Chan-wook Park is a Korean film director whose first project came out in 1992. When reviewing the history of Korea in the 20th century, there is an overriding assumption that post-Korean War (mid-1953), South Korea was living in a democracy, much like the one the United States set up for Japan post-WWII. However, like Japan, to call South Korea’s government democratic is far from accurate. They were pretty tyrannical to their people (military governments, coups, assassinations). It really isn’t until the late 1980s / early 1990s that things improve overall. That’s when the stranglehold by government on culture and expression begins to lessen. People had lived under decades of totalitarianism. Chan-wook Park is at the roots of the beginnings of a flowering of Korean cinema that truly distinguishes itself from other Asian styles (namely Hong Kong and Japanese and what has become Chinese cinema post-1997).
Park’s first big film is JSA (Joint Security Area) (2000). A trend that is often seen in Korean cinema is this strange, sad relationship they have with the north. By the way, the Koreans I meet never distinguish between North and South Korea. When they talk about Korea, they just say “Korea.” You get the overall impression from Korean cinema that while they are wary of the north, they long to be reunited with parts of their families “stranded” up there. South Korea has had a pretty successful economy for decades, and they are fully aware of how dire the situation is for people living in the north. The Jekyll / Hyde north negotiations for reunification on the North’s terms are frustrating, with very little headway made since sincere talks began in the late 1980s. JSA tells the story of a border incident that becomes a murder investigation. It includes Kang-ho Song, one of my favorite Korean actors (love Memories of Murder) as well as other actors that become stars. Song is in two of the three Vengeance films.
Park’s trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005) is loosely linked together, mostly due to the subject matter (hence the name). Stylistically, they conform quite well to a brutality that I find to be singularly Korean. That is not to say other cultures aren’t brutal in their films (recent Scandinavian crime films [think the Dragon Tattoo films or Headhunters] are almost but not quite of the same vein). This may sound reductionist, but I think it has to do with being ruled by the military for 50 + while being told they were living in a democracy. It fosters a lot of distrust, especially, from what I’ve read and films I’ve seen, of the enforcement of law, which seems unconcerned with right or wrong but just getting something solved. I’ve seen so many scenes of police (I’ve seen a lot of Korean movies, even some of the Caspar Milquetoast romances, which are also in a pathos class by themselves) beating confessions out of prisoners who don’t want justice but admission to clear the case from the books. Ethics is not dealt with the same as in Western cinema. When you see a woman in danger in Western films, the chances are that someone’s going to rescue her, or she won’t be too badly damaged. You cannot make the same assumption with Korean film. The same goes for children.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) is the tale of two “protagonists.” One is Ryu, a deaf and dumb young man whose sister needs a kidney transplant. He works long hours at a physically demanding job to try to save the money for her. When he is told that no matches are available, he seeks out the black market to fill the void. He must give all the money he’s saved to the black market for the organ, as well as one of his own kidneys in exchange. His money and organ are taken, but he does not get a kidney for his sister. Directly after this betrayal, a kidney becomes available through the donor program, but he has lost all his money to the black market dealers. His girlfriend, who belongs to a socialist terrorist organization (no way that would have flown before the Sixth Republic), suggests kidnapping a child of one of the people who runs the factory Ryu was recently fired from (seriously, this guy cannot catch a break). This starts in motion the second protagonist’s story arch, Dong-jin Park (played by Kang-ho Song). It is Park’s daughter Ryu and his girlfriend kidnap.
This is a very plot-driven film, and I am only scratching the surface of what happens. I can’t go into any more or I would spoil the film. Unfortunately, no one’s story line is resolved happily, which is true of all three of the Vengeance films. But there are some amazingly beautiful shots in Mr. Vengeance (two that leap to mind are the underwater shot of Park flicking his cigarette into a lake and the stair-climbing sequence going to see the black market organ seller). And you do feel sympathy for the characters, even if they do truly horrible things to each other. It reinforces the idea that we are all two to three steps away from living in a nightmare, and if someone or something pushes us, we’d be there. Out of the three films, this is my second favorite, but that is saying something as it is so great on its own. It is just that the second film is so powerful and remarkable.
