Thursday, November 4, 2010

The thin line between Entertainment and War: Notes on Korean cinema and the pop-art abyss

The following statement is considered entirely logical by today's standards:

“I believe in a Christian god because I believe it and that's my right.”

The following is also considered perfectly sane:

“I absolutely love this movie because I believe it and that's my right.”

However the next sentence is considered to be an outrageous, xenophobic claim:

“I think Korean cinema is puerile because I believe it and that's my right.”

Most rational people (who gave a damn) would point out to the holder of the last opinion that perhaps they had not taken in all the facts, that they were being a little too willing to judge an entire culture's artistic output in a certain light.

Whereas someone who questions the second opinion, someone who asks for justifications for a particular point of view on a film could be seen as arrogant and pig-headed. After all, a movie is just a movie and it really doesn't matter why you like it, or who likes it.

Someone who disputes the first claim is generally considered a jerk. Someone who outright demands a Christian provide proofs for their assertions of blind faith, to rationalise a belief in such an unlikely and irrational deity is a sort of pigheaded atheist bore.

I'm not making a point for atheism here, I'm trying to outline the sensitive rhetoric of opinion that so cripples authentic aesthetic discussion in these baffling years of moral relativism. What I'm outlining is a battlefield where I will sight the beast, shoulder my carbine rifle and put three slugs (the semi-automatic three count CRAK-CRAK-CRAK) in the guts of the high art/low art debate. Not enough to stop this insensate beast, but surely enough to warrant some kind of honorific.

Personally, I've always wanted to be a grand poobah of something. It just SOUNDS right.

Scrutiny for Lady Vengeance

This was originally a review of Park Chanwook's film Sympathy for Lady Vengeance but as I researched my topic it grew into something much more complex. To best summarise my dilemma, I quote Nathan Lee's review of the film from the New York Times:

His puppet people and phony plots are an excuse for rhetorical showboating, neither a source of human value nor the medium of legitimate ethical inquiry.

That's why the story of "Lady Vengeance" is such a convoluted hodge-podge of time frames, subplots and bit player back stories. That's why Geum-ja's ordeal elicits no sympathy. That's why the ending is trite, not transgressive.

Now, I completely agree with the criticism of Chanwook's film given above – problem is, I also really liked the film in question.

Now before I go off on my rhetorical dialectic I would like to give a quick review of the film in question: Park Chanwook's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is not a complex film. One might be fooled by the segmented plot (which unlikely Hollywood product occurs in three distinct sections with three distinct thematic events, reminiscent of a novel or TV serial) and the moral complexity of the actions undertaken by the protagonist (elevating the characters within to an archetypal status) but I would like to point out another movie with segmented plot and morally complex characters whose status is not misunderstood as Lady Vengeance's. Ginger Snaps 2.

Not to belabour the point, but the climax of Ginger Snaps 2 is a morally complex and ultimately transparent parable that asks whether it is madness, reason or beast-like instinct that drives humanity to the extremes of violence. Except with werewolves.


Jack Nicholson pictured here at the 2008 Academy Awards

Foreign pulp is the new arthouse

In all the reviews I read, both for and against Chanwook's film, there was never a tacit claim on the film's pulp status. Which makes me want to slap my head in disbelief. I mean, it's right there in the title, one of the most beloved tropes of the pulp/cult classic canon – the revenging she-devil. Yet every review either clucked their tongues in disapproval or proclaimed how 'riveting' and 'visceral' the film was. Somewhere between the post-production and the American release something happened to completely retard the normal cinema viewing process – and it happens in the bottom eighth of the screen at constant intervals. The subtitles.

There's an interesting moment in the director's commentary of El Mariachi where Rodrigeuz talks about the reception of his movie at a film festival. He noticed that the patrons in the cinema were busily nodding their heads throughout the movie, and he often overheard them talking about the 'moral complexity' of his b-grade exploitation flick. I don't mean to overstep my mark here but this is exactly what is going on in the case of Lady Vengeance. This movie is a beautifully shot pulp/cult joyride and doesn't pretend to be anything else. Just because it's part of a 'trilogy' doesn't mean it must be a work of profound artistic merit – it just means the director didn't develop artistically from his last two movies (George Romero I'm talking to you.) (Not that you're listening, but still.)

