Film and TV

Before Stoker Hits Dallas, Experience the Mad Movie World of Filmmaker Park Chan-wook

This week, the Dallas Film Society and the Angelika Film Center in Dallas will host a short retrospective of the films of South Korean director Park Chan-wook, starting Tuesday with Oldboy, winner of the Grand Prix award at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. It continues Wednesday with 2006's Lady Vengeance and finishes Thursday night with an advance screening of Stoker, the director's most recent film and his first English-language effort.

Now: If you thought Park Chan-wook was fighting for a spot in the Rangers' rotation, you're not alone. Let's take a gander:

Oldboy is the second installment in what's known as The Vengeance Trilogy. It centers on Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a man who is mysteriously abducted and imprisoned for 15 years. When he's finally released, he begins a five-day quest for answers and revenge, accompanied by a young waitress named Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong) and armed, for the most part, with nothing but a hammer.

The movie is most famous for one particular scene, in which Dae-su, fresh from his imprisonment, tears into a live octopus. But that's nothing compared to the movie's wall-to-wall sense of misery and anguish, which is supported by the dislocated sense of realism Park and his creative team employ. The world we see on screen looks like our world, only exaggerated. It's a world where one powerful man can control every aspect of another man's for years, and where a thoughtless action can lead to the most severe and twisted form of retribution.

What makes Oldboy bearable in spite of the rawness of its narrative is the visual elegance Park brings to it, and the way certain formal aspects, like the transitions from one scene to the next, comment on the lasting trauma of tragedy. As one scene bleeds into the next, we get a sense that, for Dae-su, the past and the present aren't easily distinguishable.

It's the same in Lady Vengeance, the third installment in Park's Vengeance Trilogy. The movie's full name is Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, mirroring the trilogy's first installment, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. This is another story about imprisonment and the search for revenge, but in this case, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) was sent to prison 13 years ago for kidnapping and murdering a 5-year-old boy. She's innocent, though, or mostly is. But like Dae-su, there's a thin line between then and now, with elements from one scene after lingering or spilling over into the next.

The words "visual elegance" are perhaps more suited to Lady Vengeance than to Oldboy. It also boasts a more playful tone -- initially, at least. Lady Vengeance's ultimate destination is nearly as grim as anything in Oldboy. Though it's not that what we see in either movie is that much worse than in other revenge films; rather, it's the cold commitment these characters have to their cause. We're trained to root for the heroes in our stories, but what about heroes like these, who do horrible things in the name of justice?

Part of what makes Park's movies so captivating, beyond their formal qualities, is the way they force you to confront this question and others. Both films play off of each other thematically, asking things like how costly is atonement, how do you forgive the unforgivable, and how do you go one living when you've behaved like animals?

"Seeking revenge is the best cure for someone who has been hurt," one character says to Dae-su in Oldboy, and yet in both films, revenge is ultimately unsatisfying. The characters end their journeys caught in a no-mans-land between relief and agony.

With all the talk today about the relationship between real-life violence and violence in the media, one can wonder why they should subject themselves to such stark portrayal of brutality. (And make no mistake, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance and brutal, with violence so intimate you have to wonder how thin the boundary between reality and performance is.) The answer is that these aren't celebrations of vengeance but occasions for asking important questions about an aspect of humanity that feels so natural and so wrong at the same time.

This week's screenings begin at 7:30pm. Thursday's screening of Stoker is complimentary for Dallas Film Society members. Non-members can enter a drawing for passes on Tuesday and Wednesday's events.

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Andrew Welch
Contact: Andrew Welch

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