Cinematic Clues To Understand The Slaughter

In the 2003 Korean film
In the 2003 Korean film "Oldboy," the actor is in a pose the killer may have adopted for a picture of himself. (Tartan Films)

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

Much has been made of the frightening similarity between "Oldboy," Park Chan Wook's dark 2003 movie thriller, and the deeds of Cho Seung Hui, who shot to death 32 people on Monday at Virginia Tech.

The search for movie influences is part of the search for the explanation behind the frenzy: We need to understand what caused this young man to step off into the oblivion of nihilism on a massive scale. What was the mechanism -- or was there even one? Too many movies? Too many video games? Too many rude shoves in the locker room? A genetic predisposition for mass murder? Too many date-night turndowns? Why?

So the movies seem like a propitious place to start, given the photographs in the package Cho sent to NBC News in his now infamous posthumous statement of principles. Thus "Oldboy" must feature prominently in the discussion, even if no one has yet confirmed that Cho saw it. On the surface, it seems a natural fit, at least in the way it can be presumed that Cho's hyper-fervid brain worked. It's a Korean story -- he would have passed on the subtitles and listened to it in his native language -- of unjust persecution and bloody revenge. A narcissist with a persecution complex would identify with its plot: A man named Oh Dae Su is simply snatched off the streets and made to endure 20 years in a cell without explanation. Released to the rubble of a life interrupted, he begins a quest to understand and achieve vengeance, which he finally does with a great spurt of violence, most of it employed with a hammer in extreme close quarters.

Among Cho's photos were close-ups of himself clenching a hammer in a pose that recalled the pose of the persecuted man in "Oldboy."

But there are problems as well. For one, "Oldboy" wasn't a gun picture. The only gun in it is a derringer that figures in the denouement. It's a movie about the bone-shattering force of hammers on limbs and skulls and the physical exhaustion of fighting. Its violence, though pervasive, is never beautiful or graceful. The violence is never idealized; you cannot look at it and be seduced by it. The capacity of a movie to enthrall, then gull, and finally seduce is not deployed. For that we must turn to other sources.

Many of Cho's pictures -- 11 out of 43 -- featured guns. And when I looked at them, another name struck me as far more relevant than Park Chan Wook. That's John Woo.

Woo, the Hong Kong director now working in the United States ("Face/Off" was one of his most successful films), almost redefined the action genre with a series of Hong Kong gangster movies made in the late '80s and early '90s, starring the Chinese actor Chow Yun-Fat and virtually every Beretta ever shipped to the Far East. As with the Park movie, it is not certain that Cho saw Woo's films, though any kid taken by violent popular culture in the past 15 or 20 years almost certainly would have, on DVD, alone in the dark, in his bedroom or downstairs after the family's gone to bed. They're not family fare; they're dreamy, angry adolescent fare. They were gun-crazed ballets, full of whirling imagery, grace, masculine power and a strange but perhaps not irrelevant religiosity. They were close to outlaw works of art: They celebrated violence even as they aesthetized it, streamlined it and made it seem fabulous fun. Their possible influence on Cho can be clearly seen in 11 of the photos that feature handguns.

Woo pioneered postures with guns not seen in movies until that time (discounting cornball pre-World War II westerns). He was the first modern filmmaker (though there was Don Siegel's "Madigan" of 1968) to embrace the stylistic advantages of putting a gun in both hands of his hero, which became almost his signature. So when you see any of the famous photos of Cho with his arms outstretched and a gun in each hand, you cannot help but think, if you've seen any of them, of the Hong Kong gangster movies and the super-cool Chow.

But it goes even further than the resemblance between the photos of the blasphemy and the movies of the '80s. In at least three regards, Cho's activities so closely reflect the Woo oeuvre that it seems somewhat fair to conclude that in his last moments, before he blew his brains out, he was shooting a John Woo movie in his head.

First is the peculiar nature of the gun violence. Cho, it seems, wasn't a sniper, a marksman. He wasn't shooting carefully, at a distance. He wasn't, one can assume, aiming. He was shooting very much like Chow in the Woo pictures, with a gun in each hand, as witnesses state, up close, very fast. Woo saw gunfights in musical terms: His primary conceit was the shootout as dance number, with great attention paid to choreography, the movement of both actors within the frame. He loved to send his shooters flying through the air in surprising ways, far more poetically than in any real-life scenario. He frequently diverted to slow motion and he specialized in shooting not merely to kill, but to riddle -- his shooters often blast their opponents five and six times. Perhaps all that was at play in Cho's mind as well.

