer-director Jang Hang-jun’s ability to shift between disparate genres with each act, from a horror-mystery in the first to an action thriller in the second to a dour tragedy by the third, is freaky. Most directors fall apart when combining disparate genres, but Jang does so with ease, using creative camera angles and edits to weave together a tonal grab bag of weird emotions that somehow fit together.

Somewhere in between the morbid self-seriousness of Red Dot and the successful emotional roller coaster that is Forgotten is Below Zero (Spanish = Bajocero), a strange observation on guilt and revenge from an outside party, similar in structure to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013). The film’s premise concerns the hijacking of a routine prisoner transfer, wherein our protagonist, an archetypal “by-the-book” officer played by Javier Gutiérrez Álvarez, defends his armored vehicle from a cryptic adversary after one of his inmates. It’s a wonderful high-concept setup that allows for a plethora of cool action scenes, tense confrontations within and outside the main vehicle, and one particularly creative underwater escape sequence. Director and co-writer Lluís Quílez makes great use of nighttime cinematography and lighting, and his sound-design heightens the tension of the memorable cinematic violence.

However, the movie falls flat for me with its occasional poor digital FX (why must every movie computer generate wildlife?) and its lackluster antagonist (Karra Elejalde). Elejalde’s motivation for revenge against a particular prisoner (Patrick Criado) is generic, uninspired, and nowhere near as interesting as the psyche of Criado himself, the latter of which is only hinted at in the movie’s climax. To that end, Elajalde’s character, the instigator of the entire plot, becomes less intimidating the more we learn about him.

Kang Ha-neul (left) and Kim Mu-yeol (right) bond in Forgotten before a pivotal event sends them spiraling down a rabbit hole of memory loss and murder.

These three films, together, examine the potential effectiveness and pitfalls of a character’s sinful behavior as the central focus of a film. Revenge-oriented films are often more fun and better thematic engines for action movies, but dramas, thrillers, and more complex stories can add much thematic and moral ambiguity, as Forgotten, Below Zero, and Red Dot do, when characters on the less sympathetic side of justice become the audience’s perspective. The problem with these films, however, at least with Below Zero and Red Dot, are how they crowd their protagonists’ arcs with the less interesting vengeance of their antagonists.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Forgotten somehow juggles both a relatable, guilt-ridden protagonist with a vengeful, sympathetic antagonist in a bizarre, well shot adventure that transitions between no less than three genres without missing a step. Red Dot is, on its surface, a straightforward survival thriller that loses its way with a twist it’s way too proud of. Below Zero has a great setup and potent cinematic violence, but its guilt-vs-revenge dynamic loses steam once its antagonist is revealed to be little more than a generic grieving father.

—> I RECOMMEND Forgotten, am ON THE FENCE with regards to Below Zero, and do NOT RECOMMEND Red Dot for those aforementioned reasons.

? All the manslaughter in Forgotten and Red Dot were completely avoidable.

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