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I saw a few months ago Interpreter, The (2005) and although i didn't think it was anything particular, one part of it stuck with me. In it, there was a story about this African tribe that had a most intriguing mode of capital punishment. When someone committed a severe crime and was deemed to deserve the death penalty, that person was gagged and bound and put on a small boat with a whole in it so that it would slowly sink. The family of the victim had to be there and would stand on the shore. They had a choice: either they could watch as the boat slowly sank and the villain would drown to death, or they could choose to go and rescue that villain. The members of the family had to make an explicit choice about whether their thirst for vengeance was stronger than the guilt they would ultimately one day feel for letting anyone die. Which is worse: the guilt a normal person would feel, or the lack of vengeance? Even if vengeance has an immediate appeal, the long term effects of guilt stay with you for the rest of your life, and can poison your soul. So go the tribe's beliefs.
Korean director PARK Chan-wook has made a name for himself over the past 4 years with his Vengeance trilogy. Bound by a theme rather than characters or a story line, those three films have explored vengeance with graphic and moral details. PARK once said that revenge is something that makes you happy and invigorates you only when it is in your imagination. But when it comes to actually carrying it out, it is never happy and never gives you pleasure because it is an act of total stupidity. So as long as revenge is in the imagination it is OK, but it must be infinitely put off. In the first installment, Vengeance 1, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), we saw how a man went to extreme length to exact vengeance towards the people who kidnapped his daughter and eventually killed her, albeit indirectly. In the end, an eye to an eye made the world blind and everyone suffered greatly. In the second installment, Vengeance 2, Oldboy (2003), PARK explored how vengeance could denature two people to the extreme and push them to commit the most cruel things towards one another. The film was brash and over the top, a masterpiece of visual and sonic exuberance with an extreme story and characters. In this movie, the third installment, we get a look at a very personal vengeance that illustrates the old saying that vengeance is a dish best served cold. However, midway, the story takes quite an unexpected turn and becomes a collective act of vengeance that will make you think about the death penalty in new ways.
After having allegedly kidnapped and brutally murdered a young child, the young and beautiful Geum Ja (LEE Young-ae) is sent to prison for 13 years. While doing her time, the young woman is very kind to the other prisoners, earning a following and widespread respect. However, Geum Ja's behavior masks her true intentions: actually innocent, she is covertly hatching an elaborate plan to seek retribution on the true criminal Mr. Baek (CHOI Min-sik), a deeply deranged kindergarten teacher. As soon as she is released from prison, she enlists the help of a retired cop, her former cellmates and her teenager daughter Jenny (who was adopted by an Australian couple during the anti-heroine's incarceration), and sets in motion her plan for bitter vengeance. By chance, she discovers video tapes in Mr. Baek's home depicting the brutal murder of a number of several young children. Completely shocked, she quickly regains composure and changes her revenge plans. She traces back who the murdered children were and contacts their parents, offering them the chance for closure by taking a personal part in the torture and then killing of this evil man.
Talk about some heavy material. I have seen a lot of Korean films recently that deal with child murders and it is extremely difficult to watch or comprehend. But Korean movies seem to confront the issue much more than anywhere else as i can think of half a dozen such movies in the past few years, and all come from South Korea (Cello (2005), Good Lawyer's Wife, A (2003) and Uninvited (2003) also come to mind in addition to PARK's movies). It's strange because according to a 1994 study, there were almost 2,000 children murdered in the top 26 industrialized countries, 1464 (73%) of which occurred in the US alone. The homicide rate for children in the US was five times higher than that for children in the other 25 countries combined (2.57 per 100,000 compared with 0.51). So i would expect the horror of infanticide to be much more present in the American psyche, and that it would be more present in movies. For some reason, only Koreans today address the issue (in disturbing emotional and graphic details) prominently in their films. One can't help but feel that infanticide must be a lot more shocking to Koreans because it comes much more clearly as a horrifying dominant social issue even if the rates are low. There is also the entertainment factor in the US and Americans are generally not prone to go see tough and disturbing movies, so fewer of those are made of course. Don't think that Americans are any less emotionally shocked by infanticide of course, but they don't like to confront its reality either.
