When did you first hear of Park Chan-wook?
For those of my readership who haven’t heard this name, South Korean auteur Park technically began his career in film in 1992 with a movie called Moon is the Sun’s Dream. He followed up this entry– which was a critical and commercial failure– with a pair of other poorly received films across the rest of the decade until, in 2000, he finally found himself with a hit on his hands in the form of Joint Security Area, a military drama about the Korean DMZ. JSA went on to become, at the time, the new record holder for highest-grossing Korean film, beating its predecessor and (partial) reason for existing, Shiri.
In spite of this tremendous success, it wasn’t until 2001 that Park gained notable visibility outside of his own country. Ask most American Park fans what their first Park film was, and many will probably respond with Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance. (And many more will probably offer Oldboy.) Today, in spite of his diversity as a filmmaker, Park tends to be remembered as the director of the “vengeance trilogy”, a trio of films that share nothing in common save for a unifying focus upon the fine art of getting even that starts with Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, continues on to Oldboy, and ends with Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (shortened, in the US, to Lady Vengeance). Nevermind JSA (which, while admittedly flawed, is still an effective and moving story) or Park’s contribution to the South Korean omnibus film If You Were Me (his segment, titled N.E.P.A.L.– Never Ending Peace And Love– ranks as some of the most harrowing filmmaking he truly has ever done); Park’s the vengeance guy!
It’s possible that his notoriety can be attributed to a morbid cultural obsession with graphic violence and nudity– which each of the vengeance films feature in bulk– but perhaps the reason that the director today is still best remembered for his revenge trilogy is because they are his most polished and tightly constructed movies to date. On the subject of revenge, Park also seems to have the most to say– his work preceding and following the completion of the trilogy has lacked focus and purpose (such as 2006’s listless and sluggish, romantic comedy I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay, and 2004’s Cut, Park’s entry in the horror omnibus Three Extremes, where the director seemed to be doing a bad imitation of the vengeance films he was, at the time, famous for), belying a struggle on Park’s behalf to get his point of view across to his audience.
But these lapses don’t indicate that his previous commercial and critical successes were flukes; Park seems to understand revenge in a more complete way than he understands romance. More importantly, he grasps the concept totally, whereas many of his contemporaries do not; to him the purpose of cinematic revenge doesn’t lie simply in the satisfaction we feel at seeing a film’s villain get his inevitable comeuppance. Park’s focus, in fact, lies less in portraying his characters as they carry out their retribution and more in what it is that drives them to seek vengeance in the first place. From Sympathy‘s Ryu to Oldboy‘s Dae-su to Lady Vengeance‘s Geum-ja, Park’s films are replete with people who are wounded in one way or another– each character bears emotional scars, but some even carry physical reminders of the ills inflicted upon them– and for whom vengeance appears to be the only thing that can assuage them of their pain.
Of course the truth is that such relief isn’t achieved so simply, and this is the real thematic meat of Park’s stories.
Take, for example, the introductory film of the trilogy, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance. The film does not start off as a quest for revenge; we meet Ryu, a deaf-mute whose sister needs a kidney transplant (and to whom he cannot donate a kidney because their blood types don’t match). Shortly after introductions are made, Ryu is fired from his factory job, and Ryu becomes desperate rather than vengeful, seeking the aid of black market organ donors to procure a kidney. The encounter does not go as planned– the crooks rob him of his severance pay and steal one of his own kidneys as though to add insult to injury, or vice versa. Eventually their crimes catch up with them, and Ryu hunts them down and brutally slays them all. The mother/sons team reacts with shock as much as horror as the wiry man efficiently ends each of their lives; they are, perhaps, more surprised that Ryu came back to repay their deed than they are surprised that he is so adept at doing so.
The unexpected nature of Ryu’s attack underlines Park’s thesis in the film, that cruelty begets more cruelty and that we can’t escape the cycles of violence and vengeance that we trap ourselves in. The donors commit their heinous act out of avarice rather than retribution, certainly, but in robbing Ryu they ensure that their story can only end in violence.
So too do the film’s other characters seal their fates. With no other options after his theft, Ryu and his girlfriend, Yeong-mi, conspire together to kidnap Yu-sun, the daughter of his ex-boss’s friend, factory CEO Dong-jin, and hold her for ransom. While father frantically searches for daughter, Yu-sun dies in a tragic accident; Dong-jin swears vengeance on Ryu and Yeong-mi, torturing the latter to death and killing the former in the river where Yu-sun drowns. But Park establishes that no one goes unpunished for their crimes in this cinematic world, even Dong-jin; as the grieving father buries Ryu’s remains, members of a terrorist group to whom Yeong-mi claimed she had ties show up and take turns in stabbing Dong-jin to death.
The bleak ending drives home Park’s point with all the subtlety of a freight train: Vengeance is a trap that dooms us as surely as it dooms the recipients of our wrath. From the moment our protagonists exact their revenge, they ensure that they too will meet their own violent ends; when Ryu chooses to get even with the organ donors, he leaves Yeong-mi alone in her apartment. This puts her at Dong-jin’s mercy, and the outcome of that encounter consigns Ryu to his ultimate fate (as Yeong-mi’s murder impels Ryu to seek revenge against Dong-jin). In the same vein, Dong-jin guarantees his own death when he kills Yeong-mi; he tortures her to death in spite of her pleas and her threats (though it is questionable as to what action he would have taken had he reason to believe her claims), earning the vengeful attentions of both Ryu, whom Dong-jin is able to best, and the terrorists. And what will ultimately happen to those nameless men who appear suddenly and just as quickly vanish into thin air? It is not hard to imagine that they carry that cycle of revenge with them as they leave Dong-jin to die, leaving us to wonder how and when their karma will catch up to them.
There’s another recurring motif at work in Sympathy that plays a more minor role than it does in Park’s second revenge film, Oldboy: The caustic and unpredictable nature of instilling revenge. The lone action that sets off all other events in motion that comprise the total tragedy of Sympathy is Ryu’s lay-off, a simple action meant with no malice and intending no harm. This single act creates a snowball effect, with each action taken after it has happened being bigger and more degenerated. From a lone firing comes the brutal murder of no fewer than six people, as well as the death of a child and a suicide. Park is fascinated by how such a small transgression can cause so much damage; he explores this further, and with more morbid detail, in Oldboy, but it is not hard to imagine that that theme found its initial grounding in the plot of Sympathy. (This detail will be reviewed in greater depth in part 2 of this series.)
The film, ultimately, portrays the senselessness of revenge by showing how people’s vengeance outlives them; by earning their vengeance, Ryu and Dong-jin simply give others reason to seek retribution themselves. The obsessive hatred born out of their respective quests for vengeance satiates their desperate need to dispel their pain, but at the cost of their own lives (which are often met at the hands of those who wronged them– Ryu is murdered by Dong-jin, who grieves for his dead daughter, and Dong-jin is murdered by Yeong-mi’s associates) and the lives of innocents (such as Yu-sun or Ryu’s sister). When the grave cost of their quests is considered in comparison to the minor occurrence that sparked the chain of events, the utter irrationality of their separate mad bids for revenge is highlighted and made all the more horrifying.
Next installment: Oldboy and Lady Vengeance are examined, and we learn how revenge does not heal all wounds, and how it can also be a cathartic force.