Writer/director Park Hoon-jung’s sixth feature, Night in Paradise, posits that revenge is a dish best served raw. Characters feast on mulhoe—spicy raw seafood soup served chilled—a delicacy that elicits childhood memories and reminiscences of pleasurable meals shared with family members who have since died at the violent whims of spiteful gangsters. Instead of acting as a point of catharsis, these recollections fuel a fruitless pursuit for vengeance.
After his terminally ill sister and her child become the latest targets of the Bukseong gang, professional hitman and rival Yang gang member Tae-gu (Uhm Tae-goo) attempts to settle the score by ambushing the culprits he believes responsible for their murder. With the ruthless Chief Ma (Cha Seung-won) mobilizing the entire Bukseong faction to catch and kill Tae-gu, he is ushered off to Jeju Island where he will stay with an assassin-turned-arms-dealer before permanently relocating to Russia. In lieu of personally fetching Tae-gu upon his arrival, the old man sends his young but ailing niece Jae-yeon (Jeon Yeo-been) to chauffeur the fugitive back to their island abode. Not one to mince words or feign politeness, Jae-yeon is initially contemptuous towards Tae-gu and resents her uncle’s participation in his escape. Her own past has seen relatives needlessly sacrificed in the name of gang rivalry, a point that inadvertently allows the two would-be adversaries to bond over their incalculable loss—as well as, of course, their shared love of mulhoe.
“My sister got so sick of eating it, by the time she grew up she couldn’t stand the smell,” says Tae-gu while the two shovel enormous bites of mixed vegetables and fish into their mouths. “But for some reason, I always loved it.”
It’s clear that Tae-gu experiences inconsolable guilt over the death of his sister and niece, but instead of using this gut-wrenching feeling as a catalyst for extracting himself from the violent culture that enabled their demise, he doubles down on his propensity for brutality in order to appease inner demons that nonetheless remain unquelled. He is never satisfied, never sick of the line of work that his sister long dismissed as distasteful. Conversely, Jae-yeon is comfortable with a high-powered gun in her hand, but reserves her sharp-shooting abilities for empty beer and soju bottles. Tae-gu directs his rage over injustice outwardly towards those who he deems responsible; Jae-yeon internalizes her bitterness over the loss of her family, these hardened sentiments only expressed outwardly through smart-mouthed sarcasm and humorously cynical quips about her own indistinct medical prognosis.
“I’m older than you, show some respect,” Tae-gu snarls during a tense drive with Jae-yeon.
“What’s with people demanding respect because they’re older?” She scoffs. “All you’ve done is have a few more meals to me. I’m likely to die before you, that should even things out.”
While the visual and thematic richness of Night in Paradise could adequately carry the film on their own, the wry comedic tone that often infiltrates even the darkest exchanges between characters enhances the overall emotional payoff. This is particularly true of Jae-yeon and Chief Ma, who—despite having death as an omnipresent specter in their lives—manage to contribute nonchalant levity, whether that be after a near death experience or while overseeing orchestrated assassinations. Park’s careful attention to multifaceted and often intersecting sentiments keeps the viewer consistently enthralled in the narrative web he weaves, an undeniable boon for a two-hour-plus film.
While some will be made squeamish by the gratuitous violence, the carnage itself is a commentary on whether revenge is warranted or capable of bringing personal satisfaction. Overkill is an understatement when it comes to the extent of certain characters’ eventual comeuppance. The sickly squelching of skin slick with blood is a recurrent onomatopoeia. Bodies are riddled with bullets well after life has been lost, making cold corpses jump with postmortem movement as hot lead continues its bombardment. Despite the visceral thrill of bloodlust, the glazed-over eyes of the victims-turned-perpetrators communicates an understanding of their own complicity in continuing the cycle of dead relatives and traumatized onlookers. There is no real relief, there is no real resolution.
“I wished him dead a thousand times,” shudders Jae-yeon after the person she deems responsible for her family’s death meets their own cruel fate. “I should feel satisfied. But I don’t.”
Night in Paradise is most incisive in these complex moments of bitter ambiguity. It would be impossible and ineffective to attempt to aptly deduce the most morally correct way to overcome a rabid desire to avenge those who have been unjustly ripped away from this mortal coil. Park lingers in the burning rawness of these compulsions. Whether the viewer finds the piquant discomfort alluring or is ultimately left soured by the ordeal is merely a matter of palate.
Director: Park Hoon-jung
Writers: Park Hoon-jung
Stars: Uhm Tae-goo, Jeon Yeo-been, Cha Seung-won, Park Ho-san
Release Date: April 9, 2021 (Netflix)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.