This movie bears all of PARK's trademarks. The characters are extreme, and the story goes places you don't get to see often in American or European movies. These are adult themes and fears. The focus is on raw emotions and the denaturing effects of Revenge. It's not pretty at all and will turn off many people. But if you can stomach the material, the film is richly layered with metaphors about capital punishment. By contacting the children's parents, Geum Ja transforms her personal vengeance into a collective act, very similar to what happens with that African tribe i wrote about earlier. As expected, the same range of emotions also apply: some parents are reluctant to participate, in spite of the horrific deaths their children endured, while other parents, blinded by the immediate thirst for revenge, don't think twice about going ahead and using sharp cruelty.
By picking infanticide, PARK confronts you with what is possibly the worst crime, and really asks you to think about the death penalty in the context of pure revenge. Infanticide is so emotional that revenge is the primary impulse behind capital punishment in those cases. "Evil" is the only term that comes to mind with respect to the perpetrators. However, PARK shows us in a convincing way how things are not as simple. It's easy to talk about those things in the abstract, but what would happen if you were more intimately involved in the process of the punishment? Isn't the simple act of killing in itself dehumanizing no matter what the reasons are? If you kill someone, even if it is the abject murderer of your own child, how will that affect you? For those parents who exact revenge, will they feel better? Will they sleep better the next night? More importantly, for those parents who chose not to participate, will they feel immense regret the next day? Can they deal with the guilt of not having taken revenge? The moral dilemma is clear, and PARK won't let go of you until you come to terms with it: there is no easy answer and each path seem to have its fair share of problems. In a distant way, it reminded me the argument the Vegetarian community had with respect to how meat-eaters basically turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of animals and the violence involved. If you had to personally kill each time you wanted to eat meat, you may eat much less of it. This point of view looks at Vegetarianism not as a health choice, but as an ethical one and forces you to look at it that way with the premise of your direct involvement in the process.
Technically, the film is much calmer than the previous film Oldboy. If you are expecting over the top bravura film-making, you will be disappointed. By all measure, this movie is very different from the previous two. It's as if PARK wanted to get his breath back and slow down a little. The movie's pace is deliberately slow, giving you ample time to focus on the story, its themes, and the performances. The film still bears PARK's technical prowess with wonderful shots, impeccable cinematography and art direction, but it's less in your face. One aspect i missed particularly was a great soundtrack. The music here is adequate, but won't resonate in your skull after the movie is over.
With fewer tricks to manipulate the audience, the film ends up resting more firmly on the story and the top-of-the-line performances. LEE Young-ae is fantastic in portraying the smart and calculating women in search of revenge. Having previously dealt exclusively with male protagonists, PARK's choice of a woman as the lead character gives us a very different outlook. CHOI Min-sik is as excellent as always as the evil guy. He does such a good job at it that when he starts getting clobbered by the parents, you almost feel good... But it's only when it's clear that the torture scene will last a lot longer than just a few seconds, and be a lot more cruel than expected, that you start to really cringe, in spite of this man's truly evil nature. CHOI's performance is key to the denouement of this film.
The themes in this film are polarizing and PARK's tale is cleverly structured to make sure you will react strongly one of two ways to the story and its denouement: there is very little space for a middle-of-the-road position. Either you believe that the punishment fits the crime and revenge was sweet, or you are much more conflicted about the act itself and question if you could personally live with it. This is PARK's strength. His movies are so well structured, so intoxicating with their expert use of cinematography, editing, colors, art direction and music, and so in your face with controversial material that you cannot escape his movies intact. They force you to do work and get behind the initial shock, analyze your response to what you are witnessing and then think about your own beliefs and motivations. This film is much more restrained than Oldboy, but it turns out to be a good thing as it feels much less like exploitative (even if grandiose) entertainment and more like a modern tale of morality, capital punishment, and personal choices.
- Laurent Hasson