PRINT May 2006


IN PARK CHAN-WOOK’S 2002 feature Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a young woman tells her boyfriend the story of a man who believes he has two heads. Suffering from headaches, he shoots one of the heads. The boyfriend pauses to contemplate the tale, then asks, “The left or the right?”

Although this is only a throwaway moment, it is a prime example of the blacker-than-black narrative logic of South Korean filmmaker Park. The story evokes absurdity, futility, inevitability: Park’s characters are, as it were, always destined to shoot themselves in the head, and although it will always be the right head—the one that hurts—it will also be the wrong one, for all action in Park’s universe is doomed to catastrophe.

This is a philosophy that adds up to something harsher than just “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” In Park’s films, it is a foregone conclusion that a man who gouges out his enemies’ teeth (Old Boy, 2003) will end up shearing off his own tongue; that a man who kidnaps a child to fund his sister’s kidney transplant will wind up with a dead sister, a dead child, and one less kidney himself (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance); and that a woman seeking both revenge and atonement for her sins, in Park’s latest film, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, 2005 (being released in the US this month simply as Lady Vengeance), will still feel unconsoled even after organizing the ritual slaughter of her foe.

One of the latest cult stars on the festival circuit, Park Chan-wook is that gift to world cinema, a genuinely controversial figure. He established himself in South Korea in 2000 with a record-breaking box-office hit, Joint Security Area (his third feature); set in the demilitarized zone between North and South, this elegantly shot thriller about friendships between soldiers on opposing sides might be described as a cross between Michael Mann’s Heat and Renoir’s Grand Illusion. By contrast, his follow-up, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance—the first in his so-called revenge trilogy—failed commercially, perhaps because of its exceptionally cool ironic detachment. Park’s worldwide breakthrough came in 2004, when Old Boy, his next revenge film, was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes by a panel headed by Quentin Tarantino. The trilogy’s final installment, Lady Vengeance, was feted in Venice the following year and drew more than four million moviegoers in South Korea.

Many Western critics have eagerly acclaimed Park as the real deal, a feral visionary whose determination to take his viewers to exceptionally uncomfortable places is currently unsurpassed. But there are dissenters. Last winter in Cinéaste, German critic Olaf Möller included the Korean director in a list of “frauds” ripe for debunking, while Asian cinema specialist Tony Rayns, writing in Sight & Sound, called Lady Vengeance “awesomely insincere” and accused Park of cynically catering to a “lad” market of violence-addicted cultists. The latter argument cannot entirely be denied: When the hero of Old Boy chews on a live octopus, you either relish this stomach-turning image as authentic sicko surrealism or you pity the several mollusks that must have given their lives for the cause.

Without a doubt, Park relishes extreme unpleasantness: However much you attribute his films’ violence to revenge-thriller conventions, he brings a special edge of gourmet refinement to his displays of gougings, slicings, and guerrilla dentistry. Even the most tolerant viewer may feel that he has a tendency to go too far, as in Mr. Vengeance, when he stages the cremation of a little girl who has drowned: Not content merely to show her frantic mother’s grief, Park takes his camera inside the burning coffin, where we see the child’s hand turning to ashes. In Lady Vengeance, a group of parents are shown videos of their terrified children, filmed by the kidnapper who subsequently killed them. Park spares no one, neither the fictional parents nor the real-life viewer—and you fear that the child actors may not have had an entirely cozy time on set either.

One can deplore Park’s excesses even while being spellbound by his visual panache, the grim ebullience of his imagination, and the byzantine complexity of his narratives. There’s no denying Park’s auteur signature: It’s all very well wishing that his vision were easier on the nerves, but then he wouldn’t be the filmmaker he is. Besides, his films are no more extreme, no more gloatingly punitive, than the great Jacobean dramas. They belong to a tradition of Korean cinema that has long dwelled on the sordid side: A favorite director of Park’s is Kim Ki-young, whose career stretched from the ’50s to the ’90s and whose films exemplify, according to critic Chuck Stephens, Korean cinema’s “passion for the putrid and the perverse.” Park is hardly the only contemporary South Korean director with such a streak. Equally controversial is cult favorite Kim Ki-duk, who specializes in a somewhat sentimentalized brutality, while Jang Joon-hwan’s revenge story Save the Green Planet! (2003) displays images of torture in a context of out-and- out farce.

In their perverse, merciless logic, Park’s narratives recall not only Jacobean revenge dramas but also the crime novels of Ruth Rendell, in which the innocent or inept commit transgressions that lead inexorably to perdition. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Ryu (Shin Ha-gyun), a deaf-mute, needs money for his sister’s kidney transplant; he sells his own kidney to a gang of organ racketeers, who rob him. He and his girlfriend, Cha Young-mi (Bae Du-na), then kidnap a businessman’s young daughter, but just as a new kidney becomes available, Ryu’s sister kills herself. Then the little girl accidentally drowns, and her father (Song Kang-ho) sets out for revenge. One by one, each character meets a sorry end—including the father, via an outrageous deus ex machina—in an all-out sweep of universally assured destruction.

