Tag Archives: Chan-wook Park

Korean Cinema — Thirst

By Nathanael Griffis

Interesting fact: this poster was censored. The Korean versions are a little more scandalous.

I couldn’t keep myself away, so I watched another Korean film. Once again it has Kang-ho Song, and I liked it. I know you get it by now. I want to watch any film he’s ever been in, but nonetheless I’m still inclined to convince you that you must watch Thirst. Now, for those of you young kids who don’t remember and have been infected by Twilight, vampires are scary, bloodthirsty monsters. In recent years I’ve been frustrated to see vampire movies go one of two ways: either the teen-infused soap opera fable where some monsters are good and the original legend is desecrated, or poorly made horror films where vampires are thoughtless monsters (see Daybreakers, or don’t). Thirst stands so far above both these genres that it ranks up there with Interview with the Vampire, Dracula, Shadow of the Vampire, and Nosferatu.

What makes a good vampire movie is an examination of the basest of human desires amplified into some evil formative monster. What’s so fascinating about Thirst is the small twist of a religious priest becoming a vampire. Through an unfortunate blood transfusion, Priest Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) becomes cursed/blessed as he turns into a vampire. His carnal lusts increase, but they start out small and slowly become out of control. At first he’s content with sucking the blood from a comatose man, but that doesn’t compare with freshly bitten blood. At first it’s enough only to gaze at his friend’s wife Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim), but eventually he must have her. At first it was enough to live his life alone, but his hermitage isn’t as gratifying as having Tae-ju as his vampire bride.

This Vampire bite brought to you by Toshiba and Ethan Allen.

Thirst is another excellent film from writer/director Chan-wook Park. The camera is used wonderfully, and it has a strong sense of reality that adds to the horror. This idea of a realistic monster is hard to achieve and is so frequently missed, especially in vampire films. Twilight, True Blood, and the later Vampire Chronicles movies like Queen of the Damned all butcher this idea. It might look cool to make a vampire run real fast and seem to be a blur, but it takes away from the frightening aspect. It renders the monster too fantastic and therefore more distant. The vampires in Thirst start as humans, and struggle with their humanity throughout, and grow into monsters with only slightly altered powers (light also kills them, which is key, but it shouldn’t have to be). They can jump farther and heal quicker, but none of these things seem unrealistic, because Chan-wook Park doesn’t use CGI but wire effects, and it flows much better. It allows him a cleaner shot as well.

The shots are beautiful as always. Especially the stark contrast of the vampire’s white-washed lair that becomes blood-stained. Lit with halogen lights, it places vampires in the most unlikely of settings, a blisteringly bright room, and turns it into a horrific scene. The scenes in these white-lit rooms and houses signify the greater themes of the film. There’s a real sense of combating moralities and instincts–opposites collide and seemingly coalesce but are always in constant struggle. Park shows us that there is a darker side inside of us that can be unlocked, in this case by the monstrous vampire’s blood, that we’ll always have to contend with, but he never suggests we don’t have choice. Hope in this film is found when the priest decides to take control and finish the vampire problem.

This film is an amazing example of horror and how to make a monster movie. The performances are nuanced across the board. The images are disturbing, the gore is horrific, and sexuality serves the film rather than being abused by it; overall it’s an amazing look at monsters and the terrifying repressed nature of humanity. It’s scary to think that one could desire to become a vampire, but Thirst returns substance to the argument by making vampires truly frightening and morally complex. I highly recommend this movie, but with this caveat: it is full of gore and sex (to be expected in horror and vampire films), so it’s not for the faint of heart. So what do you guys think. What makes a good vampire film? What are good vampire films?

Okay, how do I explain this scene? They're sleeping, and the guy in the middle has a rock. Look, you had to be there.

Korean Cinema: I Saw the Devil

By Nathanael Griffis

I Saw the Devil is a classic revenge thriller–the man seeking revenge normally sees reflected in himself aspects of the killer. We know the story: psychopath rapes and kills the fiancé of a secret agent who then goes on a spree of morally compromising actions, becoming more and more like the psychopath himself. The only thing is, the secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon seems to have taken a page from Edmond Dantès and toys with his psychopathic victim by catching and releasing him.

