By Nathanael Griffis
An easy way to find a “buried” film is just to watch a foreign film. Any film will do really, unless it’s on the shortlist with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Pan’s Labyrinth, or Amélie. In recent years foreign films have gained a wider audience in the United States. I meet fewer and fewer people who roll their eyes at subtitles; we’re still in the minority, no doubt, but progress is being made. In recent years I’ve come to be very impressed with Korea’s filmmaking in particular. Some of the names are familiar enough to our conversations that we can say we’ve heard of them (The Host, Oldboy, My Sassy Girl), but the viewing public doesn’t realize the magnitude of the work being done in Korea.
Therefore, I aim to rectify this unfortunate lack of attention. I’ll watch ten films from the past ten years of Korean cinema that should truly be noticed. I’ll pay attention mostly to four big directors who consistently deliver quality films: Joon-ho Bong, Chan-wook Park, Ji-woon Kim, and Ki-duk Kim. These directors do get mentioned from time to time in film criticism circles, normally under the context of “you should see this movie by fill-in-the-blank,” but I think they deserve better than that.
All that stated, it was hard for me to decide which film to watch first. I was introduced to Korean cinema with Joon-ho Bong’s The Host, which is one of the best monster or sci-fi films ever. I’m not willing to consider The Host a “buried film” per se (Tom, Steve, or Alban are welcome to disagree and write an article if they wish), but Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy is another consideration. Oldboy is part of a thematically connected trilogy of films based around revenge, so I decided I would start with that trilogy from the beginning.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is Chan-wook Park’s first film in his “Vengeance Trilogy.” Released in South Korea in 2002, it follows the story of two characters as they seek revenge for the loss of their loved ones. The film begins on Ryu, played by Ha-kyun Shin, a deaf and dumb young man who sells his kidney to organ dealers. Through various complications, Ryu and his girlfriend Yeoung-mi (played by Doona Bae) decide to kidnap the daughter of Ryu’s former boss Mr. Park, played by the great Kang-ho Song. Without giving too much away, Ryu seeks vengeance on the organ dealers, and Mr. Park seeks vengeance on Ryu.
This film is unique and daring, to say the least, and definitely not for everyone. The violence is harsh, and the pace is slow and deliberate. The editing of the film is brilliantly disorienting; time moves fluidly as the director and editor demand it to. Chan-wook Park’s directing is amazing. How and when he decides to expose the audience to the horrors of violence and revenge is haunting. One scene in particular comes to mind: Mr. Park is watching an autopsy and we only see his face, but you hear the entire excruciating process. I had to look away, but was shocked, because I was looking away from nothing.
This is later repeated in a similar scene, but with a different person on the coroner’s table, and it truly highlights the spectacular Kang-ho Song, who I believe is one of the great actors working today. He was the star of The Host, and I’m going to be talking a lot about him in future articles, so we’ll just leave it at that. Ka-kyun Shin as Ryu is also especially fascinating. It’s a challenging job to play a deaf and dumb character. The few scenes where he gets to emit sound are eerie and arresting. Chan-wook Park’s use of silent titles with simple characters on them to represent Ryu’s thoughts is a great way of making the viewer experience Ryu’s world.
This film is simply brilliant and beautifully shot, especially every scene involving the river. It’s evaluation of revenge is a complex picture of compulsion and regret. The characters are driven by an urge to satisfy a thirst for retribution, but consciously realize the consequences their actions will bring upon them. It’s a bleak picture, and my one regret is the lack of hope. Chan-wook Park never gives us a sense that one could resist the pull of vengeance. Every character regrets the violence they perform, but this knowledge has nothing outside of a reflective effect on them. I highly recommend this film, but add a word of caution: the violence is starkly realistic and the film eases you into it, so you might not suspect it. Also, the pace is slow. This is a very visual film that takes its time explaining things, and Chan-wook Park expects you as an audience member to do some work to figure out what’s going on. If those stipulations don’t hold you back, then this is a must-see. If they do hold you back, try challenging them, and watch Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
In my next article, I’ll continue my review of Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy with Oldboy.