The Wages of Vengeance
Park Chan-Wook’s vengeance trilogy offers food for thought to those who think revenge is a dish best served cold.
Korean director Park Chan-Wook doesn’t make “feel good” movies. Few psychologically-balanced moviegoers can leave a two-hour cycle of violent reprisals – drownings, electrocutions, severed tendons and baseball bat beatings – with a sunny smile. Nor does the director expect his audience to stoically endure Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first part of his vengeance trilogy. The series, continued in Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, offers several perspectives on the idea of violent retribution, and Park refuses to let audiences off the hook. “I don’t feel enjoyment watching films that evoke passivity,” he says. “If you need that kind of comfort, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t go to a spa.”
It’s difficult not to react viscerally to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. The film begins with the story of Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin), a deaf-mute art student. When the sister who’d always taken care of him desperately needs a kidney transplant, he drops out, taking double shifts at a factory to pay for the operation. He even offers to donate his own kidney. Only after he’s gotten the money do the doctors explain that his blood type doesn’t match his sister’s. The surgery can’t go through; she’ll be placed a waiting list, meaning she’ll probably die before a donor appears.
Like many characters in Park’s trilogy, Ryu is an ordinary person in a desperate situation. He considers himself a good person, a hard worker, but he’s run out of options. His girlfriend Cha (Du-na Bae), a self-proclaimed anarchist revolutionary, persuades him to kidnap the daughter of wealthy businessman Park Dong-jin (Kang-ho Song). They’ll keep the girl for a couple days, get their money, and save Ryu’s sister. “There are good kidnappings and there are bad kidnappings,” Cha reassures the reluctant Ryu.
This small, desperate act sets in motion a chain of horrible repercussions. Ryu’s world – evoked by Park with spare cinematography and an often soundless audio track – begins to fill with blood. Each character, hounded by a guilty conscience, sets out to revenge, with predictably brutal consequences, and the movie spirals on with the force of inevitability as punishments multiply. By the last third, Sympathy rivals Hamlet in the complexity of its scheming and its volume of spilt blood. Trying to slake their thirst for vengeance, all are drowned.
Where Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance nods to Shakespeare, Oldboy, the second film in the trilogy, is proudly Kafkaesque, surreal and stylish where the earlier film is austere. The winner of 2004’s Cannes Grand Prix, it’s the story of Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi), who begins the film as a drunken goofball whose name means, he slurs to police, “getting along with everyone.” Oldboy’s Joseph K., he stumbles out of the police station to call his wife and daughter. Next he wakes up in an ordinary hotel room, only to find the door locked from the outside. He’s become a prisoner, without any idea who has kidnapped him or why.
For the next fifteen years, Dae-su Oh writes his journals, which become long confessionals. He tattoos the years of his imprisonment onto his hands. A small TV becomes his conduit to the outside world: he watches the rise of Korean pop bands and the fall of the Berlin wall. He knows everything he’s missing. One day, the television reveals that his wife is dead, murdered, with him being the main suspect.
At the end of fifteen years, he finds himself just as inexplicably freed. He’s full of hate, but directionless until his captor issues an ultimatum: find me in five days or I will continue to torture you by killing everyone you love. Find me, learn why I have done this, and take your revenge.
Like the best of Kafka’s stories, Oldboy isn’t going in the direction one expects. With its David Fincher color palette and Tarantino-influenced style, it could have easily become another Seven – a satisfying thriller – or Kill Bill – a stylish, profoundly empty film. Instead, Park crafts a compelling rebuttal to the idea of revenge as cure. There is no balancing the scales through violence, here; redemption comes in small doses. It’s also a film with a touch of the black comedy prevalent in Park’s early short, Judgment.
The final film in Park’s trilogy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is also his most hopeful. While Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance suggested an ever-widening circle of revenge that left no one unscathed, and Oldboy offered the slimmest hope for happiness amid the bloodshed, Lady Vengeance finds Park addressing the question of genuinely redemptive violence. Combining the kidnapping and prison motifs of the earlier films, it’s the story of Geum-ja (Yeong-ae Le, who also starred in Park’s Joint Security Area), a kidnapper just released after a 13-year prison sentence. Known as a “kindly angel” during her jail time, once free she becomes cold and detached, donning blood-red eye shadow like warrior paint.
It seems that kindly Geum-ja spent 13 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. As a 19 year-old runaway she’d been accused of the kidnapping and murder of a five year-old boy, Won-mo. The public outcry that followed ensured a quick conviction, but the real murderer was Mr. Baek, who had taken Geum-ja into his home. He’d forced her into the abduction by threatening her baby daughter, who he then gave up for adoption. With her freedom restored, Geum-ja sets out to find Mr. Baek and make him pay.
What sets Geum-ja apart from Park’s earlier revenge-seekers is her sense of guilt. Even though she didn’t kill Won-mo, she asks his parents for forgiveness, even going so far as to cut off her finger as penance. She is haunted by her complicity – Mr. Baek also told her there are good kidnappings and bad kidnappings – and craves salvation rather than vengeance. Where Ryu and Dae-su Oh demand bloody eye-for-an-eye retribution, Geum-ja seeks a higher kind of justice – though often just as bloody, it’s the justice of atonement, of a victim’s forgiveness rather than a revenger’s violence. In her pursuit of Mr. Baek, Geum-ja seeks not to balance the scales between the two of them, but between her and Won-mo.
“Basically, I’m throwing out the question ‘When is such violence justified?’” Park Chan-Wook says of the trilogy. “To get that question to touch the audience physically and directly – that’s what my goal is. In the experience of watching my film, I don’t want the viewer to stop at the mental or the intellectual. I want them to feel my work physically. And because that is one of my goals, the title ‘exploitative’ will probably follow me around for a while.” There are many reasons to exploit the language of violence – to assert one’s own righteousness, to punish the wicked, to exercise naked power, to name an easy three – but Park’s ‘exploitation’ asks a more difficult question: Can such violence ever be right?
For further exploration:
Kang-ho Song, Ha-kyun Shin,
Du-na Bae, Ji-Eun Lim,
Bo-bae Han, Se-dong Kim,
Tartan Video, 2002
Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu,
Hye-jeong Kang, Dae-han Ji,
Seung-Shin Lee, Dal-su Oh,
& Byeong-ok Kim
Tartan Video, 2003
Choi Min-sik, Yeong-ae Lee,
Song Kang-ho, Shin Ha-kyun,