The pieces of Geum-ja's plan assemble with incredible imagery

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨) – ★★★★★

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨)

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨)

Vengeance and violence are a seemingly masculine arena cinematically, with narratives propelled by testosterone-fueled actions by those who have suffered injustices. Such passionate reactionary violence is often ascribed to traditional patriarchal roles of ‘the father’ and ‘the lover’, identities which become destabilized through loss and demand retribution. Yet women, who have just as equal a stake in such gendered roles, are often marginalized.

With Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨) auteur Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) finishes his celebrated Vengeance trilogy in incredible style, featuring a woman as the central protagonist to create an altogether different approach to the concept of revenge. The result is a fascinating and riveting film that depicts a more calculating and intelligent form of vengeance than displayed by Dong-jin in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) or Dae-su in Old Boy (올드보이), constructing a unique and magnificent character in the form of Lady Vengeance herself Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae (이영애).

20 year old Lee Geum-ja is arrested and sentenced for the kidnap and murder of a young boy, shocking the nation due to her tender age as well as for her unparalleled beauty. Yet unknown to the public is that while Geum-ja was an accomplice in the kidnapping, she was forced to take the blame for the murder otherwise her own daughter would be killed by the real criminal – Baek Han-sang (Choi Min-sik (최민식). During her 13 year jail term Geum-ja plots her revenge, forging connections with other prisoners and garnering a reputation for her unbelievable kindness achieved through acts of underhanded treachery. Finally released, Geum-ja begins her preparations in earnest and, joined by her estranged daughter Jenny (Kwon Ye-yeong (권예영), tracks down the man responsible for their separation in order to exact their vengeance.

Geum-ja has become cold and calculating during her incarceration

Geum-ja has become cold and calculating during her incarceration

Park Chan-wook displays a more artistic and surreal depiction of revenge in his third installment, producing stunning imagery of Geum-ja’s quest that emphasizes her beautiful image in conjunction with her lethal internal motivations. Crucially the director never shies away from employing such cinematic playfulness with feminist discourses, overtly conveying Geum-ja’s intelligence in regards to patriarchy and image. Once released from prison Geum-ja purposely applies red eyeshadow and dons dark and seductive clothing, consciously aware that her natural image promotes innocence and purity, features she does not want nor feels she deserves. As such she challenges cultural stereotypes of attraction, subverting patriarchal notions of ‘virginal beauty’ as Geum-ja’s intelligence and violent desires are foregrounded. She is an expert at manipulation in this regard earning the trust and respect of men and women through her subversion of image, allies whom she acknowledges with indifference once they are indebted as her single-minded lust for vengeance is absolute. In achieving revenge Geum-ja is keenly aware of the power necessary, and her methods lead to acquiring a ‘pretty double-phallus’ in the shape of an incredible firearm that is two guns merged into one handle. Park Chan-wook’s wonderful visual style continually yet subtly conveys his lead protagonist as a powerful, intelligent, and highly efficient woman making Geum-ja an acutely compelling character.

That is not to say Geum-ja is lacking in emotion – far from it. She is constantly aware of her role in the murder of a young boy, willing to do anything for forgiveness that can never come. The burden of guilt portrays Geum-ja is a tragically flawed character as she seeks to dehumanize herself and reject intimacy due to her self-hatred. The brilliantly comical reappearance of Geum-ja’s estranged daughter Jenny forms a wonderful partnership in which to explore their neuroses of guilt and abandonment, and the roles of parent and child.

The pieces of Geum-ja's plan assemble with incredible imagery

The pieces of Geum-ja’s plan assemble with incredible imagery

The responsibilities of a parent toward their child are intriguingly explored throughout Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, as Park Chan-wook poses a supremely difficult question – what actions would a parent take if they confronted their child’s murderer? The director expertly conveys the poignant moral conundrum that brilliantly evolves Geum-ja’s personal desire for justice into a communal one, a desire for vengeance that is consciously wrong legally and morally, yet desired all the same. As has become a feature of his, Park Chan-wook depicts such incredibly serious subject matter with a sharply dark-humoured edge that makes the events that unfold all the more captivating, and thrilling, to experience. Despite simultaneously conveying the evolution of revenge as well as narratively veering in an alternate direction, the director never loses focus of Geum-ja’s role as strong methodical woman desperate for retribution and forgiveness, attributes she alone – despite (rejected) offers from patriarchy and religion – must achieve. As such, Geum-ja is one of the most enthralling and compelling representations of women to appear on celluloid.

