Friday, January 06, 2006

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Korean director Chan-Wook Park gained some acclaim in the US earlier this year with the theatrical release of his revenge masterpiece, Oldboy, which represented the middle act of his revenge trilogy. Now US audiences are finally being treated to the opening act of the trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. It's interesting to note that Park made this unsettling, challenging film shortly after completing one of the biggest mainstream box office hits in Korean cinema history, JSA. He had the opportunity to continue churning out blockbusters, but chose to step back and focus on a much smaller, personal project with limited box office appeal. Thankfully, the move paid off handsomely for both this film and Oldboy, resulting in some of the best filmmaking in the world currently.

In a landscape of damaged individuals, the lead character Ryu has the deck completely stacked against him. He's deaf and mute, he's partially mentally handicapped, he's just been laid off from his job, and his only sister is dying waiting for a kidney transplant. Unfortunately, his bloodtype isn't compatible with his sister's, but he has managed to save up enough money for transplant surgery as soon as a suitable donor is located. The only problem is that his sister is almost out of time. Taking matters into his own hands, he unwisely hooks up with a shady underground organ "sourcing" operation that promises to supply him with a compatible kidney...provided he gives up one of his own as well as all the transplant money he's saved. Not surprisingly, the transaction doesn't exactly work out as he hoped, setting off a string of crime and retribution that eventually sucks everyone associated with him, most significantly his old boss, directly into an expanding vortex of revenge.

Although "Mr. Vengeance" from the title ultimately refers to Ryu's boss, Ryu is the primary focus of the first half of the film and is a completely believable character due to the quirky performance of Ha-Kyun Shin. The only drawback is that he played a similarly disturbed part in Save the Green Planet, which proves a bit distracting at times. Even better in his role as Ryu's ex-boss is Kang-Ho Song, the central character in the final half of the film. He invests the role with a quiet and heartbreaking intensity as he carries out his unwanted mission of vengeance.

Thematically, the movie can be viewed as a class struggle, a fight for the sanctity of the family unit, or simply a case study of a challenged young man. At its core though, it strips away all differences between its characters to focus on the idea that they are all equals in their base animalistic quest for revenge.

It's abundantly clear that Chan-Wook Park loves the art of film. He peppers his films with unique camera angles, extremely atmospheric cinematography, and stellar pacing to enhance the final project, dancing close to overwhelming the viewers with his flourishes but ultimately delivering stunning imagery and structure that prove he's completely in control of every aspect. While JSA hit the broad audience targets necessary for big-ticket sales and Oldboy pounded viewers with a kinetic thrillride from beginning to end, Sympathy revels in the pauses between action, the quiet moments that happen between characters when nothing's really happening.

That's not to say the movie bogs down at all, it's just a stylistic choice that emphasizes Ryu's silent world. There are a few minor gaps and odd jumps in the narrative as well, leaving viewers with some holes to fill in on their own. But when the action resumes, those with weak dispositions should be on the alert as much of the revenge is quite inventive, especially as the film enters its final, horrifying act.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Coast Guard

Prolific Korean writer/director Kim Ki-Duk has been on a roll lately with US distribution for his films, such as 3-Iron, Samaritan Girl, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...And Spring. Now Tartan Video has dug into his back catalog and unearthed this gem from a few years ago for DVD release. While his latest releases have been somewhat plodding affairs almost completely devoid of dialogue, The Coast Guard has a bit more mainstream presentation and even includes some limited action scenes. However, the underlying plot is just as disturbing as the rest of his work.

Private Kang is dutifully serving out his mandatory two-year military assignment by protecting South Korea's coastline from nonexistent North Korean spies. He is extremely passionate about his assignment and at times seems a bit high-strung about his duties although there's never any backstory provided for his obsessive tendencies. The local townspeople are wary of their military neighbors and frankly view them as an unnecessary drain on taxpayer resources. The rest of Kang's unit are mostly just punching the clock until their two years are up; they have no interest in becoming career soldiers and little interest in competently protecting the coast.

One fateful night, a couple from town decides to risk a romantic tryst on the guarded beach. That turns out to be an extremely poor idea with Kang on duty, and the resulting tragedy shatters the lives of Kang and a girl from town, with repercussions rippling throughout the community and base. The townspeople end their uneasy alliance with the base, the military ends its association with Kang, and the girl loses her tenuous grip on reality...but nobody leaves town. So, the heart of the film is its study of the effects of tragedy on individuals as well as their surrounding community. If you're a military base commander, what do you do about a discharged soldier who keeps hanging around outside your base pleading to return to duty? If you're a busy fisherman, what do you do about your completely insane sister who also keeps hanging around the base? And if you're either of the primary damaged subjects, how do you escape your tailspin into oblivion and return to some semblance of normality?

