Thursday, November 16, 2006

Tales of Vengeance, Movie Review

“Anger is like a drug – you could live off of it if you had to.”

In three films by Korean director Chan-wook Park, the subject of vengeance is tackled. Park never questions why his characters would want it, but focuses on how they go about it, and especially the repercussions of doing so. What happens when vengeance is all one has to live for?

These movies have sometimes been called Shakespearean for their twisting plots and their violence. The cinematography is astounding in all 3 films. The camera is often placed with the actor looking straight ahead, en face. Nothing is concealed, but none of the characters are particularly emotive except at certain desperate moments. Scenes outside the main characters’ small apartments tend to be wide angle shots, where the character is part of the rest of humanity that is going about its (hopefully) non-bloodthirsty existence. And there is little dialogue in any of the movies, so problems of translation and reading subtitles are not taxing.

Warning: All three films contain scenes of incredible violence with lots of bloodletting, including extremities being cut off. Oldboy has graphic scenes of teeth being removed during torture. These movies are not for those who become faint at the sight of blood on screen.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002): We meet a young man who is deaf and mute (Ha-kyun Shin). His sister, who supported him for years, is sick and needs a kidney transplant. He goes on the black market to try to procure a kidney for her, but in the process loses his own and the money to pay for her surgery. To make matters worse, he is then fired from his factory job. With the encouragement of his girlfriend, an anti-industrialist revolutionary, he kidnaps his employer’s (Kang-ho Song) child to be able to get the ransom that will pay for his sister’s surgery. Through many twists and turns, by the end of the movie all these characters will be dead and only one death will have been accidental.

The emotional tone of this movie is set at the beginning: Ryu has a radio station read a letter he has written to his sister, describing how he would do anything for her and she for him. She listens to it, leaning her head on his shoulder. There are striking images of his deafness: he can’t hear what she hears, like the couple in the apartment above them loudly making love, or the boys next door loudly masturbating. Their lives will spiral out of control, and the twists are a bit too hard to believe. All the characters in these movies seem just a bit too smart, too quick on the trail of their vengeance.

Oldboy (2004): We are confronted with the image of a drunken lout (Min-sik Choi) holding balloons for his daughter’s birthday party but forced to wait in a police station after getting in an argument. He walks outside, and is kidnapped. For the next 15 years, he is held in a tiny room, receiving food and care (while drugged) with a t.v. as his only companion. He swears his revenge. Upon his release (with money and expensive clothes), he makes his way to a restaurant where he devours a live squid. When he says, “I want something alive,” we understand that he wants to fill up the emptiness, the death of his life. The girl on the other side of the bar (Ji-tae Yu), for unclear reasons, takes him home with her. He wants sex, she refuses, at least for the time being. Jointly, they set out to find who held him prisoner for 15 years and why. He can recall the taste of the potstickers he was fed, leading to visits to restaurants all over Seoul. Ultimately, he finds his captors, and the person who wanted his captivity. The punishment turns out NOT to be the lost 15 years, but something so sickening in its emotional and psychological implications that he cuts his own hand off in shame and pleading. And the crime he is being punished for? As a teenager, he saw two people doing something they shouldn’t have been doing; he gossiped about it, leading to an awful act that has led his tormentor to seek vengeance for the past 20 years.

Lady Vengeance (2005): A woman (Yeong-Ae Lee), imprisoned for 13 years for a crime she did not commit (the kidnapping and killing of a child) is released, and seeks vengeance on the man guilty of the crime (he set her up by kidnapping her own child). Along the way, she reunites with her Australian-raised daughter, but cannot be a mother until her bloodthirst is satisfied. She finds the man, tortures him, and then gathers his child victims’ parents together for some vigilante justice.

There’s a great contrast in this movie: the main character has an angelic face and became incredibly skilled in prison at making and decorating cakes. One of the final moments of the film, when the parents gather and eat one of her cakes (easy symbolism to see) justifies that talent.

There is precious little moralizing in any of these movies; things that are clearly wrong, incest and child-killing, are wrong and that’s that. However, murder (or would it be killing?) is justified, and there is no moral question posed by the movie of whether the various characters deserve the blood of their opponents to a life-draining degree. There is no “turn the other cheek” to be found here. Instead, the focus is on the emotional plane where vengeance lives, how it guides the behaviors and interactions with the people they confront. Does one have something to live for after being sated with vengeance? What is there in life to live for? The films don’t try to answer such questions; it seems enough to acknowledge that these emotional states exist, and their portrayals in these films are among the greatest I’ve ever seen in cinema.

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