In Old Boy, middle-aged salaryman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is mysteriously abducted and imprisoned for fifteen years in a hotel room–cum-cell. Abruptly released, the shaggy-haired Oh, now a self-styled “monster,” sets out to find answers as well as to deliver payback. But we gradually learn that his wealthy persecutor has himself been taking a viciously slow-burning revenge on Oh for the catastrophic result of a careless remark years earlier. Everything Oh does to realize his goal actually contributes to his ruin as he heads deeper into a maze custom-made for him by a master villain: Reaching the labyrinth’s center, Oh learns that he has been tricked into sleeping with his own daughter.

Old Boy is similarly manipulative of its audience. We may think we are seeing a gratuitously surreal display of violence and visual non sequiturs, when Park is really giving us a minutely plotted story about a minutely planned revenge plot: a double narrative and a dazzlingly cunning sleight of hand at the viewer’s expense.

No less byzantine in its design, Lady Vengeance may lack a touch of its predecessors’ fiendishly wrought coherence. It feels at first sight like a jigsaw construction designed primarily to perplex and disorient. With its multiple narrators and complex flashback structure, the narrative zigzags between transparency and opacity, and its expansive flamboyance creates a seemingly less controlled, though often more thrilling, fragmentation than is seen in Park’s two previous films.

Lady Vengeance begins with the release from prison of Lee Geum-ja, a young woman whose years behind bars have supposedly transformed her from child-killer to secular saint; her pious Christian admirers wait outside the gates (absurdly, in Santa suits) with a traditional gift of tofu. Geum-ja’s nobility of soul has made her a legend, and her angelic aura is highlighted in the casting of Lee Young-ae, a popular television actress who played the earnestly demure investigator in Park’s Joint Security Area. But Geum-ja’s first act on emerging from jail is to spurn her devotees’ gift with an icy sneer. Throughout, the film plays on the shifts in her demeanor, between her seemingly seraphic blankness and the sudden eruptions of cruelty and demented grief that her blankness sporadically registers. Yet Park never allows us to know Geum-ja too well; her protean nature is mirrored in the film’s collagelike structure of brief episodes.

As Geum-ja’s back story falls into place, we learn that she was imprisoned for a boy’s kidnapping and murder but that the real culprit was Mr. Baek (played by Old Boy’s Choi Min-sik), a primary-school teacher and habitual child-killer. Released from prison, Geum-ja rebuilds her life, making contact with her daughter, adopted as a baby by a couple in Australia. At the film’s climax, Geum-ja offers the parents of Baek’s victims the opportunity to avenge their children personally. After the briefest debate on what is socially and morally appropriate, these law-abiding middle-class families jump at the offer; in an extraordinary sequence suggestive of an elaborate performance ritual, they line up to attack Baek with the assorted weapons that Geum-ja provides. This grimly cathartic episode is typical of Park’s stygian comic sensibility. One parent asks another, seemingly equipped only with a short stick, whether he needs a more substantial weapon; the man reveals that he is actually holding the shaft of a fearsomely oversize axe.

But Lady Vengeance approaches its sobering payoff by a very indirect route. Much of the film’s narrative is presented through several different female voice-overs, as Geum-ja’s cell mates lead us into flashbacks to her prison career and to their own pasts, which are largely unrelated to the principal plot. One such detour introduces Geum-ja’s prison archenemy, a tough lesbian who, as a suburban wife, barbecued and ate her husband; the cartoonish shot that shows her in flagrante delicto brings to mind a certain digressive exuberance that Park has in common with overtly “novelistic” filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, who similarly goes out of his way to set up elaborate single images that serve as the briefest visual “footnotes.”

Conversely, Park elsewhere makes a point of extreme concision. He tells us very little, for example, about Geum-ja’s involvement in Baek’s crimes. We learn that her daughter is in Australia from a single shorthand stroke: a photo of a baby with a kangaroo. Elsewhere, concision becomes an excuse for extravagant technical showing-off. At one point we see Geum-ja walking in the street; the camera suddenly cranes up to a window floors above, revealing her already upstairs in an office—a thrillingly artificial ellipsis.

It is no surprise to learn that Park conceives his films visually from the outset. In an interview published two years ago in London’s Daily Telegraph, he remarked that “the visual style is decided when I write the script. Line by line, I decide the shots.” It is as if the films are storyboarded as much as scripted from the start—which is another way of saying that Park has a comic-strip imagination (Old Boy was based on a Japanese manga). Old Boy’s showstopper is a sequence in which the camera tracks back and forth along a corridor while Oh Dae-su single-handedly battles an army of heavies. Strictly speaking, however, this sequence owes less, perhaps, to the single-frame logic of comics than to a model of continual action imagined as a sort of illustrated scroll or frieze.

