And the anti-Park Chan-wook bandwagon begins….here!

by robbiefreeling
October 18, 2005 5:24 AM
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Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was a pretty impressive pulp drama that nevertheless stayed within its own generic boundaries; its delusions of grandeur never seemed to get the better of it. Things starting taking a change for the worse with Oldboy, yet the formal dazzle and narrative ingenuity of the whole thing made me overlook what was at its essence both a pathetic little-boy fantasy and a 14-year-old’s school project rendition of Oedipus (with “literary” referents like incest and tongue-slicing, who needs character shades or emotional plausibility?). Yet the third in his woebegone vengeance trilogy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, seems to have unveiled this butt-naked emperor for the opportunistic drama queen that he is.

And judging by the downright gleeful standing ovation he got at the New York Film Festival the week before last, following his repellent third installment, those-who-don’t-do-Hong-Sang-soo seem to think of him as the preeminent Korean director working today. He is truly an international sensation, Tarantino-approved (a la Wong Kar-wai, way back when Chungking was expressing its way around art-houses), and his every shot reveals itself as something a little more ornate than you might have expected. Yet why does this self-consciously operatic self-made misfit auteur strike me as being one of the most morally hollow filmmakers to reach such wide critical acclaim in quite some time? Well, Lady Vengeance lays it all horribly bare. Admittedly, the new film unfolds with a thrilling dexterity, folding back in on itself in tantalizing ways, revealing both enough information and enshrouding the entire film in enough shadow at once with every single plot turn. As in Oldboy, he’s a master of withholding crucial information without driving you mad or making you feel overly manipulated. Yet how does he manage this? He’s a preeminent distracter…i.e., no need to question the very questionable actions onscreen when there’s something bright and shining and spangly in the corner that your eye can drift to. Hence, when Lady Vengeance’s (and Oldboy’s to a lesser degree) modus operandi crystallizes at the climax, and Park unleashes some of the most distasteful imagery I’ve seen in many a moon (violence towards very young children, if you must know), he’s already got you by the testicles, squeezing so tight that yes, when the time comes for a big chuckle a few minutes later, you can do nothing but be thankful for the release. Following all this mayhem, which leads to what is supposed to be a fascinating moral question about violent retribution but what once again comes across like something a high-school debate team might discuss, Park leaves his final ten minutes as “contemplation.” And how easy it is to criticize Tarantino while embracing his latest trendy place-setter. Kill Bill (1 and surely, 2) has more moral concern in any given five minutes than any of Park’s flashier (believe it or not!) films, most definitively in his differing use of children. Look at the difference in mother-daughter relationship portrayals between Kill Bill 2 and Lady Vengeance, the latter of which makes a mockery of parental roles. Most importantly, Tarantino knows the limitations of the worlds he creates, and his pulp epic stayed firmly entrenched within those rules. Park seriously thinks he’s making profound “statements” on the “nature” of “violence”, and judging by the rapturous acceptance he’s received, so do many of his viewers. Never has a single tear, perfectly lit and framed, seemed so disingenuous. Lady Vengeance revels in sadism, rubs your face in degraded imagery, begs you to enjoy every moment, and then tries to pass itself off as an “examination” of violence. Well what else would you expect from the culmination of a trilogy that Park himself has admitted was done only as a rebuttal to critics who triple-dog-dared him to make three revenge movies without running out of ideas?

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  • Werebiginjapan | October 19, 2005 8:34 AMReply

    I might agree with robbiefreeling the first and last of Park's trilogy films were straightforwardly about revenge--which I don't believe they are. Mr. Vengeance scrambles identification and sympathy/antipathy, playing social determinism against ideas of blind, unfortunate chance into the story. Such that by the end, we’re denied the classical catharsis that comes from accomplishing a revenge-tragedy, and don’t know what (or for whom) to feel. With Lady Vengeance, the film is divided into two parts: the first half boasts dazzling formal constructions, while the dark, plodding second half is essentially an aesthetic and narrative rejection of the first. The tidy little plot deliberately falls apart once Lady Vengeance is forced to confront the disconnect from the mental idea of revenge versus the deed in physical fact. Though I can't defend the horrific images of child violence, the rest of the final scene is a provocative example of Arendt's "banality of evil" (the chair nailed to the floor, the massive plastic tarp punctured for drainage and then folded like a bedsheet) that again thwarts easy catharsis by focussing on the messy details. Both movies question their genre in important ways, even if you don't think that Park's statements on the nature of violence are terribly profound.

  • clarencecarter | October 19, 2005 3:55 AMReply

    Haven't seen either of the SYMPATHY flicks yet, but on the basis of OLDBOY and JSI, I find it hard to get excited about Park when folks are out there teaching chimps sign language or some such. I suppose if he wasn't taken so seriously by the pundits, I, and hopefully others, might be able to find more to enjoy...hell, if Ron Howard had popped out OLDBOY I might have been really excited. Given that it was a hottie new "auteur" from Asia...hmmm.

  • filmenthusiast2000 | October 19, 2005 2:59 AMReply

    Yeah, he's not too hot in afterthought, but whatever.

  • AdamN | October 18, 2005 10:12 AMReply

    Let me be the first to say "woot." As in, "I agree." As in: "this director is a virtuoso, but it's virtuosity in the service of something that is at best unimportant and at worst -- as you suggest -- borderline reprehensible." Or, put another way: "it's pure cinema!" (note - in order to make the last statement, you have to be a hipster film critic. the bad kind.)