Thursday, July 14, 2011

MOVIE(s) - The Vengeance Trilogy.

I had no idea what Watchmen was until I saw a trailer for it - likely preceding a superhero or Pirate of the Caribbean movie. I'd never heard of the property, but the trailer was so obviously reverent of its subject matter that I was forced to wonder "what the hell is Watchmen and why are they acting like it's so goddamned important?" So I looked into it.

Watchmen - as it turns out - is Watchmen.

Similarly, as I was cruising the interwebs last week I tripped over an article about how "Spike fucking Lee" was rumored to be attached to the North American adaptation of Oldboy. And I'm all, "what the hell is Oldboy, and why do we collectively care about it?" So I looked into it.

Turns out Oldboy is the meat in a sandwich of movies known as The Vengeance Trilogy by celebrated South Korean director Park Chan-wook. The films basically explore the very relateable premise that if someone hurts you, the natural reaction is to want to hurt them back - worse than they hurt you. The films simply take that observation and roll with it a while.

Oldboy in particular was considered - internationally - to be the film of the year upon its release, and it now regularly crops up in lists of the fifty or hundred best films ever.

It was based on a manga of the same name by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya - but the film takes several severe turns that the comparably tame Manga does not. The first film in the trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and the third, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance seem to be original works, not based on manga properties.

Oldboy (manga)

Lately I've felt a bit... guilty. Guilty's a fine word for it, I suppose. I've felt guilty about... shall we say acquiring films (and anime) to view prior to purchase. I generally feel that this wickedness - which I would surely condemn were it applied to video games - is offset by the fact that it leads me to purchasing more movies and animes than I ever would, had I not viewed the films previously.

At the same time, that's some hypocritical bullshit, isn't it? Yes it is, dear reader. Yes it is.

After my modicum of research into this legendary film series I'd never heard of, I had an option. I could... acquire the films and decide later if they were any good, or I could just go buy them. As luck would have it, the Best Buy near me had the trilogy for the (somewhat) reasonable price of $55. Ten bucks more expensive than Amazon - but I'm not a patient man.

I went for it. Funny - a character flaw motivates me to do the right thing.

Before we move on, why is it I tend to trip over good Korean movies (these, The Host), but never a good Japanese movie? Do they make good Japanese movies? Oh, right - of course they do.

Anyway, let's talk about Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.

Ryu is a deaf mute, breaking his body at work in a factory to support his dying sister, who is in desperate need of a kidney transplant. When hope for a donor fails, he risks his meager fortune - and his own organs - in a gamble that sends him tumbling off a cliff of self-propagating violence.

This movie is an ever-expanding series of emotional kicks to the groin. It is perhaps insulting of me to compare it to a Guy Ritchie London Gangster movie, but I can't help it - it's essentially a film about an inept criminal.

It's also a creative, funny, emotionally harrowing show. The movie sets up a great deal of Park's style - that is, consistently mucking with or downright rejecting many of the standards we expect from our films - which we see further fleshed out in Oldboy and Lady Vengeance.

Of the three, this is Park's Reservoir Dogs. It is rich in ideas, style and a willful talent - singing alone onstage for the first time and hearing itself. The film's basic premise is that violence is like fire - once sparked, human nature will see it burn ever-brighter until nothing remains. Brilliantly acted and directed, it's a good movie - hugely entertaining and desperately sad - it's just not as elegant as what's to come.

Oh Dae-su is a buffoon - a bad father and a fall-down drunk. After a bender, he wakes up to find himself imprisoned in a shitty hotel room, from which there is no escape. There he stays for fifteen years. Fighting insanity, he spends his days adventuring with television, scraping an escape tunnel with a chopstick and training his body by pounding his fists into the wall - in preparation of the day when he will face his mysterious captor and punish them.

And he does get out.

First off, Choi Min-sik is absolutely incredible as Dae-su. Second, this is Park's Pulp Fiction - it is big and bold and weird and shocking and sometimes very hard to watch, thanks to a degree of violence and emotional horror that puts the other two films to shame - and it's the film that put him on the map.

