vengeance is mine

sympathy for mr. vengeance is a stupid name for a movie, and as per sunhee is not the name of the film in korean; in korean it apparently translates directly as vengeance is mine and so i’m sticking with that. who the hell decides to make stupid changes to movie titles for english audience releases?

anyway: we watched it last night. i liked it a lot. stylistically very subdued compared to oldboy but with far more social and physical heft. to take the latter first: pain and violence are far more real here, we see slashed bodies and blood oozing out of the slashes, the sadism is not leavened with comedy as it often is in oldboy. i’m not sure what to make of the social part. at times the film seems to be moving towards allegory: the trade in organ parts, money and access to hospitals, capitalism all are crucial parts of the narrative setup, but it all seems to get flattened out in the second half, where people’s motivations disappear into the working out of the terrible logic of revenge plots. haven’t discussed the film yet with sunhee (don’t even know if she liked it) but will try to get her to do one of her bi-annual posts. mike, do you remember much of it? help me think this out. anyone else seen it?

4 thoughts on “vengeance is mine

  1. Okay–it’s been a while since I’ve seen this, but I still owe Howell a post on Oldboy, so–let me riff a bit on Park more broadly here. Some loose shaggy ideas:

    –Park’s first flick is JSA, or Joint Security Area. It’s a reasonably good thriller set in the borderlands between South and North Korea, and its plot involves guards from either side who end up befriending one another, secretly. Their interactions eventually, almost inevitably, almost inexorably lead to exposure and the kind of overdetermined return to mutual destruction which the JSA kind of presupposes.

    I say all that as my only frame for unpacking the social significance of Sympathy and Oldboy and even the latest segment of Three … Extremes. Each involves some unexpected implosive/explosive consequences of interpersonal relations; all set the possibility–or at least the hope–of individual agency and true communication across differences up against a perversely-deterministic Rube-Goldberg-like plot mechanics. So I’m tempted to make a sweeping claim that Park’s films allegorize in the various languages of revenge/feud stories the socio-political dynamics of the two Koreas. And I think, if I actually did more than read the papers and struggled to understand more about the cultures’ (or is it culture’s?) relationship to such politics, this reading would bear up. It might even get more interesting. But this is hypothesis.

    –I’m also struck by Sun Hee’s argument about OB and the problems of communication. That’s in every film, too. It’s secrecy or the absence of channels for real communication in JSA; in Mr. Vengeance (a title that is silly but in ways that I kind of enjoy) it’s the presence of a deaf-mute; OB has tongues removed; in “Cut” (from 3Extremes) one character’s gagged while the antagonist (or is he the protagonist) is raising hell because, as a film extra, he doesn’t feel like his story’s been told or allowed in.

    Riffing on that, I’m fascinated by the dynamics of narrative in these films. They all are ridiculously–and I mean that in all senses–overdetermined. And embedded in the cage of plot are these many characters trying to control the story, or find a way to communicate outside their roles, or giving up on communication, or unable…. One thing I find exhilirating as a viewer is the way the expected dimensions of the revenge narrative are unexpectedly realized in each: the nature of the plot in Mr. Vengeance, given the oblique syntax of editing and exposition in the first half, takes a long while for us to determine… and once we figure it out, we feel kind of trapped, too. Same thing happens in OB and Cut; like the characters, we both desire the revenge but fear what it means for all involved.
    Or is the pleasure of a revenge narrative grounded more in the possible resistance to closure, either the characters’ struggles to find a way out of the deathward motion of the plot OR the inability to ever really end the cycles of violence?
    I’ve digressed from the ideas about communication, but in terms of narrative: are revengers’ tales models of narrative closure and definitive structure, or are they mechanisms for revealing the endless troubling openness of narrative?
    At the end of OB, is cutting out one’s tongue less a recognition of the inability to tell this taboo (or another attempt to forget it) than part of the struggle to find a way out of the narrative abyss of revenge? (And I’m kind of intrigued that cutting his tongue out chooses, as Sun Hee said regarding Park’s version of events, the sexual over the paternal relationship. So maybe it’s about narrative agency, rather than the failure of narrative?)

    I’m not even sure what I’m writing right now.

    –Simply as exercises in filmmaking, the revengers’ excessively rigid plot structure seems–like a lot of generic conventions–a tool for better revealing the possibilities of an auteurial style and syntax. I.e., by picking the closed form of revenge tales, Park ironically gets to show off his bravura mastery of a great range of styles. Or, to tie it back to the above, even when the story seems fixed, there’s a great range of possibility… a philosophy that might have social as well as aesthetic implications.

    –I’m very interested in the gender and class politics of all of the films, but I am tired now and feel merely confusing, so I’ll stop. I have no idea what to make of the organ-donation stuff.

  2. I haven’t visited the site in some time and now am enjoying reading these posts. As far as Park’s revenge movies allegorizing the two Koreas–I don’t see this so much because the narrative of the north and the south isn’t one of a feud. At least in South Korea, most people don’t think that the North has wronged the South in any way. They feel that the division is due to history; the more nationalistic Koreans will blame the U.S. (my father, for instance). But perhaps the way in which mini revenge stories in the film have no real meaning reflects how the two Koreas are placed in a revenge story that is not really about revenge. I think JSA actually plays this out. The N/S relationship is one of friendship, brotherhood, more accurately (the film is actually indulgent in this regard). But the characters, by the logic of the political situation, must leave a story about brotherhood (which is kind a genre in itself in Korea) and end up in a revenge story. Maybe I am actually agreeing with you after all, Mike.

    As social commentary, the revenge films are very bleak. They seem to express a brand of Social Darwinism. The strong kills the weak, and it never ends. This may reflect Korea which is becoming stronger in the global arena but at the same time exploiting its own working class and neglecting the poor. There’s no social security in Korea, for instance (That’s why Koreans are so obssessed with family–without family the old will starve). The over-determined narrative structure of the films seems to suggests that there’s no way out. But perhaps you can gain some momentary power by killing someone, acting out your revenge, before someone kills you. It seems Foucaultian as well…

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