Monday, July 21, 2014
I Know You're a Good Guy
When Spike Lee's startlingly misbegotten remake of Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy came out recently, I read some comments that its badness shouldn't be too surprising, as Park's original had offered little to justify its strong cult status as a new classic Korean genre film. This may be true, because that cult is pretty insane sometimes, taking as its baseline Harry Knowles, the rest of the Ain't It Cool News crowd, and Quentin Tarantino, who wanted to give Oldboy the Palme d'Or when he was president of the 2004 Cannes jury (considering Tarantino got voted down and the prize went to Fahrenheit 9/11 instead, it's hard to argue that his instincts were wrong). In my experience, if there is a debate over who the real star of Korean genre cinema is currently -- and I realize the "movie nerd"-ness of it all is becoming unbearably thick -- then the current winner is Bong Joon-ho, whose recent, and excellent, Snowpiercer, not to mention a wave of love for his 2003 film Memories of Murder that has led some to favorably compare it to David Fincher's 2007 masterpiece Zodiac, has a lot of people forgetting about the old "it's so violent and crazy" hype that Park enjoyed.
Not everyone wants to knock Park down a peg or three, however. His last film, the English language thriller Stoker was pretty widely embraced (though not by me, and I'm not alone), for instance, and anyway to forget his original Oldboy, which I haven't seen in ages, would mean forgetting Choi Min-sik's terrific lead performance, and I can't bring myself to do that. But I admit, I do remain dubious about Park. Oldboy was the middle film in Park's "Vengeance Trilogy," and the ball got rolling on that, and on his international career, with 2002's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which Kino Lorber and Palisades Tartan are releasing on Blu-ray tomorrow. I'd seen the film before, long ago, back when it first hit video in the US, but that was it before checking out the Blu-ray yesterday, so I didn't really remember the scene where the four guys who share an apartment are furiously masturbating because they think the woman's moans on the other side of the wall are sexual in nature, when in fact she is suffering through the terrible pain of kidney failure. Ha ha...ha? These are the jokes, and Park can keep them, and this scene, which arrives early in the proceedings, made me uneasy that perhaps my memory of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which was more or less a positive one, was deceiving me.
It wasn't, not entirely. The masturbating guys aren't our heroes, for example, which I knew but felt a fresh wave of relief about anyway; that honor -- and "hero" isn't really correct but anyhow -- goes to Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf mute factory worker and brother of the woman dying of kidney failure (Im Ji-eun). She needs a kidney, and Ryu can't donate one because his blood-type doesn't match. So he gets wind of some black market organ traders, who dupe him out of the money he'd been saving for his sister's operation, and one of his kidneys. At this point a kidney becomes available through legal means, but now Ryu can't afford the operation. On top of this, Ryu is fired from his job. Desperate, he listens to the nonsensical plans of his girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Doona), a radical anarchist out of whose simplistic politics Park gets some good comedy mileage. Anyhow, her plan is to kidnap the son of Ryu's ex-boss, later amended to the daughter of the president of a separate company, the suspicion hanging too heavily over the recently fired Ryu if they tried to shake down his direct boss. So they kidnap the little girl (Han Bo-bae), get the ransom from her father Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho), and then everything explodes.
I'm slightly hesitant to explain just how badly everything goes, though it's necessary to point out that the "Mr. Vengeance" of the title can refer to more than one character, or possibly to a personified version of the concept of "vengeance" itself, vengeance being frowned upon in general, but it's sometimes hard to not at least understand it. Park, in his particularly grotesque way, portrayed vengeance as useless in Oldboy, but as actually sort of redemptive and cathartic in Lady Vengeance, his third film of the trilogy, but asks for sympathy only in this first picture. This is because neither man seeking violent retribution is a terrible person, both have pretty solid reasons to be upset, and on top of that their victims do, in a cosmic sense, have it coming, even if they're not terrible people either (some of them are terrible people though). Even as one of the men crosses a terrible line, you can understand why he's crossing it. The idea is similar to the one explored in Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners, but for all his flamboyance Park doesn't make a big deal out of this.
So Park has a pretty batshit way of going about this sort of thing, but it's worth doing. And for a film possibly remembered best for its viscera, nothing particularly bloody happens until about the 90 minute mark, at which point the film's three-quarters done (one of the film's leads isn't even introduced until about halfway through). Until then, among the things you can enjoy are the insane tonal shifts, which in fairness are set up by that masturbation/kidney pain scene that I didn't enjoy at all, but it does give you an idea what Park's doing. But watch Ryu, who has no wish to harm anyone for most of the film, playing around with the kidnapped girl while she watches TV. While they're playing, she gives him some information that leads immediately to a horrifying discovery, and that shift could almost play as slapstick. A mild form, but still, Park knows it, and the audience can make the same guess that Ryu makes, at the same time he makes it, so the slapstick moment is weighted with that little extra something for the audience and the character at once.
Marvel, too, at the plot turns that apparently you can get away with if you're making a Korean revenge film that an American audience would never allow in an American film. The entirety of the second half of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance hinges on an unlikely character appearing in one place in one scene to do one unlikely thing and to never have any other impact on the film again. And it's okay. It works. Listen, audiences, you internet nerds who watch movies for plot holes and plot contrivances: look, it works. You can do this sort of thing. It's okay for a filmmaker to make stuff up. Shhh shhh shhh. It'll be okay.