He's very good at not often showing us the violence for, as one of Dae-su's enemies points out, the most potent horror is produced in the imagination - which makes it all the more impactful. Park wields this mighty storytelling weapon of knowing just how to make his audience squirm: he makes it true to character, and he makes it feel like it makes perfect sense for what's going on in the film.

Because it's so emotionally grounded in relateable humanity, it's nothing short of traumatic when a character who has so endeared themselves to us is harmed.

Oldboy is - like Mr. Vengeance - easy to get swept away with, but often very hard to watch. It's often like a train wreck in the best way. Spectacular, unlike anything you've ever seen before, terrifying and impossible to look away.

Watching him eat a live octopus as it squirms and wraps its tentacles around his hand is pretty fucked up.

What's perhaps most terrifying about it is that - after about halfway through Mr. Vengeance and so at the beginning of Oldboy, you know just how prepared Park is to shatter convention. Nothing is safe, here - he will take us where we never thought we'd end up, because no popular North American filmmaker would dare challenge their audience so. More precisely, he takes us directly to the places we're quite sure we won't go, because our Hollywood movie conditioning subconsciously informs us of what is and isn't possible in film.

Take, for example, the classic Pat the Dog scene.

Mr. Robert McKee, who wrote what many consider to be The Bible of modern screenwriting said that no matter how anti an anti-hero is, they must have at least one scene in the film which establishes them as the person the audience should root for. This is known as the Pat the Dog scene.

At some point, the protagonist must show what we perceive to be genuine kindness - some display of a worthy character trait.

It's interesting to note that McKee also makes it very, very clear in his book that a dog can never be harmed onscreen.

Park disagrees.

At the tender age of twenty, Lee Geum-ja goes to prison for the killing of a small boy - which she admitted to. After thirteen years as a model inmate, she's found God, has earned the nickname Kind-Hearted Geum-ja, and is believed by many to be an angel incarnate.

Guem-ja got out today, and the mask has fallen. She will have revenge.

Wrapping up the trilogy is Lady Vengeance, which is easily Park's Inglourious Basterds. Much moreso than Mr. Vengeance or Oldboy, it is a wonderfully well-constructed film - never spending too much time here or there, never failing to surprise with this bit of plotting or that little twist - and like the two earlier films it is two hours of tiptoeing across emotional coals that sear one's soul.

Lady Vengeance is the least bloody of the trilogy, and Guem-ja is the most watchable protagonist of the bunch. She's a wonderful, mysterious hero. The first two films always had women as the impetus for the men's action - harm against women were always what drove the central male characters to violence - and it is perhaps Park's assertion here that it takes a woman's perspective to truly gain perspective, and make a more evolved choice.

That's a bit sexist, innit?

Still, Lady Vengeance is my favorite of the three. I simply found it more surprising, more watchable and more elegant than the others.

All three movies are thoroughly grounded in human, emotional honesty and are wonderfully weird for it. I find it extremely difficult to point to the last film out of Hollywood that spoke so frankly, without any of the more extreme themes being toned down due to how it tested with focus groups.

Perhaps Doubt or Wit. Wit was pretty amazing, thanks largely to Emma Thompson's performance.

Park is simply spinning his tales, and his characters take it where they will - and they take it to some very extreme places. The movies are surprisingly funny, beautifully shot and always wonderfully-acted, but these aren't shows to take home to momma.

These shows will give your mother nightmares. They are stressful enterprises. They are hard to watch. Often disturbing.

Something resonates, here. Something vibrates a part of ourselves we'd much sooner pretend did not exist - and as those strings are plucked we feel a reaction we're not entirely comfortable with. Something awful, and familiar.

Unforgettable. And terrible.

One final word.

Now - clearly - I feel largely positive about these films, thanks to how fearless and unique they feel. They don't shock with imagery (aside from the octopus scene), they aren't disturbingly gory, but...

Just remember, friends, that a movie can never be un-seen - and there are some things we'd truly rather not know. Rather not feel. It's for you to decide if you would prefer to keep an additional measure of innocence, or bite this apple and gain its knowledge.

I wouldn't begrudge you either choice.

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