This week was Korean cinema marathon week at Conspiracy Towers. I sat in the third floor operations room of the Towers with my new television set, and pigged out on Korean movies I'd been meaning to watch for years. I like Korean cinema, partly because it's not been taken hostage by Hollywood's homogenised take on plotting and partly because not knowing who the hell any of the actors are means I have no idea who I'm supposed to be rooting for, and consequently things will surprise me.
Not knowing who you're supposed to be rooting for gets taken to extremes when you sit down and watch any of the work of Park Chan Wook, who is possibly the best known of Korean directors and who I'd rather assumed was just a violent lunatic. Having watched four of his movies more or less back to back in a matter of days, I can see that it's a lot more complex than I thought it all was. The Vengeance trilogy got a lot of coverage because of the over the top violence in Oldboy (I have yet to see a comment on Park Chan Wook's collected work that leaves out the live octopus eating scene in Oldboy) and the general level of brutality in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy in particular.
All that violence is there, and some of it's pretty hard to watch. I don't know that I could watch Oldboy again. I'm not sure if I could watch Sympathy for Mr Vengeance again either. They're tough going, and it's not just because the violence is brutal; it's because the brutality is just not funny. I don't often buy into the idea that you can make a message movie - I forget who said that you can't make an anti-war movie because war always looks glamorous, but he had a good point - but I think Park Chan Wook pulled it off here. He uses the horrible nature and consequences of violence to hammer home the point that it's NEVER the right answer. It works because, against all my expectations, it became clear to me that Park Chan Wook genuinely seems to like people, and because he likes people, he makes the viewer like them. And then, when he breaks them up, it matters.
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is a great big mess of a movie, in which practically the entire cast kills itself off over the course of two hours in what starts out as a perfectly simple effort to get a kidney transplant. It's like a Jacobean tragedy dragged kicking and screaming into the cement wasteland of modern day Korea. Even as the various cast members kill each other horribly, you can see how what's gone before has driven them beyond madness and then beyond redemption, and appreciate that, in the same circumstances, you wouldn't do much better. Although the plot's ludicrously farfetched (deafmute kidnappers, black market organ dealers...) it's somehow very grounded; the extreme behaviour seems like the kind of thing which might well be within the grasp of any of us.
Oldboy, on the other hand, is barking mad right out of the box; an elaborate and entirely insane revenge saga in which one character is imprisoned for fifteen years for no apparent reason and goes on a rampage of revenge when he's released. It's only as he kills and tortures his way through the conspiracy that we start to see that the imprisonment was itself an act of revenge. A completely irrational act of revenge which winds up utterly destroying everyone involved, and which began with a misunderstanding ramped up to ludicrous levels. There's a lot of really tough going in Oldboy, much of it involving simple things like scissors and hammers, and it honestly doesn't make a lick of sense. Still when you buy into the idea that there's a criminal business model that can make money out of running a private prison for settling grudges, you sort of forfeit the right to complain about things not making enough sense.
What pulls the whole thesis together is the icily perfect Lady Vengeance. The elevator pitch for the movie has to have been the idea that the protagonist would have a thirteen year long plan to scheme her way through jail and back out again so as to take revenge on the person who put her there. And that's very well done, but it's not the point of the movie. The point of the movie is the back end, when Lady Vengeance has trapped her target and the film slows right down to let most of the cast talk through whether they're going to take a personal revenge or turn the bad guy over to the law. The bad guy is quite straightforwardly a monster; he has no saving qualities at all. And yet, the question of what to do with him remains a hard one for the other characters to answer, and the film takes a long time over it. It's perhaps the most deliberate and careful spelling out so far of what Park Chan Wook has been getting at all along; revenge may be compelling, but it has a price and consequences that may wind up being even heavier than the original wrong.
While I was at it, I also took in JSA/Joint Security Area, Park's first big feature and one of the biggest grossing films in Korea. It's a difficult movie to describe, since it's all about digging out the truth behind a border incident between North and South Korea, and talking about what happens blows up the plot. There's a lot of incidental annoyances from the framing narrative; a joint Swiss-Swedish investigation is perfectly acceptable, but the notion that the investigators would be talking among themselves in English kept bugging me. There's no good reason for that, or for the idea that the lead Swiss investigator would speak English with a pronounced Korean accent (when her backstory was that she had grown up in Switzerland with an estranged Korean father). Details, details, and no details which would have bothered the actual intended audience. It's a very Korean film, about very Korean preoccupations, but it's anchored still in that distinctive vision that even though people are essentially decent, a moment of weakness can have terrible consequences.
One thing which I see a lot in Korean cinema is a willingness to accept that there's no inevitability to happy endings. Two of the best Korean movies I've seen, The Chaser and The Host both set up situations in which Hollywood would have had the hero save the day, and instead show the hero just missing. It's utterly wrenching in both cases, all the more so since we've been programmed by Hollywood to expect good news. There's a toughness to Korean cinema, a sense that sometimes things just go horribly wrong. Park's films are in very large part about how we deal with that.