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June 21-27, 2006

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Cult Leader

Vengeance Is His: As 'Lady Vengeance' gets its U.S. release, a look at the previous revenge films of Chan-wook Park

By Steve Palopoli


SOUTH KOREAN director Chan-wook Park has done a lot more than make a "vengeance trilogy"; he's changed the very notion of what a revenge film can be. All of his movies on the subject mimic the form of previous action films from this subgenre, but he twists that template up so much that in the end his entries are cautionary tales about the nature of revenge. To understand how revolutionary that is, just look at the shoot-first, ask-questions-never structure of action films about getting even—Point Blank, Get Carter, The Crow, Payback, Kill Bill, whatever. In these movies, revenge is a no-brainer, a mechanical process by which the wronged person works their way up the list of those who done the wronging. 'Cause, you know, that's just what an action hero does, right?

Park's films are a different breed. For my view of how his newest, Lady Vengeance, stacks up as a Chan-wook Park revenge film, see my review in this issue. But here's a brief history of his previous films on the subject:

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) The first film in Park's trilogy, this was followed by Oldboy and now Lady Vengeance. It established not only his philosophical agenda, but also his incredible style of moviemaking; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is so bright and kinetic it jumps off the screen. Because we live in a cinematic era where monochromatic design is supposed to prove how "hard" your movie is, the vivid details here catch you off-guard—orange flames, green hair, red roses, black shadows on a black staircase. Park borrows heavily from the Hong Kong action films of the '80s, but his characters aren't supermen with guns, and honor is not part of the equation. These are ordinary people forced into terrible, violent situations, who usually end up making them much worse and even more violent. Even better than the plot eccentricities in this movie (organ-donor double crosses, for example) is the fact that Park keeps you guessing about who is actually Mr. Vengeance. My own fringe theory is that "Mr. Vengeance" is not a person, but the very concept of revenge itself. See, I didn't say it was a good theory, I said it was a fringe theory.

Oldboy (2003) For me, one of the Top 5 films of this century so far. Don't want to say too much about the plot, but it's a lot tighter and burns with more intensity than its predecessor. And it's got everything! Hammers, dental anxiety, people hanging off skyscrapers and one of the most twisted twists I've ever seen. Once again, the revenge-movie formula is turned upside-down to make you question the intrinsic fairness of the universe. Those paranoid South Koreans! You'd think they were living every day in fear of an insane person building mass-murder devices right next to them!

Three Extremes (2004) Park did one of the segments in this three-part film, which also features Takashi Miike's "Box" and a shortened version of Chinese director Fruit Chan's "Dumplings." Park's piece, about a Korean director (I know, it's a stretch) who is taken hostage by an extra who worked on his films, is the most interesting. It puts a spin on his obsession with revenge, in that it tells the story from the point of view of the revenge target. Or does it? (Warning: possible spoilers ahead.) The first time I saw this, I had all kinds of theories about how the extra is just a figment of the director's imagination, which would mean that by the end, the protagonist is once again the revenge-seeker. I know many other fans of this segment are also attracted to interpretations like that, which are made possible because of the heavy symbolism in play. But watching it again, I think "Cut" is actually more fun and even fits a bit better into Park's themes with a more "straight" reading of the plot. Bonus points to Park for the fact that his next film in production is supposedly a vampire movie called Evil Live—which is the fake movie-within-a-movie the main character is filming in "Cut."


Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or a 'Serenity' haiku here.


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