Oldboy. It took me three years, but I finally got to the second film in Park Chan-wook’s “revenge trilogy” (I saw Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance in 2006). I thought the earlier film was the work of a stylish director with little to say. Oldboy is much better. The violence, implied and actual, remains excruciating, but where I said about the first movie that the violence was “cool and pretty,” this time it’s not cool at all … I’d call it gruesome and funny, which I understand is an odd combination. And while Mr. Vengeance had a plot that was at times incoherent and at times shallow, Oldboy’s narrative grabs the viewer from the start and never lets up. And the themes, of love and taboos, and the allusions, to Kafka and Memento, make Oldboy into a full experience. Don’t get me wrong … if screen violence bothers you, stay away from this one. #75 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top films of the 21st century. 9/10, which appears to be the highest rating I’ve ever given to a movie in Korean (I haven’t seen many).
I stole this idea from some web site that I can't remember. I think they do this once a month. I'm going to try for once a week, on Mondays, although I may give up after one try. I'll list the movies I watched during the previous week, with one or two lines on each.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Wouldn't have worked without Russell Crowe in the lead role. He makes this stuff believable. 8/10.
Recount. "Only" a TV movie from HBO. Nominated for 9 Emmys. Written by Danny Strong (who got an Emmy nod himself), previously known to fans of the Buffyverse as Jonathan. 8/10.
The Good Earth. Late-30s Hollywood movie about China, based on Pearl Buck's novel, a former choice of the Oprah Book Club. Paul Muni, an American via Ukraine, and Luise Rainer, a German actress, played the two leads, both Chinese characters. Rainer won the Best Actress Oscar, her second in a row. Seeing it now, it's hard to understand why. 6/10.
The Host. Korean monster movie, a few dozen rungs above what you'd see on any random Saturday on the Sci-Fi Channel, if not quite the 5-star masterpiece some critics call it. 7/10.
Jason and the Argonauts. Yes, the set pieces are cool, and it's nice to see Pussy Galore as Hera. But in the end, it's no different from most special-effects extravaganzas ... you wait, bored, until the next cool Harryhausen scene arrives. Would be just as good with all the non-Harryhausen stuff removed. 6/10.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance shows clear evidence of an artist at work. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, even when it features cringe-inducing gore. It is full of artistic deconstructions of traditional narrative processes. In Breathless, Godard used jump cuts in part to excise everything except what really mattered; in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, director Park Chan-wook excises entire portions of the narrative, leaving the audience scratching its head, trying to figure out what is going on. Park’s excisions have the opposite effect of Godard’s … the French film leaves the viewer “out of breath,” but Park uses the time he’s gathered through his excisions to slow us down and give us pretty pictures, resulting in a film that even its champions (and there are many) admit is, if not boring, then at least slow.
Wesley Morris, who likes the movie, claims that “Park prizes craftsmanship over bargain-bin schlock,” suggesting that while Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance works within a schlocky genre, Park rises above those roots because he is up to something bigger. As a fan of genre works that are true to the genre yet also transcend, I would have to agree that ambition is often a good thing when a smart director takes on genre work.
The question becomes, does Park actually accomplish what his champions claim for him? Morris says the film has “a deftly handled sociopolitical bent,” and he may be right … the characters certainly come from various levels of Korean class society. But this is where Park’s disdain for traditional narrative gets in the way. The movie is often wildly incoherent … one of the most interesting things about the film is that the same thing that pisses off its detractors is what its fans enjoy most … throwing stuff on a wall and waiting to see what sticks is not deft handling of sociopolitics. The movie is an excuse for Park to show what a fine director he is. Everything serves that purpose. Thus, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is no better than Friday the 13th, Part III … in both cases, filler exists solely to get to the “good stuff,” which in Park’s hands is a lot more exquisite than in a cheapie horror sequel … but so what? One of my favorite movies, Run Lola Run, is a showy delight, but analysis of the film begins, and to some extent ends, with an examination of that delight … no one says Run Lola Run is about sociopolitics, it’s about running, and red hair, and cool music, and video-game narrative. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a joy to look at, and far less boring than you might think from the above. But it isn’t “about” sociopolitics.
What does the film tell us about violence? That it’s cool and pretty. A fine message, doesn’t bother me, I’m not one who needs a positive message out of every movie. But there isn’t any depth to the movie’s examination of violence … it just is. Same thing with class … one of the Mr. Vengeances is rich, one is poor, and the plot kicks off because of the poverty of the poorer Mr. And that’s it … the film isn’t constructed to help us understand class difference, it’s constructed to get to the part in the movie where both men are set on vengeance, and we come to realize they are really the same guy, when you come right down to it. Again, a fine plot, if not unique. But the meaning? It ain’t about class, it’s about the two Misters getting vengeance in gory fashion, using the most hoary of plot devices, the “they’re really the same, when you come right down it” thingie.
It would be not only unfair, but incorrect, to say that Park Chan-wook is a talentless hack. But no matter how many flourishes he adds, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is just another incoherent gorefest.
(For a fascinating and more positive look at Park, focusing on a later film in his “vengeance trilogy,” check out “KDD on Lady Vengeance.”)