Lee Young-ae is absolutely superb as Geum-ja, inhabiting the role so completely it is impossible to imagine another actress in her place. The extremely broad range of emotions that are required are wonderfully performed, from moments of quiet manipulation and rage-fueled violence, to tender moments of reconciliation and forgiveness, and fully deserves the various awards for Best Actress bestowed upon her. Choi Min-sik is given a marginal role as the malicious Baek Han-sang, yet during his short screen-time he conveys the depravity, and the sheer terror, required. Other supporting performances are generally fleeting, however it is highly enjoyable when cameo roles featuring actors from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Old Boy appear.

Geum-ja prepares to take her revenge

Geum-ja prepares to take her revenge

Verdict:

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is an incredible final installment to the Vengeance trilogy, presenting an entirely different notion of revenge through one of the most compelling female protagonists in cinematic history. Park Chan-wook’s beautifully creative vision, as well as Lee Young-ae’s captivating performance, make Sympathy for Lady Vengeance an enthralling exploration of vengeance and feminism that demands repeated viewing.

★★★★★

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Young-goon works in a radio factory, hearing broadcasts about her cyborg nature

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (싸이보그지만 괜찮아) – ★★★★☆

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (싸이보그지만 괜찮아)

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (싸이보그지만 괜찮아)

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (싸이보그지만 괜찮아) is perhaps best described as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) meets Amelie (2001) due to the whimsical portrayal of romance set within the confines of a mental institution. While these two features may initially seem an unnatural pairing, the abstract representation of the tenderness and innocence of love makes I’m a Cyborg an incredible inventive and poignant addition to the romance genre.

The film also marks a rather remarkable thematic departure for director Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) whose previous works have tended to focus on the nature of violence and revenge, yet his fundamental creative flair and ingenuity portray the magical nature of love of those with an alternative perception of reality.

Cha Young-goon (Im Soo-jeong (임수정) believes herself to be a cyborg, so much so that she attempts to recharge herself at her factory workplace by slitting her wrist and inserting electronic wiring within the wound. Mistaken for a suicide attempt, Young-goon is taken to a mental institution to receive treatment and meets a variety of eclectic and comical characters including Park Il-soon (Jung Ji-hoon/Rain (정지훈/비). Il-soon believes he has the ability to steal personal attributes of his fellow patients, and his perceived lack of identity leads him to wear a rabbit mask before ultimately fading into nothingness. Upon learning of Il-soon’s abilities, Young-goon begs him to steal her ‘sympathy’ so that she can exact revenge on ‘the white coats’ who forcibly took her Grandmother away. Il-soon becomes fascinated with Young-goon and her psychoses, and the two form an unlikely bond that help each other more deeply than any psychiatrist could ever hope for.

Young-goon works in a radio factory, hearing broadcasts about her cyborg nature

Young-goon works in a radio factory, hearing broadcasts about her cyborg nature

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is a wonderfully compelling romantic story with incredible visual flair from co-writer/director Park Chan-wook. The composition and colour within each frame is often majestic, such as the greens and reds within the radio factory in which Young-goon is employed that clearly contribute to her belief she’s a cyborg. Contrasted with the stark white within the institution and the ‘dome’ in which patients attempt to verbalise their symptoms, I’m a Cyborg continually conveys whimsy and poignancy in equal measure. This also applies to the character-driven script co-written with Jeong Seo-kyeong (정서경), which foregoes representing mentally ill patients as silly entertainment and instead endeavours to provide each character with history, depth, and empathy. This seemingly rare feature of cinema constructs an environment in which the central protagonists are not conveyed as beyond help, but as members of a social group in which their tragedy and comedy are shared with each other and forges relationships. Young-goon, for example, is from a family with a history of mental illness which included her Grandmother who believed she was a mouse and only ate radishes. When her Grandmother is forcibly sectioned, Young-goon desperately holds on to her memory by wearing her dentures and swearing revenge with her cyborg body. This mixture of empathy and comedy makes I’m a Cyborg one of the most unique, interesting and romantic character studies in many years.

Il-soon hides his identity with a rabbit mask, stealing personal attributes from patients

Il-soon hides his identity with a rabbit mask, stealing personal attributes from patients

At the heart of I’m a Cyborg is the relationships between Young-goon and Il-soon, and the development of their love is represented organically and with passion. Im Soo-jeong is convincing and sympathetic as girl-turned-cyborg Young-goon, conveying her detachment from reality with skill and conviction, and is by far the most engaging protagonist within the film. Similarly Jung Ji-hoon/Rain is charismatic as love interest Il-soon, and while he often does not convey his anti-social behaviour he still functions well as a charming rogue whose interest in Young-goon blossoms with time. The supporting characters also offer interesting interludes that add to the central concept, as Il-soon ‘steals’ personality traits that help bring him closer to Young-goon and provide him with an identity. However, neither leading actor is given a ‘defining moment’ in which their acting prowess can be revealed – such as can be found within One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Girl, Interrupted and Amelie – which ultimately limits their performance and the character depth which is continually alluded to is never fully realised. As such, the gentle narrative flow is never disrupted to a degree whereby drama ensues and hurdles must be overcome, leaving I’m a Cyborg as a pleasantly mellow offering, without much conflict or resolution.

