Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Oldboy connection

Last night, the news regarding the Virginia Tech school shooting cycled toward the Korean film Oldboy (2003). In apparent imitation, the killer photographed himself in a pose from the film, whose protagonist, mysteriously incarcerated for years, lashes out at his captors with a hammer. You can read more about that here.

No one knows if the killer even saw Park Chanwook's film, the second part of his "revenge trilogy," which was bookended by 2002's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and 2005's Lady Vengeance, which is pictured below. (Another vengeance-themed film was 2004's Cut, part of the Three...Extremes omnibus). But to imply that is somehow racist to infer that he did seems completely disingenuous, defensive, and PC to me. Just as black (and white, and Asian) kids take their cues from gangsta rap and the latest pop tart, why shouldn't a Korean American, one who seems to have fetishized loneliness and isolation, find some strange kinship with a Korean film that he may have felt mirrored his situation? This seems to me a matter of purely forensic deduction, and nothing to incite suspicion, xenophobia, or censorship.

In the spirit of inquiry, and to shed a little light on the subject for anyone unfamiliar with the films, I've decided to post a discarded draft of an article I wrote for last summer's Cineaste. I interviewed Park about Lady Vengeance at the 2005 New York Film Festival and folded some of our discussion into a published review, as the still-pertinent interview was rather short. I really didn't like Oldboy, which is being remade Stateside for Nicolas Cage, but can better see what Park was driving at regarding love with the other two films. Alas, the shooter does not seem to seen the forest for Park's trees.

Two other observations. The "endless vicious cycle that goes round and round" that Park talks about has been renewed. And if the killer had access only to hammers, and not guns, it might not have been so.

"For Park Chanwook, revenge is a dish best served sizzling, with all the trimmings. With Lady Vengeance, which Tartan Films is scheduled to release in the U.S. on March 26, Park has completed what has been called his "revenge trilogy," a cycle of films that have galvanized—and divided—critics and viewers with their intense violence and equally intense emotion. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), a businessman, distraught over the kidnapping of his daughter, goes to extreme lengths to avenge her subsequent death at the hands of the impoverished criminals, who, complicating the scenario, are shown to be as sympathetic as "Mr. Vengeance." The moral waters are equally murky in Oldboy (2003), a loose adaptation of a Japanese manga (comic). Its protagonist, imprisoned without seeming cause for 15 years, goes on a killing rampage afterwards, only to discover that the young woman he has become enmeshed with...well, the movie is three years old now, but for the sake of its twists and turns the uninitiated are advised to skip over the first question in this interview.

Lady Vengeance (2005), the final film in the trilogy, is billed on the Tartan Films website as a "comedy-drama," a rather optimistic assessment, but not entirely misleading, either. All three films in the series are shot through with a rueful humor, and Lady Vengeance adds a sort of warmth to the cold recesses plumbed by its companions. Its avenger, Geum-ja, is played by Lee Young-ae, a co-star of the film that put Park on the international map, 2000’s Joint Security Area, a humanistic thriller about the illicit fraternization of South and North Korean border guards in the divided country’s demilitarized zone. Lee has since gone on to star in the Korean TV series A Jewel in the Palace, which is wildly popular throughout Asia, and Park toys with her audience-friendly image. An ex-con, Geum-ja was a model prisoner, an "angel" to her fellow inmates, but her good deeds during her 13-year stretch mask an obsessive hunger to right the wrongs committed by her betrayer, a murderous schoolteacher played by the star of Oldboy, Choi Min-sik. Giving Geum-ja some pause in her retribution, which is more than just purely personal in design, is a reunion with her daughter, long since adopted by another family.

Thanks to the proliferation of region-encoded DVDs that can be viewed on multi-system players, the 42-year-old Park enjoyed a cult following well before his movies debuted theatrically in the U.S. (a two-disc edition of Lady Vengeance, featuring a version of the film where in a characteristic stylish touch the color fades gradually to black-and-white, is available). A jury headed by Quentin Tarantino, a kindred spirit who has buoyed the director’s work, awarded Park the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for Oldboy, which has inspired a Bollywood remake (Zinda) and may be getting a Hollywood makeover besides. The choice was not without controversy, given that Park’s skilled, in-your-face orchestration of the mayhem in his films (including a prolonged electrocution in Mr. Vengeance and a squeamish act of consumption in Oldboy) can obscure the state-of-the-nation views on class, totalitarianism, and feminism his champions say the trilogy offers. It is a rousing, and troubling, set of films, which Park spoke to Cineaste about last fall on the eve of Lady Vengeance’s unveiling at the New York Film Festival.