Byung-hun Lee about to do some revenge gardening.

Eventually succumbing to the thrill of the kill and drifting into psychosis himself, Soo-hyeon (played by Byung-hun Lee) is different from most revenge thriller protagonists in his complexity. He doesn’t lose his soul entirely like Edmond Dantès, become a heroic martyr whose actions are justified like John Creasy in Man on Fire, or stay morally ambiguous in the vein of Dirty Harry. His shrinking humanity and the consequences to his remaining loved ones who become victims of the psychopathic Kyung-chul (played by Min-sik Choi) keep him grounded. The final shot is of Soo-hyeon walking away crying, but with just a hint of a satisfied smile. Revenge has ultimately not left him fulfilled; it hasn’t brought back his fiancé; it’s only brought more pain and suffering to those around him, but it was necessary.

The acting is superb in this film. Min-sik Choi probably shouldn’t be allowed out in public around blunt objects, or sharp objects for that matter, or how about we just scrap the whole thing and keep him in a little actor box where we let him out to portray some skin-peelingly horrifying role. From Oldboy­ to Lady Vengeance, he’s one haunting performer with a frightening penchant for using hammers. Simply put, he’s one the best actors in South Korea, if not the world.

Min-sik Choi doing something. Sometimes it's better if you don't ask.

Byung-hun Lee stretches himself a bit here. He’s not just a pretty-boy action star like he was in G.I Joe or The Good, the Bad, the Weird. He can deliver a menacing glare well and works up some tears. It’s not a tour de force, but he’s worthy of praise for stepping out of a comfort zone and never reducing himself to his sex appeal. The rest of the cast is fine, but given little to do other than scream in pain, whimper, look confused, or do cop stuff like yell at Soo-hyeon and allow him to do what they can’t.

This movie is a mixed bag. Unlike a lot of revenge thrillers, this one is clearly in the horror genre. Director Jee-woon Kim was doing something new with The Good, the Bad, the Weird; he’s more known for grisly horror thrillers like A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life, but I kind of prefer his entertaining action. Perhaps it speaks to his talent as a horror director, but he’s knows just how far to push the gore envelope. Several scenes in this movie had me cringing and reaching for the remote, but just as I was ready to fast-forward, skip, or shut it down, he’d cut away. It was scary how much this got in my head. My imagination started to play with me and I no longer needed his grisly presentation. He knows what to show and what not to show. It’s more horrifying to see Min-sik Choi dragging a plastic-lined box of appendages across the screen than seeing him chop up a body.

Still, the gore felt a little too excessive. The presentation was done with a enough professional touches and skill that it horrified and sickened to the right degree without feeling exploitative, but the concurrent violent scenes did become visually deafening. Revenge thrillers, and horror films for that matter, are better when the violence and gore are focal points, staggered between moments of calm that horrify you. This is the basic reason Paranormal Activity is so affecting. The viewer comes to dread the night scenes, because they want to return to the peace of the day. There are really only three scenes of violence in A History of Violence, plenty of father-son time in Road to Perdition, and even Sweeny Todd has songs that don’t involve throat-slitting. There are not enough peaceful moments in I Saw the Devil, so it rockets forward and becomes more of a chase movie. By the end I had had enough of the gore, and it took away from the performances and the over-arching theme, which I do think is a deeper look at revenge. Kim should have taken a page from Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, which is extreme in its violence but has enough calm story-building to allow for an enjoyable viewing experience. There’s only so many times one can watch a skull get bashed in or someone stabbed with random hardware.

There’s also the issue of plot holes. The police seem unwilling or incapable of stopping either Kyung-chul or Soo-hyeon, even though at several occasions they have the option to do so, including a moment where Kyung-chul willing surrenders and they inexplicably wait three minutes for Soo-hyeon to show up. It felt really forced. Then there’s Soo-hyeon’s strange insistence to drive on the wrong side of the road in an attempt to cause traffic accidents. Despite popular opinion, you don’t get to the bad guy quicker by dodging oncoming SUV’s.  The characters also seem immortal until the director Kim decides they’re not. It apparently is not a big deal to have you skull cracked, Achilles tendon ripped out, several stab wounds, broken wrists, and stepping on a fish hook to boot. I mean I think I could wage war with a secret agent with those sorts of injuries, right?  These sorts of faux pas were charming and fit in The Good, the Bad, the Weird; they added to the comic aesthetic and allowed Kim to stage some amazing action scenes. Here they seem out of place and distracting. They only convolute the plot and weaken what are interesting characters.