The unlikely duo form a romantic bond that helps overcome their psychoses

The unlikely duo form a romantic bond that helps overcome their psychoses

Verdict:

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is a rare and unique treat, portraying mentally ill patients not as figures of ridicule but of poignancy, comedy, and of love. Director Park Chan-wook employs a whimsical and creative style that is engaging and entertaining, emphasizing his ability produce tender and heartfelt romance within the context of fantasy. While the narrative shies away from dramatic character defining events, the gently-paced and thoughtful character construction, accompanied with the surrealism of their perception of reality, is both charming and heartwarming.

★★★★☆

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The dischevelled Dae-su is joined by Mi-do on his quest for revenge

Old Boy (올드보이) – ★★★★★

Old Boy (올드보이)

Old Boy (올드보이)

Old Boy (올드보이) has the double-edged distinction of being most international audience’s first introduction to Korean cinema, and ironically, their only frame of reference. Thus any film viewed after such an inauguration is compared with Park Chan-wook’s (박찬욱) seminal work regardless of genre, which is clearly an injustice to all involved. And yet, it is difficult to completely judge those who make the comparison, as Old Boy  is simply phenomenal.

As the extremely drunk Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik (최민식) is arrested one night in 1988, he little realises that his every action is being watched. Released from the police station and apologising for missing his daughter’s birthday, Dae-su is suddenly snatched from the street and wakes up in an apartment – where he will spend the next fifteen years in captivity. Without warning, Dae-su is released from his incarceration and must discover who imprisoned him, and more importantly, why. He is joined on his quest for revenge by Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong (강혜정), a sushi waitress who takes pity on his plight. In following the trail of clues Dae-su finds his tormentor Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae (유지태) but the burning desire for answers stays his hand. As the mystery unravels, Dae-su is confronted by an awful truth, that will lead to a shocking final confrontation with his nemesis.

Dae-su is incarcerated for 15 years

Dae-su is incarcerated for 15 years

The centerpiece of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy (preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨)Old Boy stands out as one of the most innovative and technically proficient thrillers of all time. If it was ever in doubt before, Old Boy cemented Park Chan-wook’s status as an auteur due to his incredible vision and flair for violent and macabre subject matter. His technical prowess appears effortless. Initially the hand-held documentary-esque drunken antics in a police station add realism as well as Dae-su’s appalling character traits. Yet this is seamlessly sutured with conventions ascribed to fantasy, thriller and action as Dae-su evolves during the course of the film. Shots, such as Dae-su emerging from a suitcase in a field – later revealed as a roof – continually astonish and excite. Tracking shots of action sequences are equally enthralling as Dae-su takes on an entire gang in the narrow confines of a corridor. The level of creative confidence also extends into the mise-en-scene, particularly in regards to colour and patterns. The striking reds hint at the danger to come, while the eerie purples (accompanied by the maze-like pattern formed of triangles) are the calling cards of the mastermind behind the events.

The dischevelled Dae-su is joined by Mi-do on his quest for revenge

The dischevelled Dae-su is joined by Mi-do on his quest for revenge

Praise must also be generously given to the narrative, co-written by Park Chan-wook and Hwang Jo-yoon. The central concept is reminiscent of The Prisoner (1967-68), yet from there the ideas generated are original, shocking and downright bizarre. Yet fundamentally, the emotional core of each protagonist is placed front and center giving exceptional substance to the stylised visuals. Each character is incredibly compelling, neither good nor bad but an amalgamation of a variety of neuroses. In presenting such complex character studies to the screen, all the actors deserve recognition. Chief among them is Choi Min-sik who gives a towering performance as Dae-su. His physical transformation is startling, not only in terms of his musculature but also his tired and dishevelled face that conveys the seriousness of his situation without uttering a word. His erratic behaviour is entrancing and performed with real conviction, from his television style speech patterns, his difficulty in entering the modern world and the frustration of unlocking memories within himself. Similarly Yoo Ji-tae is wonderfully sadistic as the antagonist of the film. Woo-jin’s arrogance and sheer audacity radiates with every movement, yet amazingly is far from villainous due to the incredible depth of character. His own torment, and the unbelievable lengths he goes to in displacing them, are profound and convincing despite the extremities that occur.

