Grand Guignol, Korean style
One of Korea’s most commercially successful young directors, Park Chan-wook is a polarizing figure in the disputatious world of international film circles. Though most acknowledge that Park, 42, has a unique mastery of the mechanical aspects of his craft, evidenced by his technical brilliance and stylistic hauteur, some notable opinionmakers — including New York Times critic Manohla Darghis and her colleague, Dave Kehr — have found themselves embroiled in acrimonious arguments over the merits of his vision. (Not a bad thing.) Indeed, for fans of the so-called Asian Extreme (an imprecise term that lumps Park with J-horror impresario Takashi Miike and his fellow practitioner, Fruit Chan), the first two installments of Park’s visceral and hyperviolent Vengeance Trilogy represented the apotheosis of genre-exploding innovation.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) trailed a punky deaf-mute who resorts to kidnapping his ex-boss’s daughter to secure money for a kidney transplant his ailing sister badly needs — with excruciatingly grim consequences. Oldboy (2003), a critical hit on the festival circuit, pushed the boundaries of popular cinema to cartoonishly epic proportions, fusing sadistic, noirish intrigue and graphic-novel-style visual fantasy with an everyman moral parable as gruesome as an ancient Greek tragedy: For no apparent reason, a father and husband is imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years, then is released by his unseen tormenter, whom he seeks out with blind, anarchic single-mindedness. Of course, Park’s cheerleaders paid special attention to lead actor Choi Min-sik’s force-of-nature performance — which included his ravenous consumption of a live, squirming cephalopod — and other fantastic set pieces, like a heroically extended, single-tracking-shot brawl in a claustrophobically narrow corridor.
Dissenters to the party line on Park, however — like Darghis, Olaf Möller, and Reverse Shot editor Michael Koresky — have leveled the charge of flashy vacuousness, questioning the director’s penchant for aesthetisizing images of cruelty and bloodlust. To a less passionate observer, the Seoul-based auteur appears to be a perversely talented, Tarantino-endorsed helmer who hasn’t yet developed a mature approach to the moral dimension of his art, despite his professed interest in Sophocles, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky. Without question, there is a cognitive dissonance between, say, Joint Security Area (2000) — an engrossing political thriller about murder, betrayal, and forbidden friendship along the heavily patrolled, mine-laden DMZ — and “Cut,” his hysterically brutal short (abduction, limb severance, lots of hemoglobin) from the portmanteau film Three … Extremes (2004, above).
Recently, Park unleashed the final chapter in his revenge trilogy, Lady Vengeance (2005), capping a sequence of related films that resulted, by the director’s own account, from a half-serious challenge issued by the Korean press. Park’s variation on a theme again features his signature scrambling of visual styles and narrative tones, while also incorporating a new element: the quest for spiritual atonement by his “angelic” female avenger, Keum-ja (Asian starlet Lee Young-ae), an ex-convict whose long-gestating plan to extract justice from a child murderer finds her orchestrating a cathartic, vigilante-style bloodletting. It is certainly his best film since JSA, and unmistakably Park-like in its campy, ludicrous black humor and visual pyrotechnics.
Exploring the idea of vengeance as it manifests in a lone woman, a kind of renegade Fury, Park has adopted a decidedly more soulful stance in the realm of his own storytelling, creating what might be termed a post-feminist universe of suffering and redemption — epitomized by the final scene, in which Keum-ja plunges her face into a giant cake of white tofu as snow falls gently around her. Whether it brings to an end the director’s dalliance with body horror is an open question, however. (His next project, currently filming, is I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, about a woman who believes she’s a cybernetic organism.)
I sat down with Park during the New York Film Festival screening of Lady Vengeancein September 2005. We spoke briefly, through a translator, about the new film, as well as his desire to use and abuse established genre conventions.
Damon Smith: Lady Vengeance is the most complex and accomplished film of your revenge trilogy, and it has done very good box office in Korea. Why do you think it has resonated with an international audience?
Park Chan-wook: I don’t know if I’m quite qualified to answer that question. As with any other film I’ve made, mostly I felt it would appeal only to Korean audiences, because of the casting of the lead actress, Lee Young-ae, and because I felt Westerners would not know her. She’s quite popular in Japan and Hong Kong. The classic image she has — as innocent and nice and good and quiet — we utilized to the max. That’s really the hidden card of this film. I didn’t think it would be as interesting to Western audiences who didn’t have that [image of her] going in. It’s kind of regretful, actually. I think it would have been a much more intriguing film if they had. What resonates for everyone, I guess, is that in modern society, there’s confusion over justice and morals. We all feel that, and I think it resonates throughout this film.
It’s fascinating the way you’ve introduced the theme of gender in this film. In previous interviews, you’ve said that these trilogy films are about morality and “the guilty conscience.” So I wonder how Keum-ja reflects the social and cultural situation of women in Korea? Were you attempting to do something apart from playing with Lee Young-ae’s image?
