Neighbors won’t shut up. Got a bad cold. Broke, as always. Writing getting terser.
So, I saw Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance at the Walter Reade. The Film Society of Lincoln Center do an excellent job programming that theater, and Film Comment Selects is always a highlight of my movie year. Anyway, it’s a solid revenge flick, very well executed, but it doesn’t measure up to Oldboy, let alone Save the Green Planet! or the haunting Memories of Murder, despite the welcome presence of Song Kang-ho (Murder’s overzealous country cop) and Shin Ha-kyun (Green-haired would-be Green Planet savior). Oh! And the lovely Bae Doo-na from Take Care of My Cat as the most interesting, if underdeveloped character in the film, Shin’s anarchist girlfriend. Park Chan-wook is a meticulous director with a keen eye for depravity. In both Oldboy and Mr. Vengeance, he delays the violence much longer than expected, and when it does come, it has real visceral impact. He has a knack for capturing those tense, quiet moments before all hell breaks loose. His characters often seem to pause as if interrogating the very reality of their situation as they do horrific things to each other. They are understandably aghast, and we wish they would stop, but they never do. They always seem to go a little bit further than necessary. In both films, revenge predictably amounts to a zero sum game. But the aggrieved move inexorably forward, with a terrible kind of calm, like the inappropriate smirk on a certain president’s face as the nation fights a horrible and unnecessary war. Mr. Vengeance is a good, solid, nasty piece of work, but it is not as inventive or as psychologically resonant as Oldboy. Both are exemplary genre pieces.
I would say, from my exposure to their work, that Park Chan-wook is a master craftsman, while it’s possible that Jang Jun-hwan and Bong Joon-ho are visionaries. It’s easier to speculate with Jang, because Save the Green Planet! is so cracked, and works (or doesn’t work, depending on your point-of-view) on so many levels. It’s a maddening mess of a film that still manages to come together and deliver a surprising emotional impact. It’s possible that there’s a genius at work here, but his ideas and his mode of expressing them haven’t quite coalesced yet. Also, it’s kind of a brutal viewing experience. It gets extremely ugly, and its mix of comedy, horror, and pathos is often unsettling. It’s not something I’d recommend to my mother, for example. She wouldn’t last long enough to find out if poor, crazy Lee Byung-gu finds redemption.
On the other hand, I would have no problem recommending Memories of Murder to just about anyone who can stomach a little violence. The more I ponder the film (and I look forward to seeing it again when Palm puts it out a Region 1 DVD), the more I think it may be the best policier I have ever seen. Of course, I can’t put two films that I saw in 2004 in my all-time top ten, but if such a thing were remotely conceivable, I would think about it. I have more to say, but I’m too tired to go into it right now. It’s just as well if you don’t know too much when you go to see it at the Walter Reade this week. So just go. Trust me.
Memories of Murder screening info is at this link. Scroll down to the bottom of the page. Screening times are Monday, Feb 21 at 7 and Wednesday, Feb 23 at 1 & 9.
Here’s a couple links to stuff I enjoyed reading:
James Wolcott on Michael Medved on M$B
David Poland on Drudge on Chris Rock