Cineaste: Some audiences find it difficult to look past the violence of your films. Is your main intent to shock and provoke?

Park: The films are about love. Where there’s rage and hate, there has to be a loss, or something precious that’s been stolen. That’s where it begins. The most extreme case is in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, where the main character has lost his daughter. And love is where it ends as well. In Oldboy, the protagonist, after all the violence, chooses love, by erasing his memory and going back to a time where he didn’t know that his lover is in fact his daughter. A normal person would find that quite immoral; the natural thing would be to tell the daughter and try to reestablish a normal father-daughter relationship. But he chooses to forget, and in so doing he overcomes the boundaries of morality. That makes him a heroic character in my eyes.

Cineaste: Lady Vengeance climaxes with an act of group revenge against a single character. Do you feel that any such violence is justified?

Park: At the height of their anger, the audience is just as troubled as they are by his terrible actions. The film shows very clearly the consequences of their rage. The cruelest character in the story, this child murderer, suddenly becomes pathetic, surrounded by avengers who, wearing raincoats as they are, look to him like ghosts. (I purposely used fluorescent light, hitting him from below, to make the scene even more eerie.). So I do throw that question out, in a way that confuses the audience, who are themselves looking for revenge at this point.

Cineaste: The first film of yours to make an impact abroad, Joint Security Area, was political in nature. Why choose revenge for your next subject, much less for a whole trilogy of films?

Park: Joint Security Area is a warm and touching film in some ways, but nonetheless it deals with violence. Violence is one of those forces that drives people together. It’s certainly not the best way to communicate, but it exists, and it can exist between a nation as well as a couple. I’m fascinated in how violence begets violence, in an endless vicious cycle that goes round and round. As an artist who is interested in violence, it was very natural for me to be interested in revenge. Just as if I’d been making films about love, I’d be interested in the subject of marriage.

Cineaste: The characters in your films operate at extreme levels of emotion. How do you get the actors to that high-pitched level of performance?

Park: I don’t want them to think about the overall script. The ambiguity of the ending, the themes—all that’s out the window. I want them to convey the emotion at that moment; if it’s rage, then it’s that that I want to see, if it’s a moment of self-justification, it’s that emotion. There’s a scene in this film where a character is holding a knife, right before he’s about to kill someone. The scene is about his fear, holding a knife, waiting to kill someone. That fear is what I want to see, not the character (and the actor) considering why he’s afraid at the moment, thinking "this guy killed my daughter and now is my chance to kill him, can I or can I not do it?"

Cineaste: Are your films perceived differently in the West than they are in Korea?

Park: In Lady Vengeance, the lead actress is certainly perceived differently. She’s a big star on a TV show that’s popular all over Asia and Korean audiences are shocked at her association with this film. It’s like if Audrey Hepburn were playing the role in a Hollywood film. It’s not at all surprising if you don’t have that association in mind when watching it.

Western critics read into Oldboy and Lady Vengeance a metaphor for the divided Koreas. That’s fundamentally different from how they’re perceived in Korea, where no one sees that in those films. Also, in the West, audiences are much more shocked by the scene where a live octopus is eaten raw in Oldboy. [Laughs]

Cineaste: Is the director character in Cut, your contribution to the Asian horror anthology Three...Extremes (2004), a self-parody? [In the piece, a lowly extra, unhinged by the “goodness” of a noted film director, puts the filmmaker’s perceived virtue to a horrifying test on the set of his latest movie.]

Park: [Laughs] No, there’s no relation to me whatsoever, though it is the favorite of all my films. For that story I needed a professional character whose workplace could double as his home, and I decided that filmmaker would fit. I don’t look, or act, like a "Mr. Vengeance" at all, or so people tell me. When you look at my films people expect me to be a certain way, but I guess I don’t fit the bill. Maybe David Lynch, with that buttoned-down look, is a little strange, I don’t know. People expect the same from Dario Argento, but I hear he’s a nice guy, too.

My next film, I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, is an offbeat love story about two patients who meet and fall in love in a mental institution. It’s very much a PG-13 kind of story, the first time a film of mine would ever get that kind of rating in this country. I’m doing this sweet movie as a lead-in to my next, a vampire film called Evil Live, which will be very, very violent. I need to cleanse myself first."

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