Saturday 7 June 2008

Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)

Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Lady Vengeance have sat on my DVR since November, but I haven't watched them until now because I've been waiting to get hold of the middle part of Chan-wook Park's thematic revenge trilogy. I finally picked up Oldboy at Bookman's though it was scarily expensive. To be able to watch not one but three Chan-wook Park movies though, it was well worth it. Here's number one and it's a quirky delight.

Ryu, a deaf and dumb man with blue green hair, is devoted to his sister who is in dire need of a kidney transplant. He volunteers one of his own but he has the wrong blood type, so he follows other means. Unfortunately by the time a suitable donor arrives and he needs to fork over 10 million won for the surgery, he's already spent the 10 million on the black market trying to find a kidney quicker. However the crooks rip him off, so he ends up down one of his own kidneys plus that all important 10 million won, which he now has to find somewhere else. His anarchist girlfriend Cha convinces him to kidnap the daughter of his former employer, who has fired him, but as you can safely expect precisely nothing goes according to plan.

The peach of the trilogy is supposed to be Oldboy, but this one is a blistering opener. Park shows us a lot of things here that we're not used to seeing on film, some of them truly startling, and not all of the devices he uses work, but most of them are highly refreshing. The main character is deaf and dumb, the chief catalyst in the story is seriously ill and another key character in the story is a spastic. Certain key scenes are shown to us from Ryu's perspective, so without sound and sign language is naturally used quite frequently. I've certainly never seen sign language used during sex before.

One device that's used a lot for effect, and very effectively at that, is the separation of detail and reaction as a depiction of the disconnect between action and consequence. We see a lot of scenes close up and in detail while only hearing their effects on people. More often, we see the exact opposite: just the effects but no detail. After one initial cut, we don't see a single part of the autopsy but we hear it, and we see the reaction to it through a long shot of the face of the victim's father. We see CSIs at work but the entire crime scene is on the other side of the river. This disconnect is probably most apparent in the concept of many people's varied reactions to a loud couple having sex in their apartment. What we know and they don't is that it's not even sexual. All this is fascinating to me as someone learning about cinematic techniques.

There's much to admire from that sort of standpoint: the composition of frame is superb, the choice of locations, the transitions between shots, the use of angles, the choice of soundtrack, the distance between the camera and the subject, the length of shot, the pauses. The use of impactful, even taboo, imagery, is amazing because it's never used in any standard exploitational way and so we have to ask ourselves about why such taboo images are taboo when they have completely routine, even banal, uses. Our shock is in the choice to use such images rather than in what they mean to the characters going through them.

I also loved the concept of revenge and how it was used. Every action has an reaction and the more severe the action the more severe the reaction. These actions and reactions stack up and escalate and they don't give a monkeys about the reason behind the initial action. Revenge here overlaps revenge and the plot is constructed around it all amazingly well, with excellent performances from everyone involved. Kang-ho Song is fast becoming one of my favourite modern actors, so his performance is only surprising given its highly understated nature. Another Chan-wook Park regular, Ha kyun Shin, is amazing as Ryu, and Doo na Bae and Ji-Eun Lim are excellent as his girlfriend and sister respectively.

Korean cinema is rapidly becoming something I just can't resist. Chan-wook Park and Kang-ho Song are names I'm seeking out actively, but anything that has a Korean name attached is something I'm not going pass over. Bookmans may charge outrageous prices on pretty much everything but films like these are worth every penny.

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