Psst... psst... behind you....

As a horror thriller, this movie’s pretty good. It’s kind of disappointing to see Kim’s ability to get good performance from actors and frame some wonderful shots ruined by plot holes and the laws of biology and physics (stupid science ruins all the fun). In the end though it’s his own fault for focusing too much on the violence, which overruns the interesting ideas of monstrous actions demanding monstrous responses, the line between humanity and psychosis, and the universality of pain (even killers have families that a certain unhinged secret agent could harm). Unless you’re a connoisseur of foreign horror, or just horror for that matter, I would avoid this film. It’s not easy or enjoyable to watch, and the little art that shines through is not worth the images you have to bear. If horror’s your genre, there is a lot to learn from Jee-woon Kim’s execution of several scenes, but the overall package is a little light of substance.

Korean films: a look back.

By Nathanael Griffis

A while back someone, I believe it was Steve, asked me if I could identify any patterns in Korean filmmaking after watching a few Korean films in a row. They all speak Korean and there’s a lot more kicking than in American movies, I thought. Neither truly felt accurate, and I doubt I’ll be able to give an accurate description of prevailing themes, styles, techniques, or ideas.  I did, though, begin thinking about my whole experience and how to discuss Korean films in a general sense, at least as much as one can after having seen ten films. There were five main things I took away from this experience that I was impressed with in Korean films: little color correction, strong female characters, bold unhampered violence, a concern for the framed shot, and experimentation especially in editing for narrative. These things are not unique to Korean cinema, but they stood out to me as something that was of a primary concern within most of the films I watched.

This is the country I've been talking about.

The lack of color correction–by which I mean no computer enhanced color palette (i.e. Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd’s gray scale and red palette, O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s sepia palette, Amélie’s sun-drenched yellow and green, or the blisteringly annoying steely blue of most sci-fi action films like Transformers)–was refreshing. At first it was disconcerting in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance; it felt unpolished. I grew to really appreciate it though, in that film especially, because it lends a realistic feel to the images . Color correction isn’t hard to do. It’s a matter of a few dials, buttons, and toggle switches and you’re all set, so this is not something beyond the filmmakers’ abilities. They consciously choose to shoot with realistic tones. This style is a rarity in American filmmaking. I’m not calling for them to change; I like the difference between the two countries. The use of color correction signals certain themes and genres and allows a director another added level of artistic control. It can be annoying though, especially in poorly made sci-fi and horror, when the color scheme is simply there because that’s the accepted color scheme of a genre. It’s even more annoying on television where, with the exception of reality TV, most procedurals on CBS are given blue tones (just watch an episode of CSI), ABC is garnished with reds and greys, and FOX tends to go with whatever the genre calls for. Sometimes, all the color correction done needlessly all the time becomes tired so I appreciated these films’ decisions to avoid it.

Strong female characters are another large cross-cultural difference. Korea, as I understand it, is much more of a matriarchal society than America, which is almost so individualistic as to be neither patriarchal nor matriarchal, but we tend to slide towards the male-dominated end of character development. Every film I watched, with the exceptions of The Good, the Bad, the Weird and Painted Fire, had female characters at the focal point of the film, and they had depth that is rarely seen in American movies. When a film like Black Swan, which presents strong complex female leads, is released in America, it’s seen as daring and different. (Mind you, Black Swan is daring and different for so much more than just strong female characters, but you get my point.)

In case I never mentioned it, Kang-ho Song = amazing.