While making this film, I didn’t focus on the gender issue as much. I knew people would look at it from that point of view — that she’s the first woman protagonist I’ve used, and there aren’t many roles as strong or violent for women. When I made Lady Vengeance, I didn’t think “Keum-ja is a woman and she will act this way.” I don’t really know women that well, so there are limits to how much I can portray. Rather, it’s more that at the climax of the film, when Keum-ja yields the power of revenge over to the grieving families, I felt that was a very feminine characteristic — and a female character fit into that story. And if you look at it from the point of view of the convicts, after she’ released, she meets up with them and they eventually become accomplices in planning revenge. But I wouldn’t say there’s a sisterhood there or a female battalion out to avenge something. Every single one of them has been taken advantage of, in a way, by Keum-ja. I’ve been asked if I consider this a feminist film, and it’s always been hard to answer yes. I don’t believe it is.
The old adage “There’s no vengeance like a woman’s” seems apt here. And also in terms of the color palette and the themes of ice — the iciness of the revenge impulse paired with white, snow, and the idea of purity. All of these revolve around the ways women have always been characterized as particularly catty and vengeful.
Do you know the Japanese film Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion — where [women convicts] escape from jail and form a female brigade and go and loose vengeful hell? The first half of Lady Vengeance alludes to that, drawing audiences in. That was one of the goals — to play into the cliché of the revenge story. And then, with the scene where Keum-ja discovers the cell phone and consequently finds out about the four victims, it becomes a completely different film. Seeing it from a gender point of view, I said before that people watching it may see it in a different way [than I did].
The retribution that Keum-ja seeks in dispersing vengeance was interesting because afterwards, at the “celebratory” party, the mood was very downbeat. Why was this scene so tonally different?
I’m sure these bereaved families have been waiting a long time to have their revenge. And when they actually have it, I’m sure they’re thinking, “If I can kill this man with my bare hands, how sweet my revenge will be.” Unfortunately, it’s not so. And the reason that I showed the video of the children as they were being killed — to the families as well as to the audience — was I wanted to heighten everyone’s rage. That way, revenge would be the natural step. To exact revenge would be not only satisfying, it would be pleasurable, if I had edited and gone right to the killing scene. At the height of their rage, you’ll notice the next scene is them all gathered together having a meeting over a trivial matter. And in a way, it’s sort of ridiculous, because by watching this scene, your rage is already dissipating. So when the actual killing scene comes, there’s really no more pleasure in it. As to the party scene, I wanted to show what pain has come forth unexpectedly from the actual execution. The families felt justified in their act. Afterwards, however, they feel guilt. They started off as victims and turned into aggressors, so that’s why they’ve got a guilty conscience now, and I wanted to show this through the party scene. These people have met for the first time, they see the videos of their children being killed, and then have a meeting and an execution. Through all these acts, they are united. And not only that, they bury the body together, they’re working like a team. But at the bakery, if I were to delve into what they were feeling, my guess would be they’re like co-conspirators coming together after committing a horrifying crime. You don’t want to be apart. Once you’re apart you start getting suspicious, wondering if maybe someone’s going to talk and there’s all sorts of emotions that go with that. They didn’t have to go to the bakery. They could have said goodbye then and there, when the deed was done, but instead they all want to stay together. That’s their initial emotion. It’s been snowing the whole scene, but they finally say, “Oh, it’s snowing, I’ve got to go home.” So I think the next emotion they feel is they never want to see these people again.
Joint Security Area dealt specifically with the political situation in Korea. And in your past three films, you’ve taken up what appears to be a nonpolitical and universal theme, which is vengeance. However, I think there’s another way to read these films, as dealing with divided identities along a grey border, epitomized by Keum-ja’s double character as “angel” and “witch.” Plus, there’s the recurrent political motif of abduction and imprisonment. I wonder if you see that aspect as well.
Are you referring to the division between the two Koreas?
Yes. As well as South Korea’s reign of terror.
I don’t see it that way. But Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance had very political aspects. Since Joint Security Area dealt with the division of the two Koreas, and Sympathy was a follow-up film, I wanted to deal with the class problem within South Korea. And afterward, the short film “Cut” from Three … Extremes had some political themes as well, but Oldboy and Lady Vengeance I don’t really look at that way.
What sustains your interest in genre films?
Genre films are composed of clichés, and I’m wondering how to make use of them, which is what will make the film interesting or not: How you use the actor Lee Young-ae as a star and how you use her [otherwise]. In all the scenes in the prison, the flashbacks, you see the familiar Young-ae: You see her smile, she’s sweet, she’s nice, it’s very familiar, and then after she’s released she turns icy and expressionless. And this is a new Lee Young-ae that Korean audiences have never seen before. This back-and-forth switching is what made it interesting [for me] and what made it a hit in Korea. It’s a familiar process, it’s a familiar path that we’ve watched. In the first part of the film, it’s in tune with the genre, but as soon as the bereaved families show up, then it’s very startling. Up to that point, you have ten unknown faces talking all over the place, and it follows all the genre conventions: She abducts teacher Mr. Baek [played by Oldboy star Choi Min-sik], and all she needs to do is figure out an interesting way to kill him. Then all of a sudden to have these unknown faces meeting and talking, it’s very confusing, and that’s where the genre ends in my book. I’ll probably continue to make genre films, but it’ll be more about how I make use of