Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Road to ruin: the ethics of revenge

Today we welcome a new writer to the KOFFIA blog, Nathan Wishart, who is a big fan of Korean cinema, and as you will read below, of Park Chan-wook. Director Park is in Sydney this week for the Australian Premiere of his latest film 'Stoker', and so we thought we would take a look at the influence this infamous director has had on so many cinefiles. Read on for Nathan's piece on the ethics of revenge!

There's a reason why we, as an audience, connect so much with a good old, fashioned revenge movie. The desire for revenge is as old as time, all you need is a hero who has a violent injustice visited upon by villains who we can't recognize as human beings as it helps the audience overlook the idea of the hero turning into a cold-blooded killer in pursuit of those he holds responsible. Revenge is practically forged in the fires of revenge and Park Chan-Wook understands this simple elemental motivator completely. As a result, he's created three completely different films all focusing on what it means to seek revenge and what the consequences are.

'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’ is Park's first stab at this exploration of revenge. You can view this film as a sadistic comedy of errors but without any humor. Ryu (Shin Ha-Kyun) is a deaf mute with a dying sister. He's saved up $10 Million Won for an operation that could save her life but the surgery requires a donor and there's a long waiting list.

In any other film, Ryu would be the hero - but this film isn't interested in heroes - just people who make mistakes and spend the rest of the film reacting to the snowball created in it's wake. The desperate Ryu makes s deal with a shady group of organ traffickers to get a kidney in exchange for his $10 Million. Ryu wakes up on the ground, naked, with a kidney missing. Ryu is screwed. He loses his job and then get's informed that a donor is available and they can proceed with his sister's operation. Now he's REALLY screwed.

His girlfriend, Cha Yeong-Mi (Bae Doon-Na) is absolutely furious that he could be such an idiot and waste the only chance he had to save his sister's life.

Ryu and Cha try to come up with a plan to raise the money and eventually decide to kidnap the daughter of the man who owns the company Ryu used to work for. Park Dong-Jin (Song Kang-Ho) is a fundamentally decent man so it makes Ryu's decision all the more tragic, they believe, since he's so rich he won't miss the money. Cha rationalizes the crime as a good kidnapping as opposed to a bad kidnapping because the money is being sought with good intentions. It's an interesting commentary from Park about the class system in South Korea (this isn't unique to South Korea though) and Cha's background as a communist just makes it even easier for her to convince herself and Ryu they're doing the right thing. Ryu doesn't like the plan but they're running out of time, so he agrees to go ahead with it.

The KOFFIA staff have fun with an Oldboy screening and dressup

The duo succeed with the kidnapping but at great personal cost, Ryu's sister discovers he has been laid off and commits suicide rather than be a burden. Ryu is devastated and buries her at the lake where they grew up. Ryu has left the abducted girl in his car, when a mentally handicapped man tries to steal her necklace she leaves the car and ends up in the river. Ryu can't hear her screams as she's drowning, he's too busy focused on his sister.

Meanwhile, haunted by the kidnapping of his child, Park resolves to find those responsible. Now two seemingly good men - neither one a villain or a hero - are on a violent collision course, and we see them push through horrific acts of violence in a futile effort to come to grips with their pain.

 Remaking the Oldboy alleyway scene at KOFFIA2012

The violence in this film is far from what you would get in a straight-forward revenge film, it's not a liberating release of catharcism for the audience, it's messy and it's incredibly uncomfortable to watch. When Ryu beats two men and a woman to death with a baseball bat, it's coming from a place of inarticulate rage and pain. Park electrocutes a woman to death but his pain is buried alongside his humanity and it's so deep he's indifferent to the screams of the woman he's torturing. The best illustration of this is when he receives a phone call from the hospital about a boy he brought in earlier and put himself down as the boy's father, the boy has died and Park calmly tells him he isn't the father before hanging up, his only focus is the death of the people who killed his daughter. There's a brutal logic to the revenge film that Park has subverted for an exploration of violent transgressions and consequences.

The film was not a box office success although it did win awards at both the Korean film awards and PUSAN film critics awards for best editing, best picture and best director.

The theme of consequences continues in ‘Oldboy’, Park's follow-up film in which he adapted a Japanese manga but in a different style of form and content. In direct contrast to the cold, sterile reality of ‘Mr. Vengeance’, ‘Oldboy’ becomes a total revenge fantasy.