Films like Lady Vengeance, Mother, My Sassy Girl, and 3-Iron were striking. The difference to me is that both sexes are given equal consideration and complexity. Female character are not used to bolster the male character, but to play off of each other. The actress’s story is just as important as the actor’s. There is little sense, except in Painted Fire, that women are objects men use, or that men are objects strong women use. Having strong, well-written characters of both genders has removed objectification to some extent in these cases. (Mind you, I’m watching what is considered the best of Korean cinema; it could be different if I watched less highly regarded films.) This is something I wish American films would take a cue from, because strong female characters just improve your story as a whole.

Something where both countries are similar though is in their presentation of bold unhampered violence. By this I mean that violence isn’t pulled away from. It’s a visual experience that causes a visceral reaction. American films have always been preoccupied with violence. It is sometimes a popular criticism of them, but both countries have been moving towards a stark presentation of violence. The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men is the perfect example of this. Along with David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, we’re seeing more realistic violence in film. The difference is that violence is forthrightly presented as more horrifying instead of the slow-motion glorification of the late 80’s and early 90’s. This is not the period of the John Woos and John McTiernans of earlier.

Korean films follow this trend as well–Chan-wook Park, Ji-woo Kim, and Joon-ho Bong especially. Ji-woo Kim is unique in this category, because he still seems to be glorifying violence and presenting an enjoyable spectacle in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, but he uses the stark violence to make the presentation more fluid and exciting. Park’s use of violence is without a doubt horrifying and grotesque at times, while Bong has a sense of grace and beauty built around the extent of the violence he is willing to show. I personally prefer this style and technique for presenting violence. Gore should disturb; it should frighten the audience. We should cringe and turn away from it, not jump up and clap. (I say this, yet I still love a good action flick, but that’s my own personal struggle to contend with.)

The final two things I noticed go together: a strong concern for the framed shot (which most American cinematographers and filmmakers still have) and a desire for experimentation go together. The things Chan-wook Park and Ki-duk Kim do with editing to control the movement of time in their film is fascinating. All of their films have a strong sense of framing. Every detail is placed within the frame for a purpose. This is more than merely skilled filmmaking; it’s really a persistence to continue bettering the art of film. Ji-woon Kim reminds me of early Spielberg, with a panache for exciting stories and a gift for visual presentation. Joon-ho Bong is like Robert Altman reborn and mainstreamed. Chan-wook Park has the gifts of Martin Scorsese, if Scorsese made sci-fi horror movies. I think these filmmakers will be studied in the future for their editing and framing and their impact on film as an art form.

The greatest thing I’ve taken away from this experience is a greater love for the universality of film. Everyone loves stories, and films are such an amazing way to present something as dense as a novel but only as time-consuming as a short story. I want to keep watching more. I missed several, like J.S.A., Peppermint Candy, Simodo, The Man from Nowhere, Secret Sunshine, A Bittersweet life, The Show Must Go On, Barking Dogs Never Bite, and Thirst. If I had to recommend one film that you must watch from the ten I saw, it would have to be Memories of Murder–it’s an amazing and unique experience in film. If there’s one I’m sure people will love, it’d be The Good, the Bad, the Weird.

I don’t know what I’ll do next, but that’s half the excitement of writing.

Korean Cinema #7: Painted Fire

By Nathanael Griffis

Painted Fire is an example of a movie that does several things right–I’ve rarely seen a discussion of art so accessible to the viewer–and then there these glaring flaws. I want to say from the beginning that I like this film. I enjoyed watching it and I have a lot of respect for the director Kwon-taek Im ,who’s made over 100 films since starting in 1961. The acting is amazing. The art work is profound and gave me a new respect for Asian art and artists in general. But… no wait before I point out all the egregious  missteps in the film, I’ll give it its dues.

Painted Fire, also known by the title Chihwaseon, is a biopic released in 2002 about the Korean painter Dhowon, whose given name was Seung-up Jang. Dhowon painted and grew to prominence during the tumultuous late 19th-Century Korea. At that time Korea was fluctuating between various dynasties and Japanese and Chinese occupation. The country’s confused political and cultural identity becomes reflected in Dhowon’s growth as an artist as he is trying to find himself. This is normally a pretty cliched story line, the artist who has to throw off the shackles of what he’s been taught and discover a unique technique, but the discussion of art is so honest and raw that it gives this tired storyline a fresh feel.

