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Don't cry for him, Korea: it's in Chan-wook Park's blood to raise a ruckus. And to leave you with scars that don't seem to heal long after you've left the theater. Brian Hu explains.
In her review of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis quotes director Chan-wook Park as saying it would be ďmore accurate to see my films as ones stressing morality, with guilty consciences as the core subject matter.Ē She then rebuts, arguing that Parkís interpretation ďsounds more persuasive in print than it plays out on screen.Ē I see her point, especially since Iím sure that most of the audience for Parkís films in the states is more interested in his masterfully stylized violence than any insights into human morality, so Parkís statement is something of a moot point. But thereís something in me that wants to disagree with Dargis. We both agree that Park is an enormously talented stylist and that Parkís strategy for violence rests on an uncomfortably frank sort of sadism. However, that sadism is based on something more emotionally -- and even morally -- complex than exploitation for exploitationís sake.
I say this because I havenít felt this conflicted about a movie in a long time, and my suspicion is that itís because I was indeed sucked into Parkís crude playhouse of family responsibilities and guilty consciences, but that it actually happened in between scenes of horrendous acts of violence, within uncomfortable silences and what seemed to be acts of narrative inconsequence. The scenes involving a mentally disabled man in the quiet moments before the filmís tragic turning point is a good example.
Iíll take one other scene as an example of what Iím talking about. Even though it takes place a third into the film, Iíll have to give away an important surprise of the film. Skip the next two paragraphs to avoid the spoilers. [Note from editor: obligatory spoiler alert]
At this point in the film, our deaf/mute, green-haired protagonist has kidnapped the grade school-aged daughter of his rich ex-boss, in hopes of using the ransom money to pay for an organ transplant for his dying sister. By now, itís clear to the audience that thereís something off about the entire set of characters: sheís terminally moody and heís going out with an off-kilter anarchist who accompanies him into the black market. The idea behind the kidnapping is that the wealthy father will comply and the daughter may even have a good time hanging out with the colorful trio. Meanwhile, the deaf/muteís sister doesnít know about their plot and thinks theyíre just taking care of the little girl.
In the scene in question, the deaf/mute, played by Shin Ha-kyun, returns to his sisterís apartment, where the kidnapped girl is seated, giddily watching TV. Like the majority of the film, the scene is not accompanied by music and we only hear the sound from the television. The camera is placed roughly where the TV would be, so we see the girl facing us, several feet away from the TV. As Shin Ha-kyunís character walks in, the girl tells him that his sister is taking a bath. Itís a long scene, and if my memory serves me right, there arenít too many cuts, if any. We see the brother sit down next to the girl and they watch the childrenís program together. He steals the remote and switches the channel, but she rebels and changes it back. They start to wrestle physically. At one point, her orange skirt flaps up, revealing panties. Itís all very innocuous, but very awkward. She starts to grab him and crawl on top of him, all without taking her eyes off of the television. The unsaid sexuality between the two, combined with the fact that the narrative is going nowhere, makes this extended scene uncomfortable, to say the least. The camera doesnít move. Something feels wrong. The two keep watching the television, and suddenly she pulls out a note from the sister. Cut to the words: how could you kidnap her? Please send her back; it is my dying wish. Cut to an abstract-looking shape which cuts away before I can confirm if itís a thin white arm drifting in bloody water. Cut to the brotherís realization that his sister has killed herself. Cut to her dead in a bathtub brimming with red.
What happened? Through a lengthy and uncomfortable sequence flirting with taboo sexuality, combined with the traumatizing silence of deception, Park manipulates us, having us squirming in our seats as the awkwardness builds. Before we know the big secret, we can feel that upon the characterís sense of family responsibility to his sister is his guilt in committing a crime and even enjoying it. Park conveys this guilt through the static camera, the pauses, the lack of music, the movement of the actors. The quick editing once the secretís out -- so quick we can barely comprehend it -- is not just a stylistic flourish, but an exclamation point thatís sadistic, yes, but also uncomfortable, disconcerting, repulsive, and ugly -- just as you should feel when you realize that you have a lot more to feel guilty about than you originally thought.
Thatís just one of many such scenes. Together they depict a world where, as in Oldboy and Parkís entry in Three...Extremes, you canít live a responsible life because you canít escape your demons, especially when those youíre supposed to protect are being chopped up, defiled, and mutilated, and you know itís partly your fault. As a result, itís the moments where nothingís really happening that frighten you most. I agree with Dargis that the moralism of the ending is not quite as substantive as the first half promises, but Iíd have to say that Parkís talents extend well beyond style. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance doesnít match Oldboy or Joint Security Area (which could be my favorite Korean film ever) in terms of emotional, political, or moral power, but it provoked me in surprising ways throughout, and at the end, I rushed out of the theater in a panic -- not to escape a poor film, but because the filmís crushing attitudes toward moral self-destruction became too much for me to handle.
Date Posted: 10/20/2005