Oldboy (2003) is a masterpiece of Korean cinema. I’m pretty apprehensive to see what Spike Lee is going to do with his remake, which is coming out this year (just in time for Thanksgiving, but DON’T take the family) and stars Josh Brolin. Unlike Mr. Vengeance, this is more of a character study. The story focuses on Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi, who plays the main bad guy in the last of the trilogy), a sort of everyman who perhaps drinks too much (he sort of misses his daughter’s birthday). He is captured and put in what looks like a cheap hotel room which becomes a sort of cell. He is there for 15 years, with no explanation as to why he is there. As you can imagine, he goes a little crazy. He can see world events on the small television in his room, so he can see how time is passing (he also sees that his wife is murdered [he is the suspect] and that his daughter is put in foster care). Just as inexplicably as he is captured, he is released, and he sets out trying to find out who was behind his incarceration and what was the motive behind such action. He is given a cell phone and money, and it starts to look like he is a tragic pawn in someone else’s sick game. To go any further would be to reveal too much, so I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say there’s a touch of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” involved, but while Fortunato’s “crime” was almost undetectable, Oh Dae-su’s casual comment about what he saw turns out to have gloomy (if completely unintentional) results.
Again, there are sequences that are great examples of filmic moments (the scene where Oh Dae-su fends off multiple attackers with a hammer is vicious and breathtaking). The creepiness of the overall story is borderline disgusting, but the characters react appropriately. In the pursuit of vengeance, as Nishi points out in The Bad Sleep Well, one has to become a monster. The ending of Oldboy underscores this aspect as Oh Dae-su tries to use hypnosis to wrest the evil inside himself. One begins to wonder if Park is criticizing the concept of vengeance in his study of it. While injustice (actual or perceived) is punished, it doesn’t make anything better in these two films. But it is such an indulgent, careful study that it’s hard to ascertain Park’s position. Why spend all this creative time and effort on something so horrible?
The trilogy culminates in Lady Vengeance (2005). While my least favorite of the three, it comes the closest to showing vengeance as somewhat positive and gratifying. Again, we have someone incarcerated for a long stretch of time (13 ½ years), and unlike Oh Dae-su, Geum-ja Lee is not guilty of why she is put away. She is convicted of killing a child, but the real murderer, Mr. Baek (played by Min-sik Choi) still runs free, torturing and killing more children. Once Lee is released, she sets about executing a plan that, according to flashbacks and character exposition, has been in place since she was first put away. Park spends a lot of time painting the backstory of Lee and other characters, some of whom I found to not really relate to the plot that is this plan that Lee is following. Some of it seems tangential. Her whole plan is to exact vengeance on Mr. Baek, but it seems to take a very long time to get to it. However, when we do arrive, it is probably the most appalling part of the three films.
Mr. Baek is an elementary school teacher, so all the kids trust him, which makes his crimes of kidnapping, torturing and murdering the children all the more grotesque. Lee captures Baek. She then brings all the parents of the murdered children together. Baek had videotaped him torturing and murdering the children, and Lee shows these tapes to the parents. The situation that Park sets up for this scene is beyond horrific (vomitous, even). Parents faint, sob, throw themselves on the floor. Then Lee (who is being backed by the detective that originally put her away for one of the murders) tells the parents that the person who did this to their children is in the other room. They can either turn him over to the police with all this evidence or each take turns stabbing and beating Baek to death.
The ethical dilemma presented (although extreme, but normally such sort of hypothetical situations are used in ethics discussions [save the old woman or the priceless work of art, etc.]) is challenging. Do you do what is lawful or what your emotions tell you? Lee does stir the fire by showing the videos before presenting the option, but what would you do? As one parent notes, killing Baek will not bring their children back – it will only torture the person who tortured their children.
Often when I read or see the news I’m confronted with how much humans are just another group of animals. We put on airs that we are at the top of the food chain, but there is so much evidence to suggest otherwise that I don’t believe it. We are capable of tremendous accomplishments in science, technology, and art. But the amount of cruelty we exact upon each other is so astronomical that it paints the Mona Lisa with blood. It is not surprising that the parents choose to kill Baek. It isn’t even surprising anymore to me that people like Baek exist. I think it is brave that Park explores the inhumanity and humanity that comes with loss experienced by the human condition. I don’t think a lot of directors would have the guts to take things to the extremes that Park does and force us to watch the unwatchable not for the gross-out factor but for the “look at the depravity we are capable of.” There are many films from cultures all over the world that attempt to nauseate the audience with excessive violence, but few raise any important questions. These three films, for those who can stand them, are serious investigations into the true heart of darkness in humans.