Dhowon painting

Dhowon’s complex, and somewhat unlikeable, character arc is handled with masterful nuance by Min-sik choi, whom you might remember from Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Triliogy, but here he is playing a very different character. Choi presents us with a picture of an artist who never finds his footing and merely responds to the genius talent inside him. This is a wonderful chance for the director to give an honest look at 19th-century Asian artwork. It gave me a wonderful appreciation for the themes, genres, and symbolism of classical art pieces.

Personally I’ve never put much stock in art genres like landscape, bird and flower, or even portrait, but the cultural power of painting is so marvelously represented in this film that I regret not giving Asian artwork its appropriate respect. I was fascinated by how precise they had to be with imprecise tools. They had only one or two brushes, and maybe a stick of charcoal, but they used the instruments so perfectly and had such an understanding of depth and shadow that they needed very little more than the brush and ink to convey some of the truest, most inspiring works of art. Anything could become a canvas for self expression or symbolic meaning. It all felt very organic. I would feel pain when Dhowon would find some innocuous flaw in a seemingly perfect painting and destroy it, because I saw something more than beauty in the swathes of ink.

All that said, let’s get on to the mean stuff. This is the first true historic biopic I’ve seen in Asian cinema (I’m not saying their aren’t others, just that this is the first one I’ve watched), so maybe I missed some things in translation, and because of that perhaps take my critique with a grain of salt.

This film has a very troubled timeline, it doesn’t balance characters well, and women are treated as little more than sexual muses. The timeline is the most troubling aspect to me. The director makes indiscriminate cuts through time with little signal to the audience. I know in an earlier article I appreciated this is in Chan-wook Park’s films, but that was because Park might jump forward a half-hour, not 16 years. There’s a scene, for example, were Dhowon as a boy runs away; this then cuts to his master walking through a marketplace were he is accosted by a teenager who says he’s Dhowon; then cut to an adult Dhowon being pressed into art school. I’m not using creative license here–that’s a sequence of three cuts in a row. There’s no explanation, and it makes the whole experience jarring as this continues throughout the film.

It becomes especially taxing on supporting characters who materialize at the director’s whim and disappear with each regime change. The regime changes will cause anyone but an Asian historian some trouble. Large political issues are thrust quickly upon the viewer and then forgotten equally as fast. Perhaps these time issues led to my interpretation of weak female characters. Besides a matronly bar owner and few noblewomen, the majority of Dhowon’s interactions are with kisaeng, which are akin to geishas or concubines, but those terms are not truly adequate. The problem is that the kisaengs are a complex social entity in Korean history. They were sexual objects, but also supposed to fulfill motherly, medicinal, musical, and educational roles in society all while maintaining a social status equal to slaves. It’s this level of complexity that is missed, and unless you understand it watching this film, you would assume Dhowon is going around taking advantage of every young woman he possibly can.

It’s tough to say I would recommend this film. I want to recommend it because of it’s discussion of art, and the cinematography of Il-sung Jung is quite arresting, especially in the final shot. The glaring timeline issues are so basic and the weak supporting characters so overwhelm the film that I’m torn. It should be noted that a lot of critics disagree with me. This movie is highly praised by most criticism I’ve read. Kwon-teak Im tied for the Best Director award with Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love) at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival for this film, but by that timed Im had become a living legend deserving of some recognition. So I could be wrong (but I’m not).

If you love art this film is a must. If you like coherent narratives then avoid.

Next I’ll be watching My Sassy Girl.

Korean Cinema #4: The Good, the Bad, the Weird

By Nathanael Griffis

I love Westerns, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is legendary among them, so I was fascinated when I heard about a 2008 Korean remake by director Ji-woon Kim. The Good, the Bad, the Weird takes the simple story outline of Sergio Leone’s classic Western and places it in 1930′s Japanese-controlled Manchuria. There is little left of Leone’s story, which is a good thing because it allows Ji-woon Kim to provide his own vision.  The story follows the “weird” Tae-goo, played by the awesome Kang-ho Song, who steals a treasure map from the Japanese army that the “bad” Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee) wanted to steal and the “good” Do-won (Woo-sung Jung) was protecting. Did you follow all that, or is it easier to say the weird guy has a treasure map and everyone else wants it.

