Flashback: Korean Noir by Todd Robinson

This article was first published in issue 11.

Editor’s note: Since the publishing of this article, Todd has become the proud papa of  THE HARD BOUNCE, a fabulous tough book of crime.

Korean Noir: The Films of Chan-wook Park

For a couple of years now, (thanks in no small part to Quentin Tarantino) the films of Chan-wook Park are being seen by an American audience for the first time. And frankly, if I’ve seen five great films this year, three of them belong to Chan-wook Park. So why haven’t you heard of him? He’s one of the most decorated directors in Asia. Due to the notoriously skewed purchase and release tactics of U.S. distributors, the three films below were released domestically all within the last year. Remember, this is the industry that took a year and a half to release Zhang Yimou’s brilliant Hero a year-and a half after they had managed to have it been nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.For the purpose of my own sanity, I’ll comment on each film in the order in which they were made, rather than when they were made available.

J.S.A. – Joint Security Area (2000 available on DVD)
This film, the first film available by Mr. Chan-wook, centers on the region that separates North and South Korea. The focus characters are the men who guard that border, which is no wider than your average coffee table.
In the film’s opening, we know that something has happened, an incident that has left soldiers dead and could spark war between the Koreas. Of course, both sides are telling completely contrasting stories. In a style reminiscent of Rashomon, the film then intercuts between the investigation of the incident and the actual events that has led to the deaths of the soldiers. As the film progresses, the clues don’t match either side’s story, and the investigators begin to suspect a cover-up.
The tragedy and dread that the film is able to conjure in the audience comes primarily in the retelling of the timeline as it literally happened. One begins to not only truly like, but feel for all of the characters whether they belong to the Northern or Southern factions. We also know that not all of them will survive, and that is the emotional arc of the film that devastates. If there is a villain in the film, it is the ignorance of politics and war.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002 available on DVD)
The first in what will be eventually be referred to as the Vengeance Trilogy, Sympathy tells the story of a deaf man (Ryu) and his sister, who desperately needs a kidney transplant. Ryu has enough money for the transplant, but no kidney is available and time is running out for his sister. A deal with black-market organ dealers goes horribly wrong and Ryu is left with no other options. In his desperation, Ryu and his revolutionary girlfriend concoct a plot to kidnap the daughter of the boss who recently laid him off. Chan-wook Park masterfully balances the delicate balance between desperation and crime versus evil in a domino-like fashion. The viewer can only sit and wait for the first domino to fall. When it does, the cycle of revenge that generates is heartbreaking to watch.

Oldboy (2003 available on DVD)
This was the big one for Chan-wook Park. Oh Dae-Su (portrayed with savage brilliance by Min-Sik Choi) is kidnapped one night off the streets. He awakens in a room with no knowledge of how he got there, who put him there or why. He also can’t leave. After fifteen years (that’s right, fifteen) of imprisonment, he’s released and anonymously given a cell phone and a suit. His captor has given him five days to discover the motive behind his imprisonment, or there will be further consequences. Oh Dae-Su wreaks a swath of brutal violence in his quest to find the reasons his anonymous tormentor had for stripping him of his life and family. When the shocking answers are revealed, the simplicity of one’s everyday sins hits the viewer like a gut-punch. Especially when the futility of revenge on both sides is laid bare. Oldboy marks the second film in the Vengeance Trilogy.
The amazing quality within the violence in Oldboy is the nature and depiction of those acts. Credit going again to Park and the searing performance by Min-Sik Choi, the vicious acts within the film (you may never eat sushi again) generate sympathy for the performer of those acts, all the while, sickening the viewer with their brutality. Amazing.
Oldboy made a stir at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, winning the Jury Prize at the festival normally famous for its snootiness regarding film. Many critics scoffed, since the jury that year was headed by none other than Quentin Tarantino, not only a fan of violence in films but a self-proclaimed Asia-phile as well. The scoffing ended quickly when the award led to international distribution and the critics at large got to see the film. A sampling:

Oldboy may be a filmmaker’s tour de force, but props should also be delivered to Choi, whose wretched, Herculean performance as the new millennium’s Job could restore your faith in the selfless courage of acting.

Michael Atkinson – The Village Voice
Oldboy ventures to emotional extremes, but not without reason. We are so accustomed to “thrillers” that exist only as machines for creating diversion that it’s a shock to find a movie in which the action, however violent, makes a statement and has a purpose.

Roger Ebert – Chicago Sun-Times
Chan-wook Park was a student of philosophy before he was a filmmaker and that level of deeply thought perspective resonates in every frame. The sinners don’t know they are sinning. If they do, it’s the lesser of any number of evils. Dating back to Iago, the evils perpetrated are self-justified. Playing off that idea (dare I say, improving?), Chan-wook Park justifies those same evils to the audience, as well. Now that’s impressive. The violence is brutal, but is never about something as simple as greed. It’s about desperation, survival and revenge, yet Chan-wook questions the cost of that vengeance on the soul, as well. That element is what makes the film more than simple revenge fantasies. The means may justify the ends, but those means may lead to tragedy.
There are no grand villains in the films. No moustache-twirling scoundrels against which the hero may fight. There are committers of evil, but they are mostly secondary characters who serve as catalysts for the ‘heroes’ to make their own decisions and play off one another. The closest that Chanwook comes to this is in Oldboy with the character of Woo-jin Lee, who despite having perpetrated the most horrible tortures imaginable on a man, generates some empathy after the questions are finally answered. Not enough to completely justify his actions, but enough to render him human.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the final film in the Vengeance Trilogy (it should be noted that the films are linked by certain cast members and theme only, not by continuation of a particular plot) was released in Korea earlier this year. I, for one, am anxiously awaiting its U.S. release. If you’re a fan of the genre, you should be too. In the meantime, check out Chan-wook Park’s previous films. You’ll be moved, shocked, amazed, disgusted and heartbroken. Mostly all at the same time. What you won’t be, is disappointed.

Todd Robinson is the angriest writer alive. He has won several awards for his short fiction and is the creator and chief editor of the crime fiction webzine, Thuglit.com.