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2005.09.30

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Alex

I've got tickets for the Sunday show - I'm looking forward to it. I was going to sit down and watch he first two again before seeing it, but I don’t think I have the emotional fortitude.

splattii

I saw it at the TIFF...thought it was by far the worst of the trilogy. Can't say I agree with this review at all, but that's the beauty of art isn't it?

splattii

I saw this at the TIFF last month. While I enjoyed it, I didn't think it was as good as OLDBOY or Mr Vengence. The other four people I went with agreed, except for one person who thought it may be better than OLDBOY. I can't really share the excitment found in this review. I actually thought SFLV was a bit of a let down. Still, that's the beauty of art. Everyone has a different take on it...

dvd

I didn't like Oldboy, but my hopes have been raised for this one, based on this review and others. And that poster - my God, that's beautiful!

phyrephox

Though I am working on my own review to this movie, I agree completely with Michael Sicinski's review from Toronto, which can be found here: http://www.geocities.com/michaelsicinski/TIFF2005.htm. I like the idea of filtering a melodrama through a revenge film--or a revenge film through a melodrama--but this film seems to border on reactionary ideology and classic traditional views of the problems of woman.

Filmbrain

If Mr. Sicinski is going to call SFLV reactionary, he needs to explain himself. He doesn't, at least in the review you link to. Right wing screed? Where?

What bothers me about the review (besides its smarmy, epistolary format) is that instead of offering a true critical analysis of the film, he gets hung up on plot points -- this is the shoddiest (and least interesting) form of film criticism. Asking what happens to the Australian parents is pointless, and reduces to the film to a McKee product. (As for the inmates, they all do serve a purpose, as you may recall.)

As for not problematizing the audience's bloodlust -- I think that's exactly what the film does, and does so well.

Sicinski also ignores (or is ignorant of) the culture that Park is part of. He seems to be looking at the film with a particularly "western" gaze. (And what's all this about "ritual" violence in SFMV?)

And that he accuses Park of rehashing Kill Bill -- well, do I really need to say anything to that?

His last sentence seems to indicate that Manohla Dargis' piece addresses SFLV -- and that is not the case. Maybe he should wait to hear what she says about this particular film before he pats himself on the back.

As for the use of melodrama -- well, perhaps one not well-versed in Korean film might find the melodramatic elements surprising, but you'll see it in nearly every genre in Korean cinema -- from comedy to horror, and everything in between.

md'a

I happen to agree with Michael Sicinski about SFLV, but I don't want to get into that here. Basically it boils down to whether or not you believe Park means to provoke in the viewer an ambivalent, conflicted response to Geum-ja's actions. Like Sicinski, I think he merely wants to create the impression that he does. But right now I'm more interested in a few ancillary matters.

(1) Sicinski's "review" does not get "hung up on plot points." He merely mentions in passing a couple of instances in which Park discards peripheral characters when they're no longer of use to him. I don't know what he's talking about regarding Geum-ja's fellow inmates, but I see his point about the foster parents, whose behavior is quite literally in-credible. But what I find annoying is your suggestion that it's somehow gauche or unsophisticated to even mention any kind of narrative lapse—as if film criticism that's neither formal nor thematic is simply irrelevant. Sure, a review that focuses solely on such niceties is going to be pretty useless, unless the film itself is quite shallow to begin with. But Sicinski's focus is very evidently elsewhere—namely, on the way that Park has increasingly been pandering to the fanboy crowd. Film by film, he finds himself coming to agree with Dargis' viewpoint, with which he initally found fault. Hence the "smarmy" epistolary framework. In any case, the notion that he's done little but bitch about superficial plot points is ludicrous. He doesn't develop his argument in much depth, it's true...but then, this is a capsule written in the midst of a film festival (at which he was often seeing five films per day), not a critical essay. For an example of what Sicinski can do in the latter format, I suggest picking up the current issues of Cinema Scope and Cineaste.

(2) "A particularly western gaze"? Gimme a fucking break. The air of self-congratulation in your suggestion that Sicinski and phyrephox, unlike you, haven't sufficiently immersed themselves in Korean culture, and therefore can't fully appreciate Park's achievement, is almost suffocating. I see this a lot in cinephiles who take an almost fetishistic interest in the product of one particular (almost invariably Asian) country, and am distressed to see it manifest itself here as well.

(3) Yes, you do need to respond to the Kill Bill comment—or, at least, you score no points by suggesting that it requires no response. Both films are elaborate, flashy revenge melodramas in which the female protagonist had an infant daughter taken from her. The similarities are obvious; the comparison almost inevitable. There are many ways in which the films differ, but it's not as if anyone that accuses Park's film of being a dumber variation on Tarantino's is automatically beneath contempt.

I don't meant to be harsh, because generally I enjoy your site and find you a valuable resource. But I think your partiality to Korean cinema has made you unproductively defensive in this instance.