You're welcome, ladies.

This film is awesome–rife with plot holes and physical impossibilities, but just a blast despite any so called “flaws,” like revolvers that never need to be reloaded, shotguns that miss from close up, artillery that can’t hit anything except the ground, and minor characters whose problems are never resolved. These “flaws” don’t hinder the film but make it all the more endearing. It never takes itself too seriously, and if you take it seriously you’ll be severely disappointed. I was watching it with a friend, who was for the first few minutes pointed out problem after problem and didn’t enjoy the film until he just let it go and lived in the ridiculous nature of what was occurring.

Ji-woon Kim is able to get away with this because he understands the concept of the “plausible impossibility.” We know that a man who just shot five bad guys should have no problem getting the leader of the gang if he has a clear shot, but as long as you show us the dust blast off a wall next the bad guy’s head, we’ll accept that he missed. The action sequences are built upon the impossible and consistently rely on this style to create an enjoyable experience. It feels reminiscent of Indiana Jones in that aspect. The fun is in waiting for the next creatively orchestrated impossible scene to appear. The action is creative and fun, and some of the best I’ve seen in a while. The opening train scene is a great example of how to introduce characters. Tae-goo is introduced by kicking down a door and shooting a bunch of soldiers in the back. He’s a coward and self serving, but endearingly goofy. Do-won the bounty hunter with a bottom-line attitude only aims for the bad guys. Chang-yi takes a malicious pleasure in the chaos and violence he creates. From the framing of the shots, the score, and the costuming Ji-woon Kim utilizes every aspect of film making to build character and conflict in the first fifteen minutes.

No snarky comment. Kang-ho Song is awesome. That is all.

The humor is amazing, and Kang-ho Song shows he’s a master at both sides of the actor coin. The man can make you laugh or he can make you cry. He inhabits a character who is a perennial loser, a foolishly brash petty thief, who can indiscriminately kill and remain likable. His ability to charm an audience reminds me of Tom Hanks. Eli Wallach’s Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly definitely had a comic tinge to it, and his chemistry with Clint Eastwood was great, but here the humor and the redemptive quality of a man who’s been driven from his home is the focus. It was a smart move to shift the focus from the less interesting Do-won to the engaging Tae-goo, and it gives the film its own personality. The story is not nearly as engaging as Leone’s original, and Chang-yi is no Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef). That’s the biggest flaw of the film. Ji-woon Kim missed the intrigue that Lee Van Cleef brought to his scenes. Chang-yi is sadistic but little more. There is an attempt to make him out to be a philosopher type, but little is fleshed out. Also, keeping the numerous gangs and their motivations in order gets quite confusing by the end, but luckily it gets lost in the action and humor.

The end scene still holds true to the classic three-way Mexican standoff. It’s well shot, but can’t measure up to the original and is hurt a little bit by having to maintain a consistent stylized action. The final scene would have been better if it had been less stylized and more realistic, but then it would have been inconsistent, a hard decision for the director, so I don’t want to fault Kim for it. The a lack of the Morricone score hurts too, but that’s forgivable. The music composed by Dalparan and Yeong-gyu Jang is great and keeps the movie flowing, but it doesn’t have the presence and grace of a Morricone score.

Overall, I was ecstatic after watching this. It’s definitely a great group movie, and I suspect it is the type of film that even subtitle haters will stop rolling their eyes at and enjoy. It was a lot of fun, and I really needed something after Chan-wook Park’s heavy and disturbing Vengeance Trilogy.

Next up: Ki-duk Kim’s 3-Iron.

May not be in a graveyard, but it's still pretty cool.

Korean Cinema #3: Lady Vengeance

By Nathanael Griffis

Spoiler Alert: Some key aspects of the film’s ending are revealed and discussed.

Coolest tattoo ever.