The movie surprised me in many ways. Primarily, I was impressed with Kim's ability to deliver such difficult subject matter in a somewhat glossy, commercial format. I was completely enthralled with the script, letting it lead me to its surprising conclusion without thought or preconceived notions about what might be in store, a sure sign that the movie was effective. I've come to expect slow, languorous explorations into obsession from Kim's past work that tend to make me want to fast forward frequently, so it was refreshing to find that this film moved along at a relatively brisk, crisp pace and held my interest throughout.

While the film lost a bit of steam at the end with some ambiguity about perceptions of reality and unresolved character arcs, it held together to a satisfying conclusion...or at least as satisfying as could be expected from its completely unsettling premise. Kim Ki-Duk continues to be a name to watch, and The Coast Guard is an excellent starting point for anyone unfamiliar with his past work.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Best of 2005

Movies – I saw a total of 3 movies in theaters in 2005, long live the home theater

1) Sin City – I’m still in awe that they actually pulled this off and did it so well

2) Star Wars Ep III – the series closes out on a high note

3) Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children – this is the movie Squaresoft should have released theatrically instead of Final Fantasy: Spirits Within. Absolutely stunning CG and a fine continuation of the story from the original game.

4) Sympathy for Lady Vengeance – It’s no Oldboy, but it’s a satisfying conclusion to the Vengeance trilogy and another testament to the greatness of Chan-Wook Park

5) Batman Begins – The final act didn’t quite live up to the rest of the film, but the whole buildup and creation of the legend was handled far better than any of us could have dared to hope

*Worst movie of the year: War of the Worlds. Where did it all go wrong, Spielberg? Please, please, please fire your cinematographer already, I’m so sick of your washed out, muted movies…color is your friend, embrace it. Please write something yourself or hire writers who understand logical plotlines. Please don’t use Dakota Fanning ever again. Please tell Tom Cruise that construction workers don’t wear couture jeans. Please don’t ever make me want to gouge my eyes out again by allowing the whiny son to miraculously survive. Please explain why aliens would be focusing so much of their efforts on sparsely populated farmland while Boston went mostly unscathed. Please give me back my two hours.


1) Gorillaz – Demon Days – Dan the who? Danger Mouse made the change in producers a non-issue and steered this project to unbelievable heights

2) Beck – Guero – Sure, it’s derivative of his past work, but his fluff is still better than most artists, plus it’s an incredible listening experience in 5.1

3) The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan – superb

4) Boards of Canada – The Campfire Headphase – not much different from the rest of their catalog, which is fine by me

5) Morcheeba – Get Mashed – not an official release, but a gem of a mash-up mix courtesy of one of the Morcheeba guys and a bunch of sampled and live rappers

1) The Office – I love the UK original and desperately wanted to despise this, but it’s just too damn good. The sexual harassment episode is a classic for the ages and the Christmas episode isn’t far behind.

2) Battlestar Galactica – Lagging a bit in the first half of season 2, but still the best drama out there.

3) The Simpsons – Still looking for that drop in quality, still not finding it.

4) LOST – This has very little chance of making the list in 2006, it’s taken a big hit this year with the ridiculous waste of time on the other tribe and is dangerously close to getting dropped off my viewing list. I get my fill of tribal mergers on Survivor, thanks anyway.

5) Curb Your Enthusiasm – not the best season, but not the worst either (first half of last season wins that distinction). P-p-p-prick!


1) Girls – There’s no monthly title I look forward to more than this one, so they must be doing something right

2) Y: The Last Man – Getting closer to the conclusion, still essential reading

3) Astro City – Welcome back, old friend

4) The Walking Dead – Has lost some steam with the long stay in the prison and suffers from too many characters even with zombies killing them off all the time, but still a fun read

5) Usagi Yojimbo – 20 years long, 20 years strong.

Graphic Novels

1) Watchmen: Absolute Edition – absolute perfection

2) Pyongyang – fascinating peek behind the curtain of North Korea

3) Demo – finally collected, worth reading

4) Wimbledon Green – Seth delivers again, not his best work as he readily admits but a quick and entertaining look at the passion of comic collectors

5) The Fountain – Still not sure how this will translate to film, but kudos to Aronofsky for making it happen here first in a lush, deluxe graphic novel format.

Video Games – I hardly played at all this year, but if I had these would have been the games:

1) Call of Duty 2 (Xbox 360)

2) Half Life 2 (Xbox)

3) Splinter Cell 3: Chaos Theory (Xbox)

4) Resident Evil 4 (Gamecube)

5) Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)

Bring on 2006!