Our first introduction to the film's hero, Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik), is at a police station where is drunk and embarrassing himself. He is bailed out by his best friend, Joo-Hwan and makes a call to his daughter. He disappears shortly thereafter. He finds himself trapped in a room and no-one will tell him why he's there. As time goes on, he discovers his wife has been killed and his daughter has gone missing. He tries to commit suicide twice but his benefactor's won't allow him the luxury of death. After 15 years, he is suddenly released and his journey of revenge begins.

Oh Dae-Su is directed towards a sushi place where he meets Mido, a female sushi chef. There's an instantaneous vibe between the pair, and when Oh Dae-Su passes out, Mido takes him back to her place to take care of him, despite having no real reason to do so. Eventually, with Mido’s help, Oh Dae-Su begins his search for his tormentor - eventually locating the building where he was held for fifteen years - where he comes face to face with the man who held him there, Lee Woo-Jin.

An influential movie

Park systematically deconstructs genre convention at every turn; he makes his hero someone not particularly bright but ultimately human - and we subsequently discover that his villain is exceptionally intelligent, but driven so much by rage and obsession that he has become nothing but an engine of revenge; whatever humanity he once had has been obliterated. Lee Woo-Jin created a monster in Oh Dae-Su but Oh Dae-Su's final punishment in the end is a form of guilt that he can never escape from, it's that guilt which essentially bind's the two men.

‘Oldboy’ was an astounding success for Park, it received the Grand Prix award at Cannes and essentially put the South Korean film industry on the map, which at the time was reaching it's apex of the industry boom.

Park has always noted the influence of his wife on his films and in ‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance’, Park decided to provide a revenge movie from a female perspective. Revenge this time comes in the form of a woman called Lee Geum-Ja (Lee Young-Ae has spent thirteen years in prison for a crime she didn't commit but that doesn't mean she's completely innocent). The film present's Lee Geum-Ja's story in flashback as we see she is forced to confess to the murder of a young boy she helped kidnap, otherwise her daughter will die at the hands of a man called Mr. Baek (Choi Mink-Shik) if she refuses. Unlike previous antagonists, Mr. Baek is thoroughly evil, there's absolutely no shading to this villain at all.

It's in prison that Lee starts looking for the redemption that she believes will absolve her of her sins but she still dreams of revenge against Mr. Baek and recruits four women to help through a certain kind of manipulation. Her manipulation is through kindness (earning her the name Kind-Hearted Geum-Ja) she donates a kidney to one woman, rescues another two from the prison bully (who she eventually kills, literally, with kindness and inherits the nickname The Witch) and engages the affections of one through pretending to be a lesbian. Each of these women provide a service for Lee upon her release, one provides shelter and food, one provides the mean's to build a gun Lee designed while in prison and one performs the greatest service of all and becomes Mr. Baek's wife in order for Lee to get close to him.

Geum-Ja's search for redemption and forgiveness comes in two forms. The first is the ghost of the dead child Won-Mo, who appears sporadically throughout the film. Lee's desire for forgiveness from Won-Mo leads her to visit his parents and cut off her finger in a violent display of guilt and remorse, it terrifies both of them and doesn't give Lee what she really wants. The second is Lee's daughter, this is the weakest element of the film but I put that down to the actress playing the role more than anything else, the heavy lifting in the emotional scenes, is carried more by Lee Young-Ae but it's a critical element of the film just the same. Lee was put in a no-win situation where she had to abandon her daughter, it left scars on both of them, so forgiveness from her daughter is an essential part of her journey.

At the beginning of the film, Lee is greeted by a group of Christians (led by Mr. Han who suffers the worst karmic fate of all, an astoundingly awful haircut) who present her with a white cake, if she eats it and agrees to live white she'll be redeemed, she tips the cake and tells Mr. Han to go screw himself, she's not ready to eat the cake yet. Towards the end, her daughter holds up a white cake in the same gesture, she gorges herself on it, she's finally ready to forgive herself.

Each film stands alone but you can also view each film as representing a stage of an emotional journey over the course of all three movies. ‘Mr. Vengeance’ is just, pure unadulterated fury, ‘Oldboy’ examines guilt and ‘Lady Vengeance’ arrives at forgiveness.

Nathan Wishart

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