But it gets stranger: The first gunfight in Woo's most famous movie, "The Killer," is an almost eerie anticipation of the Cho attack. Chow's professional assassin moves stealthily down a corridor, approaches a door, knocks. Once it is opened, he dispatches the opener, then steps in to confront seated human figures. He darts among them, a gun in each hand, blazing away as they rise and flee. They're playing cards, not sitting in a classroom, and the setting is a nightclub backroom, not a school. But the kinetics of the remarkable encounter are strikingly similar to what must have happened Monday.

Second is the nature of the guns themselves. Cho's choice of weapons may well have been based on movie influences. The first and most famous was the Glock 19. This is the mid-size Glock, not the smallest for deep concealment (in pockets or under shirts), not the largest for maximum firepower, but basically a service automatic for undercover men who can carry guns comfortably in holsters, with a 15-shot magazine. The Glock, of course, is ubiquitous in popular culture as the firearm of choice of both the police and the bad guys, but it doesn't figure much, if at all, in the works of Woo, which were made before the Glock really took over. But the Beretta is about $200 more expensive than a Glock, and when Cho went to the Roanoke gun store, he may well have found it beyond his budget. Both guns fire 9mm cartridges; at the receiving end, the impact is the same.

His second gun is clearly another budget choice, a .22-caliber pistol that sells for about $300 and most closely replicates the plasticized aesthetic of the modern service pistol, the Glock, the Beretta or the Sig Sauer. It's a Walther P22 -- its design derived from a larger Walther 9mm service pistol, called a P99 -- a gun that looks more powerful than it is (it's still extremely lethal). Perhaps he chose it to resemble Chow in the photos he knew he would be taking of himself.

There are other weird handgun concordances in the work of Woo and the frenzy of Cho. For example, many have noted the peculiarity of the young man's careful removal of the serial numbers from the two pistols. What was the point of that? The point may be found in "The Killer," Woo's greatest movie, where the hero Jeffrey Chow (Chow Yun-Fat) is handed guns by his best friend before going off on a terrible job that will result in tragedy for all: "They're clean guns. No serial numbers. Untraceable." When he ground off the serial numbers, Cho may have been turning himself into Jeffrey Chow.

Then there's the issue of the two guns, one for each hand. Cho could certainly have done as much damage with the single Glock, given how quickly one can learn (and you strongly suspect he practiced) to reload them proficiently. That answer comes from Woo's 1992 "Hard-Boiled," or rather it is codified there, while evident in all the gangster pictures: "Give a guy a gun, he thinks he's Superman. Give him two and he thinks he's God."

The third weird Woo vibration echoing through the Cho madness is thematic. "The Killer," for example, is almost lush with religious themes, as it tells a story of redemption through sacrifice. In the film, Jeffrey Chow has accidentally blinded a singer in an assassination. Consumed with guilt, he becomes her guardian and sets out to raise money to get her a restorative operation, which compels him to take on yet crazier and less survivable jobs. In a wild finish, he and a police officer, who's become his only ally, engage in a massive gunfight against evil gangsters in a church, through which, like symbols of Christian grace, doves flap majestically. Jeffrey Chow dies, saving the singer's life, and the money he's secured restores her vision. Many critics noted Jeffrey Chow's initials -- J.C. -- and that he is frequently seen in Christlike postures of the sort Cho later affected in at least one of his photos.

"The Killer" also features an intellectual posture that might have been extremely attractive to Cho's mental state. In it, the killer is presented as both hero and victim, rather than villain. His difference from other men, his moral nature, is repeatedly stressed. "He's no ordinary assassin," a cop says almost lovingly about him. "Fate controls everything," the killer muses, seeing himself as a puppet reacting to the larger forces beyond his control. "I always save the last bullet either for myself or my enemy."

These similarities between fact and fiction, of course, raise striking issues that all creative artists -- but especially those who deal in stories that offer visceral violence as part of their pleasure principle -- must deal with. Woo built engines of excitement and stimulation that pleased millions and made him a wealthy, internationally known man. Yet now, all these years later, a young man might have used them as the vessel of his rage and alienation, taken the icon of the movie gun and moved from the intimacy of the DVD player and the arena of his imagination to the public arena, and there reenacted the ritual. This time the carnage is for real.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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