Park’s films are threaded with strong visual leitmotivs. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, bright color markers guide us from episode to episode. The political pamphlets that Young-mi distributes—and that directly cause her death—are the same orchid pink as her T-shirt, while Ryu always stands out with his green dyed hair and loudly striped shirts. In the sardonically harrowing drowning scene, the kidnapped child’s death is revealed from a distance, deep in the background: Her dress is a beacon of bright orange that suddenly disappears from view as she falls into the water.

Park’s most extremely aestheticized film, Lady Vengeance is patterned in red and white, from the stylized credit sequence of tattoos unfurling on snow-white skin to the leitmotivs of snow and blood. The antinaturalistic sets designed by Cho Hwa-sung evoke a world of concrete and psychic enclosure. The hair salon where Geum-ja finds accommodation, with its overlapping squares and planes and its tiger-stripe wallpaper, suggestive of prison bars, reflects her mental disorder and emotional imprisonment; it also echoes the nightmarish cell in Old Boy, with its window looking out not on the real world but only on a patently fake trompe l’oeil landscape.

Such baroque stylistic involutions surely defuse accusations that Park is a sensationalist purveying quick-fix thrills. It comes to mind watching Lady Vengeance that the Western filmmaker Park most resembles, both in his narrative complexity and visual artifice, is Pedro Almodóvar. Both directors are fascinated by metamorphosis and multiple identity. The salaryman/revenger in Old Boy and the murderer/madonna in Lady Vengeance recall Almodóvar’s vamps who turn out to be male judges, nuns who become bohemian mothers. Both directors define their fictional worlds through stylized sets and exaggerated emphasis on realistic milieus (a hospital and a dance school in Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, a prison and a patisserie in Lady Vengeance, a smelting plant in Mr. Vengeance) that in fact suggest a parodic naturalism, as if to mock the notion that fictions must be rooted in a recognizable world to be believable.

Park’s films, in fact, are no less rooted in Korea’s social reality than Almodóvar’s are in that of Madrid. In Mr. Vengeance, Young-mi is fondly lampooned as a hipster revolutionary, handing out pamphlets against American business and “the new liberalism that ruins the lives of the people.” In one sequence of Old Boy, news coverage of fifteen years of international and local history flashes by, showing that when Oh Dae-su reemerges in the new Korea—more than a decade after the end of the South’s military regime—he is effectively an extraterrestrial. It may be that the revenge theme itself expresses particular tensions in contemporary Korea, but Park’s trilogy is never as politically precise in this respect as Jang’s Save the Green Planet!, in which the demented hero’s rage is traceable back to specific repressions under former regimes, including the massacre of demonstrators at Gwangju in 1980. But it can certainly be argued that Park’s revenge films rehearse the traumas of South Korea’s recent social change, in that they all concern painful imprisonment and no-less-painful release (in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, imprisonment is represented by Ryu’s workplace and claustrophobic living quarters). They also suggest, as does Bong Joon-ho’s ’80s-set police procedural thriller Memories of Murder (2003), that some social scars can never fully be healed.

Park himself claims to favor the revenge theme simply because it is universal. He also chooses, convincingly or not, to represent himself as a moralist. “I want to show how violence makes the perpetrator and the victim destroy themselves,” he said in the 2004 Daily Telegraph interview. “I think I give more moral lessons to the audience than Disney.” More intriguingly, in a contemporaneous interview in The Times, he remarked of his films, “The vengeance represented is merely the transferring of a guilty conscience by people who refuse to take the blame themselves.” Hence the eventual punishment of the bereaved father in Sympathy and the comeuppance of Oh Dae-su in Old Boy, who finally learns he is being punished for crimes he never even realized he committed.

Lady Vengeance, however, rings a change on that theme. Geum-ja craves absolution as much as she seeks revenge for sins against her: On leaving prison, her most violent act is to sever her own finger in front of the parents of the boy she supposedly killed. But displaced guilt catches up with her—and with us. Rather than redeeming Baek’s crimes, she ends up spreading the guilt, making it universal, as she shows a group of respectable victims that they too are capable of the worst. Park’s point is that violence is not just the prerogative of “monsters” but can tempt the mildest bourgeois when it comes to the crunch. So, apart from being elated over his stylistic virtuosity, we also leave Park’s films with a certain sick feeling: the awareness of being implicated ourselves. Park Chan-wook stuffs his horrors down our throats and we find ourselves swallowing them, avidly. His films may be unpalatable, but watching them becomes hideously compulsive—very much like chewing on a live octopus.

Jonathan Romney is a film critic for the Independent on Sunday and a contributing editor of Sight & Sound.