Imagine that a producer crossed 12 Angry Men with Seven and The Descent and then let Darren Aronofsky direct it. The result would be something close to Lady Vengeance (called Sympathy for Lady Vengeance in some translations). As a warning, I will be discussing some significant spoilers, because in order to truly analyze this film one has to talk about the ending. I know I held back on Oldboy, but that was a spoiler for which the surprise aspect matters deeply. Lady Vengeance (2005) is Chan-wook Park’s final film in his Vengeance Trilogy, which as a whole is a truly staggering achievement in film making. It is about a 19-year-old girl who is wrongly imprisoned for the murder of a child and upon release hunts down the man, and actual killer, who schemed to have her placed her in jail.

The film starts off reminiscent of Oldboy in many ways, which gave me concern, because I was hoping for something different. Geum-ja Lee (played by Yeong-ae Lee) is released from prison and begins to set in motion her plan of revenge. The music and the film’s visuals show a refined and polished look compared to Chan-wook Park’s two previous films, and there is still the trademark graphic violence and sexuality throughout, but Lady Vengeance examines the morality and spiritual implications of revenge. The entire film surrounds Geum-ja trying to find atonement for her role in the death of the little boy Won-mo. The final scene of Geum-ja pleading with her daughter to live a pure life is the most hopeful of the entire trilogy and shows atonement as a possibility–consequences aren’t avoidable, but one can still find hope and strive toward a pure and good life.

Geum-ja and daughter sharing a lovely moment, while a creepy guy looks on.

Much like Park’s other films this one starts off with multiple character threads that connect together. His editing style is harsh and sudden. Time lapses quickly, and the audience can’t look away for fear of missing something. Geum-ja’s plot to catch Mr. Baek (played by Min-sik Choi, who you’ll remember as Oh Dae-su in Oldboy) reaches a climax about midway through the film, and I was feeling dissatisfied–but then things became interesting. Geum-ja discovers Mr. Baek is a serial killer of children, and realizes she’s not the one deserving of revenge. She finds the parents of the murdered children and offers them all an opportunity to take revenge on Mr. Baek.

What unfolds is one of the most honest, bold, and profound discussions of sin, atonement, and the moral and spiritual consequences of violence. The parents agree they will kill him, but some can’t partake in the act itself. It’s a horrific scene as the parents each get an individually allotted time to exact violence on Mr. Baek. Chan-wook Park takes his time as we watch them literally rip one of the most despicable villains ever to pieces with various knives, axes, hammers, and scissors. They then return to Geum-ja’s bakery and have a heart-wrenching talk over cake. I know that sounds strange, but watching parents sing happy birthday to their dead children is haunting. Every character matters in this film, and the ability to introduce them all in such a short span is something other directors and writers should take note of.

Putting the gun down might make the hug more comforting.

The performances are all around astounding, including small roles from Kang-ho Song and Ha-kyun Shin (who also starred in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). Min-sik Choi is astounding and somehow delivers a human quality to a despicable man who kills children. Ultimately, this film rests on Yeong-ae Lee’s shoulders, and she delivers one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen. In one extended close up of her face she simultaneously laughs and cries with a malicious hint of enjoyment mingled with the guilt of the violence she’s orchestrated. I give a lot of credit to Park, because he consistently gets amazing performances from every actor. The depth of his actors’ performances is impressive when one considers that some are only on screen for a few seconds.

After watching this trilogy I want to see everything Chan-wook Park has done, and I have to say that this is a crowning achievement of the last decade of film. Because people will be curious, I’d say Lady Vengeance is my favorite. Its message of possible atonement gives the violence we see a purpose, and even though I left exhausted and drained, the characters achieve something. They learn and change, and that gives it a head over the others. Then it would have to be Sympathy at #2 for its stunning visuals and more fleshed-out characters. Oldboy is amazing and has amazing action scenes, but the characters leave a little to be desired as a whole.

Next, I’ll be leaving Chan-wook Park behind for Ji-woon Kim’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird.

Korean Cinema #2: Oldboy

By Nathanael Griffis

Chan-wook Park wasted no time in releasing Oldboy, the second film in his Vengeance Trilogy, in 2003, one year after Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. The movie starts with a very engaging premise for a psychological thriller. A man is released after being imprisoned for 15 years for reasons unknown to him and seeks to kill the people who locked him up. The man in question is Oh Dae-su (played by Min-sik Choi) who spent his 15 years of imprisonment training, so he can kill whoever imprisoned him.  Like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, most of the characters’ actions and decisions are motivated by revenge.