Woo-jin torments Dae-su with sadistic delight

Woo-jin torments Dae-su with sadistic delight

Verdict:

Old Boy is a monumental achievement not only for Korean cinema, but also in terms of international recognition. It’s little wonder why audiences use it as the frame of reference in comparing other films from Korea despite the unfairness of such comparisons. The innovative narrative and technical prowess, as well as the exemplary performances, serve to make Old Boy a timeless classic and an absolute must-see.

★★★★★

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Ryu (류) wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) – ★★★★☆

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것)

Anyone even remotely aware of Korean cinema understands that the theme of revenge is commonplace. There are, of course, a great number of socio-cultural reasons as to why vengeance is prevalent. Historically, Japan has brutally colonised Korea several times over the past few centuries. Following the Second World War, the then-military government oppressed the people until an uprising forced change. Then, after a democratic capitalist government took power, the race to catch up with ‘Western’ countries divided the rich and poor to an even greater degree, with traditional values altered and livelihoods destroyed in order to create infrastructure. The theme of revenge is dominant as it undoubtedly provides catharsis for a nation of people whose identity has been in a constant state of instability due to external factors beyond their control.

Director Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) explores such notions of revenge in his infamous ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ beginning with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것), and followed by Old Boy (올드보이) and  Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨) respectively.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is concerned not only with revenge but the very basis and cyclical nature which it evolves into. Ryu (Sin Ha-gyoon (신하균) is deaf and mute, and lives a meager existence working in a factory. His sister (Lim Ji-eun 임지은) suffers from kidney disease and is in urgent need of a transplant. Fired from his job and distressed that his sister may die, Ryu turns to the black market and strikes a deal – he will give all his money and donate his own kidney, and in exchange he will receive a healthy kidney for his sister. Yet, when Ryu wakes up after the operation, he finds his kidney, and his money, have been stolen. Worse still, thanks to a miraculous donation a kidney is now available at the hospital, but without his savings the operation cannot commence.

Ryu (류) wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Ryu wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Desperate, Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Doona (배두나) scheme to kidnap the daughter of his former boss Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho (송강호) for ransom. With the transplant money secure, the duo plan to release the girl and restore the equilibrium; yet when Ryu’s sister discovers the plot she cannot take the shame and burden, and commits suicide. Ryu and the boss’s daughter bury her body by a riverbank, but the youngster falls into the water and drowns. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance then evolves into two separate narratives of revenge; Ryu’s quest to hunt down the black market organ dealers, and Dong-jin’s desire for vengeance over his dead daughter. Each man has lost someone special, someone who helped to define their identity and give them purpose and subsequently, as each man follows his agenda, their humanity becomes lost amid their barbarous acts of vengeance. Both Ryu and Dong-jin are good men, but are transformed into murderers due to external economic and medical forces, adding sympathy and poignancy as they lose their identity with each act of violence. The evolution of the protagonists are superbly conveyed by Sin Ha-gyoon and Song Kang-ho (송강호), the latter in particular giving a towering performance transforming from emotional businessman to hardened killer. Neither man understands the futility of their vengeance nor that the escalation of violence produces more victims that demand justice.

Dong-jin (박덩진) transforms from father to murderer

Dong-jin transforms from father to murderer

The evolution of the protagonists is masterfully constructed by director Park Chan-wook, who expertly composes each shot to reinforce the sympathy, and the insanity, of their actions. The cinematography is incredible in places, particularly in the recurrence of aerial shots that emphasize the loneliness of the men and the fragility of their humanity. Additionally, the utilisation of space and depth of field highlights their terrible position, both literally and figuratively, in horrific environments and circumstances. Ryu’s world is conveyed effectively and dramatically due to his inability to hear, as alternating POV shots establish how silent and disadvantaged his world is compared to those around him adding yet another layer of compassion to his predicament. Park Chan-wook’s presentation of violence is thoughtful and initially restrained, gradually building tension in order for graphic scenes to have the utmost impact.

Director Park Chan-wook's recurrent use of aerial shots emphasize loneliness and futility

Director Park Chan-wook’s recurrent use of aerial shots emphasize loneliness and futility

Verdict:

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a fascinating exploration into the nature of revenge and violence, highlighting how two seemingly ‘good’ men can evolve into psychotic killers when they are bereaved. However, further exploration of the socio-economic problems that created the black market organ trade and the lay-offs at the factory, could have enhanced the poignancy of their predicaments further, as would have additional characterization before the crises developed. Yet despite this, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a riveting and emotionally charged debate on the escalation and futility of vengeance, and how the loss of a loved one can become poison when the path of revenge is taken.

