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By KJ Doughton | June 8, 2013

“Fatal” begins inside a shoddy South Korean apartment. Adolescent boys wander about, wearing school backpacks and smoking cigarettes. They’re up to something. One by one, each enters a room, shuts the door behind him, and emerges a few moments later.  One of the boys, a sad-eyed youth named Sung-gong (Nam Yeon-wo), is reluctant to participate. But soon, he’s goaded on by the others to take his turn inside the room, where a drugged, naked girl named Jang-mi (Yang Jo-a) lies limply in bed. He briefly enters, quickly leaves, and insists to the others that he never took his turn in what is clearly a heinous gang rape.

Lee Don-ku’s “Fatal” is the stark, dead-serious story of what happens ten years after this unsolved atrocity. Sung-gong now works in a garment sweat-shop, living a quiet, mundane existence. Having long since convinced himself of being a mere spectator to the rape, Sung-gong remains plagued with guilt over having remained quiet. He attempts to sooth his tortured conscience by joining a church group. As fate would have it, Jang-mi is already a member.

Sung-gong is initially stunned and shaken to the core. But soon afterwards, he interprets this unlikely reunion as his God-granted path towards redemption. It’s obvious that Jang-mi doesn’t recognize him. He remains moot about their troubling past connection, even as he longs to disclose it, eagerly showering the seemingly well-adjusted Jang-mi with friendship and affection as penance for his sin of silence. Flying high on the fumes of his newfound faith, Sung-gong begins practicing a particularly daunting form of evangelism. Tracking down Jang-mi’s rapists, he begs them to repent for their past transgressions against this victim.

“Fatal” then steers onto a grim, perilous route where guilt, religious fervor, and the deep-set fury of personal violation intersect. The twisted wreckage that results isn’t exploitative or stylish. It’s played with a straight face, utterly realistic to the point of supreme discomfort for the viewer. “Fatal” is the anti-Tarantino, and the antithesis of Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish.”

Yes, there is murder. But the deeds are performed in such clumsy, awkward detail that it’s hard to cheer, even if retribution is justified. The snuffing of life is performed as an act of righteousness, not revenge. And the film’s finale completely denies catharsis, ending with a whimper and not a bang (think “No Country for Old Men,” not “Taken”).

I admired “Fatal” for absolutely refusing to romanticize the irreversible damage done by rape and violence. You’re not spared the sight of an assault victim exploding in anguish and rage after years of repressed silence. And forget the opportunity to revel in the vicarious pleasure of a bombastic, gun-blazing come-uppance. Retribution is dealt in sloppy strokes by fumbling fingers.

But truth be told, I also felt “Fatal” to be an absolute downer. Even an onscreen cyanide capsule like “Blue Valentine” mixed a certain visual lushness and inventive pacing to levels of dark beauty. When the credits rolled on that film, intense melancholy swept over me like a wave of tears. Despite the sadness, I left “Blue Valentine” feeling strangely invigorated. In contrast, “Fatal” paints itself with such stark, no-frills strokes, I felt pain, but not the poetry to make it satisfying.

It’s easy to appreciate Don-ku’s refusal to turn “Fatal” into a formulaic, crowd-pleasing revenge thriller.  There’s integrity and truth to his bluntly realistic aesthetic. Just don’t expect a tidy climax… or much fun.  Chuck Norris isn’t a pallbearer at this respectfully downbeat funeral of a film, where simple frontier justice is laid to rest.

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