Now, THAT's a leading man.

Oldboy is an excellent thriller, with great action, acting, and a wonderful script, but I can’t talk too much about the plot, because I don’t want to spoil anything. I will say this though, and with confidence: Oldboy has the most psychologically disturbing surprise ending I’ve ever seen. Its only weak points as a film rest in the weakness of its genre. The frequent problem with thrillers is that they can become so confusing that things have to be explained to the audience via exposition. Sympathy was brilliant, because it demanded so much of the audience, whereas Oldboy asks less. It makes you think, but storywise, everything is explained. In this case, it’s done through exchanges of questions and answers between Oh Dae-su and his imprisoner Lee Woo-jin (played by Ji-tae Yu).

You might feel like I just gave away the movie by telling you the bad guy, but you figure that out quite early in the film. The cool thing about this movie is that it addresses motivation of revenge more in depth than most revenge thrillers. Typically a revenge thriller gives the character motivation, say, in the murder, kidnapping, or general harm of a loved one; then we watch as the character takes revenge on the various people involved. Man on Fire with Denzel Washington is a good example of the classic revenge thriller. Oldboy presents us with a character devoid of motivation. Yes, Oh Dae-su was imprisoned for 15 years, and that should be enough motivation, but he doesn’t know why he was imprisoned or, for that matter, released.

Mr. Lee taking revenge on his 80's slicked back hair.

Oh Dae-su can’t take his revenge until he’s put all the pieces together. Park is arguing that until a vengeance-seeker’s motivation is complete, revenge is impossible. It’s fascinating to watch Lee Woon-jin manipulate Oh Dae-su and Oh Dae-su go along with it, because he can’t be placated until he fully understands.  This idea of motivation’s role in revenge separates Oldboy from Sympathy in one key aspect. The end is hopeful–disturbing, but hopeful–because Oh Dae-su realizes that by casting off his motivation, he won’t be driven by revenge. Consequences for his actions remain and he accepts ignorance of those consequences, so that the cycle of revenge will stop.

Chan-wook­ Park’s brilliant directing still shows in Oldboy with the addition of fight scenes, which are unique and amazing, especially the hallway scene where Oh Dae-su mauls a gang of thugs with a hammer. Park gives Oh Dea-su humanity even in fight scenes. Oh Dae-su leaves them scarred and hurt. He makes mistakes in the midst of fighting, and they have brutal consequences. This builds a wonderful sense of tension. You are never sure he’s going to survive the fight scenes. This is not Bruce Willis taking a few punches from a bad guy just so he can come back triumphant. There are permanent consequences for getting in a brawl with a group of knife wielding gangsters.

Oh Dae-su: revenge-driven killer and journeyman carpenter.

If you’ve seen the movie you’re probably wondering why I haven’t talked about incest yet. If you haven’t seen Oldboy that last sentence probably made you pause. I knew going into the film that it dealt with incest, but just as a forewarning, you can’t prepare for the extent to which it does (unless incest is the reason you go to the movies). The frightening thing is that Park is such an elegant director that he examines a social taboo, and it’s considered taboo in the film by most characters, but approaches it with such empathy and fully-fledged characters that you’re left questioning the taboo. Incest is a hard thing to discuss as anything but disturbing, and it’s used to disturb in the film, but… well, you’ll just have to watch it. I know that feels like a cop-out, but if I say anymore I’ll give too much away to those who haven’t seen it. Oldboy is brilliant. Personally I prefer Sympathy, but that’s just me. (Also there is no incest in it.)

Next up, the final film in Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, Lady Vengeance.

Korean Cinema #1: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

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.

Well, if you're going to be brutally stabbed it might as well be in a red tracksuit.

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.

No room for bulletin boards and thumb tacks in revenge, huh?

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.

Oh look, a happy scene to get our hopes up.

In my next article, I’ll continue my review of Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy with Oldboy.

–Nathanael Griffis