★★★★☆

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The man goes fishing in the ethereal atmosphere created by the iphone 4

Night Fishing (파란만장) – ★★★★★

Night Fishing (파란만장)

Night Fishing (파란만장)

Night Fishing (파란만장) cannot help but come with high expectations. It was directed by not one but two renowned auteurs, Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) and Park Chan-kyong (박찬경); at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival it won the coveted Golden Bear award for best short film; and it was filmed entirely using an iphone 4, adding curiosity to intrigue. And, even better, it doesn’t disappoint.

Beginning in a rather abstract/art house style, including a bizarre band playing on a country road, the camera eventually focuses on an unnamed man (Oh Kwang-rok 오광록) walking through a field. The man reaches a riverside, and begins to set up his fishing equipment, his camp site, and waits for the fish to bite. The style in which these scenes are framed and shot are surreal and ethereal, and combined with the ‘grainy’ low-quality texture of the camera, offer an otherworldly viewing experience. This is even more prevalent as night descends, with the low-level lighting adding a tense, Blair Witch-esque eerie atmosphere as the man continues to fish.

The man goes fishing in the ethereal atmosphere created by the iphone 4

The man goes fishing in the ethereal atmosphere created by the iphone 4

As the night continues, the man is joined by a strange woman (Lee Jeong-hyeon 이정현) who may or may not have supernatural abilities, but her behaviour certainly does nothing to halt the sense of unease. Directors Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong expand the mystery through exploring traditional Korea shamanism and how it provides hope and despair in equal measure. Their use of the iphone camera is incredibly sophisticated, employing a variety of filters and colours for different environments that continually infuse tension, bewilderment and shock.

At night, a bizarre and mysterious woman appears

At night, a bizarre and mysterious woman appears

Night Fishing is  an incredible piece of filmmaking, even more so considering the technology and camera utilised. Equal parts thrilling, mysterious and intriguing, this short film of 33 minutes or so captures more intensity than productions 3 times its length. It also manages to tell a complete narrative story, while still leaving audiences with enough doubts and possibilities for it to lack closure. The cast are wonderful in their roles despite the short screen time, giving believable performances. Night Fishing is a premier example of taking a short, simple story and constructing a framework of mystery and intrigue around it, one that is wholly entertaining and fascinating to watch.

★★★★★

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Jeon Chan-il (전찬일) introduces Dance Town (댄스 타운)

LKFF Day 3 – Mise-en-scene 1, Detective K (조선명탐정: 각시투구꽃의 비밀) and Dance Town (댄스 타운)

Protestors stand up to police at Trafalgar Square

Protestors stand up to police at Trafalgar Square

Day 3 of the London Korean Film Festival was based solely at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), with a backdrop of anti-capitalist protests through the Trafalgar Square and the Westminster area. Except for the film screenings themselves, it was a fairly uneventful day.

First was a showing entitled ‘Mise-en-scene’, which comprised of short films including Park Chan-kyong‘s (박찬경) and Park Chan-wook‘s (박찬욱) Night Fishing (파란만장), Negligence of Duty (Social Service Agent), PromiseHideout and City. 

Detective K (조선명탐정: 각시투구꽃의 비밀) was the second screening, a comedy set during the Joseon Dynasty about corrupt government officials.

Jeon Chan-il (전찬일) introduces Dance Town (댄스 타운)

Jeon Chan-il (전찬일) introduces Dance Town (댄스 타운)

Lastly was festival favorite Dance Town (댄스 타운), but before it began, film critic and festival programmer Jeon Chan-il (전찬일) introduced the film. He informed the audience that Dance Town was the third film in a trilogy, preceded by Mozart Town (모차르트 타운, 2008) and Animal Town (애니멀 타운, 2009). The films examine city life in a low-budget, social realist aesthetic for which director Jeon Kyu-hwan (전규환) has become renowned. Dance Town is something of a festival darling, as the film has been invited to several notable international festivals and received plenty of awards and critical acclaim. Jeon Chan-il explained that he and the director are friends, and that Jeon Kyu-hwan wishes for audiences to form opinions of Dance Town in a non-political fashion, and to focus on the characters and situations that arise. This is/was easier said than done, as the film is extremely critical in its examination of the society/culture in Seoul and the governmental treatment of refugees.

Festival News Festivals 2011