Sympathy for Mr Vengeance - Oldboy - Lady Vengeance
Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance trilogy is famous for its violence and for moments where it seems to deliberately set out to shock - as when Oh Dae-su eats a live Octopus in Oldboy. Fair enough, for some it’s just too much; for others the violence is without purpose or too bound up with a celebration of machismo; for others there is a strain of unacceptable nihilism that runs throughout the trilogy. Lots of the criticism aimed at Oldboy, especially in the US, made reference to its postmodern superficiality and it is perhaps unsurprising that Tarantino was the President of the Jury when Oldboy won the Grand Prix at Cannes.
Still, watching them again, a number of points stand out: first they differ markedly (and remarkably) in tone – Sympathy is stark, spare, ominous; full of dread and anxiety. Oldboy makes you feel uncomfortable in different ways especially in relation to its sexual politics. More than the others it relies on plot surprises to ask the audience to re-evaluate and reassess. Lady Vengeance, with its Baroque sensibility, is almost optimistic in comparison, whilst its multiple characters, slightly confusing flashback structure and its scheming heroine ask you to make comparisons with Elizabethan revenge plays. Second, they’re incredibly serious investigations into what it means to choose violence and revenge and don’t baulk at exploring all the moral and psychological consequences of those choices. Third, though the plots concentrate on individuals, the films are aware of (Korean) society, class, inequality and injustice – not always profoundly aware, admittedly – but enough to give you a sense that you aren’t being asked to consider violence and vengeance as free floating concepts. Fourth, and maybe this is too obvious, they aren’t optimistic films. Chan-Wook wants us to have a good look at the way ‘ordinary’ people descend into brutality and barbarity – as they do (let’s be honest), on a regular basis. Finally, though a few moments of the violence ARE thrilling, most of it is just shocking: instead, the cinematic pleasure of the films come from their formal coherence, their stylistic and aesthetic invention, their weighty performances and their discursive nature. Otherwise there are no easy pats on the back – Chan-Wook wants you to be uncomfortable, ask uncomfortable questions and stumble for satisfactory answers.
All three films make you question repeatedly who, if anyone, you have sympathy for and whether you should be feeling that sympathy. And they make you feel that these are important questions. That’s relatively rare in modern cinema.
In Chan-Wook’s hands, revenge is also a tool to probe questions around individualism; revenge is defined by self-absorption and narcissism after all. The dilemmas of the various protagonists may have societal roots and triggers but their responses are defined by desperation, loyalty, romantic (and familial) love, instinct and learned behaviour. In Sympathy there is something almost fatalistic about the characters’ actions whereas the latter two films allow the characters a little more space for reflection and choice. Oh Dae-su and Lee Keum-ja learn (or are pushed into confronting) what their actions might mean: “When my vengeance is over, can I return to the old Dae-su?” asks Oh Dae-su with what will turn out to be the most extraordinary dramatic irony.
Watching the films again has only made me fall for them more than ever, especially Oldboy, but it’s still Lady Vengeance that I find the most extraordinary. Yet, it gets mixed responses with critics unhappy with the editing and the complexity of the structure, and with the way the film seems split, tonally, into two distinct halves – the first somewhat jokey and cold; the second much more serious and involving (see esp Clarke in Sight and Sound Feb 2006). Elsewhere Philip French, in The Observer, sums it up thus: “While not an especially edifying experience, it's one of the most exciting pictures of recent months”. I don’t think he means exciting like the Bourne films are exciting or at least I hope not. It is exciting in terms of its verve, imagination and seriousness. And he’s wrong too – it’s full of intellectual and moral purpose. It asks questions of me I’d rather not think about and elicits sympathies I don’t particularly want to acknowledge. Indeed the film risks allying itself with right wing ideologues in trying to pose the questions so sharply.
It’s also incredibly moving.
A final word on Oldboy’s sexual politics, as I’m sure some viewers will find it too problematic. It’s hard to discuss without giving spoilers but it is fair to say that the denouement, with all its revelations, allows you to reappraise some of your earlier, uncomfortable impressions. But is that enough? I doubt it.
Obviously, if you haven’t seen the three films, I’d recommend them wholeheartedly and I'd recommend you try and watch them in fairly quick succession so you can compare and contrast. I’ll get on to some of the other great Korean films of the Noughties another time.