Every law is local

There is something unique about this film that displays a character I would tentatively outline as a recurring element of Korean drama – that is, the ability to underpin what are often overly melodramatic narratives with moments of surreal and absurdist comic devices. The sharp cuts in Lady Vengeance are some of the most perfect examples of cut-away comedy I can possibly recall. There is one beautiful moment when a group of killers wait in a line outside a room of their intended victim. They begin to discuss exchanging murder weapons and the techniques they will use to execute their revenge, all with a improbable awkwardness that wracked my body with laughter. This otherwise bleak and improbable story is elevated by moments of stillness and comedy to a level above the shlock of Hollywood.


It's a lovely thing to watch a Korean film occur. The narrative logic employed is so foreign to the logic of Hollywood that is a confusing delight to unwatch the story unfold. It is a storytelling aesthetic best compared to the devices of anime and manga, wherein very serious, intellectually probing melodramas are told via the medium of improbable, cartoonish elements (such as giant robots, gun toting samurai or naïve immortals). It is the pairing of the tragic and the comic, of the mature and the immature that gives these stories (and in my opinion, Lady Vengeance) their appeal and their character. A somewhat confronting blend of high and low art.

Which brings me full circle. The dialectic of high and low art is such a Eurocentric, self-defeating argument one wonders why we persist to perpetuate the myth. The terms can only make sense if one looks at the literature of one culture. If one inserts outsider voices into the mix the whole sham falls apart.

If one considers the position of, say, a Korean film into this high/low art dichotomy one immediately begins to identify an unfair cultural bias that discredits the production of new voices within the canon. The reviewer is tempted to forget that this film MIGHT NOT BE MADE FOR THEM and the literary tropes and devices within the work might carry different significance from another cultural perspective. Perhaps it is accepted shorthand in the Korean tradition to display character depth not through dialogue and internal conflict, but by having the bastard DO something and let the audience second guess their true motives. Doesn't matter. Point is, there's no good film or bad film – nor are there good portrayals or bad portrayals, only stylistically different ones.

And it is this last point I want to make the most stridently. We all back away from artistic debate because we think that no one is allowed to be wrong in the wars concerning intention. Which. Is. Bullshit. There's still failure, there's still misconception, there's still a reason to pass judgement on art. Cos art ain't art unless some bugger's trying to kick its damn legs out. Art's just entertainment that bears up under scrutiny – same as morality is an action that can sustain a critical enquiry.

Our Lady of Vengeance

The first impulse I had after watching Lady Vengeance was to write an article that discussed the previously mentioned absurdist elements as indicative of Korean cinema – but I soon realised this would be incredibly ignorant as my experience of the culture was limited to a dozen or so movies. I thought it would be disrespectful to use a limited perspective to inform a broader view of something as important and as difficult to define as Korean cinema culture. Which seems a little ironic considering the sweeping generalisations I have made above.

Darcy Paquet, reviewing Lady Vengeance on, had this to say:

Lady Vengeance might feel rather subdued, even lackadaisical, for some viewers with a built-in expectation bred by Park's previous works. Its narrative might strike other viewers as meandering and unfocused. Yet others might take issue with the subplot involving Geum-ja's daughter … Despite these potential flaws, however, in Lady Vengeance we are again presented with a unique vision of hybrid cinema, the kind of which we are not likely to see anywhere in the world, not to mention Korea.

If I had to recommend a film by Chunwook I would put the excellent Thirst above this film, but wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing it. As for the statement above, while I disagree with the glowing review Paquet gives it I have to agree with his assertion that this is “a unique vision of hybrid cinema” and well worth a look.

Furthermore, I would invite you as an audience to exercise some critical acumen regarding your own reception of the movie. We all know the best way to watch a movie is without preconceptions, but perhaps you will find it rewarding to interrogate the cultural tensions that may inform your opinion before you get a chance to see the movie.

So pull up a comfy chair and sit down to Lady Vengeance: it's like a bowl of cut watermelon and blood orange; sweet and refreshing, but not all that filling.


Daniel East: not a pipe.

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