Steve

I find it ironic that Manohla Dargis praises A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE in much the same terms other people have used to praise SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE. SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE is hardly the most progressive film ever made, but I do think it's deeply ambivalent about violence. The aftermath of the murder is a group of dejected, embarrassed-looking people walking out of the bakery. How is this different from the dinner that concludes A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE? I like A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE quite a bit, but why does Cronenberg get the benefit of the doubt most of the time while Park doesn't? Is it because there are too many "fanboys" in his audience, as there used to be in Cronenberg's? I can't remember Jonathan Rosebaum describing many less reputable genre directors as "troubled moralists who don't succumb to politically correct attitudes about violence." If Cronenberg or Clint Eastwood had filmed the same story as SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE, would people take it as a given that its attitude towards violence is complex and full of substance?

md'a

"The aftermath of the murder is a group of dejected, embarrassed-looking people walking out of the bakery. How is this different from the dinner that concludes A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE?"

Cronenberg's film is about identity, and its powerful final scene reflects that theme, not merely some generic "ambivalence about violence." And neither Cronenberg nor Eastwood would make a film as superficially flashy and kinetic as Park's, so their hypothetical SFLVs would be quite different.

Filmbrain

Mike --

It's a shame that someone such as yourself is reduced to casting aspersions as a means of defending a position (be it yours or Mr. Sicinski's). I hardly think it fair to accuse me of being self-congratulatory merely because I find the tendency by which some critics apply Western standards/values/morals on Asian films as highly irksome. My own experiences vis-à-vis Asian studies, living in Japan, etc. have never been a trump card for me, nor do I feel it necessary to immerse oneself in a culture just to "appreciate" a film.

That said, a little knowledge can and does go a long way. An example -- there were critics who either failed to see the socio-economic and political commentary in Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, or just glibly wrote them off as minor, half-baked, etc. Question -- should an international audience be expected to pick up on all these details? Perhaps not. As I stated in my review of A Good Lawyer's Wife, there is an entire subtext of social criticism at work in the film that went over my head, yet the core tale of a marriage falling apart was universal enough. At the same time, for me to mention that the wife's job as an English teacher in Happy End is a direct comment on the Korean economic crisis of the late 90's is not meant to equate to a "therefore I'm right" position, but can work as a useful tool when defending the film.

It's a cheap shot to call me a Korean film "fetishist" -- if you look at my reviews of this year alone, there were probably more Korean films that I was highly critical of than the reverse. (Not to mention the many films I didn't even bother to review.) I do believe there are a few Korean directors who are doing very interesting things in film right now, and my support of them is not blind "fanboy" allegiance. (For the record, I wasn't a big fan of Park's segment in the 3 Extremes omnibus.)

Sicinski's mere mention of the parents severely lowers the quality of the review, in my opinion. What good is this information to the people who haven't seen the film yet? (Or even those that have, for that matter.) It sort of reminds me of those who criticized Bubble because they knew who the killer was. To me, that's like attacking Bresson's actors for their lack of emotion. Different films require different ways of being looked at. Sure, if a film is truly guilty of a poorly thought out screenplay, then discussions of narrative lapse are worthwhile, but is it not clear that the fate of the Australian parents is about as relevant as what's in the suitcase in that Tarantino flick?

What also troubles me about the review is the closing -- how he calls SFLV "a repugnant piece of shit". While's Sicinski is entitled to write any kind of flippant expression he chooses, to do so in the framework of an open letter to Ms. Dargis (again, agreeing with her about a film she has yet to comment on), there's an air of "my opinion is better informed and more trustworthy, and if you disagree with me and Manohla you must be a fool.” Isn’t the need to justify a position by pointing to somebody else who agrees with you rather shallow? (Sort of reminds of former NYC Mayor Giuliani, who always used the line “And if you ask most people, you’ll find that they agree with me”.)

I've written elsewhere what I feel about the "fanboy" tag, but come on Mike...you can hardly accuse SFLV of pandering to the Harry Knowles' of the world.

As for Kill Bill, I'm sure there will be many who will compare/contrast. My reason for ignoring it is that they are chalk and cheese in my mind. Tarantino's epic is an "homage" (I'm being nice here) to Asian (and some Italian) cinema, and the film is a straightforward revenge tale. Woman is wronged, woman kills all who wronged her. SFLV is, as even you must admit, something far different.

I really don't wish to come down on Sicinski, and the only reason he's mentioned here is the link that phrephox provided. I do intend to read his pieces in the mags -- thanks for providing the info. Still, I would love for him to explain “eager to please”, “sacrifices not only rigor but coherence”, “right wing screed” etc.

Aaron Hillis

You were way too kind, Filmbrain.

Next time, Mr. D'Angelo, could you maybe take that superior tone down a few notches? Your character attacks (so which is Filmbrain, a valuable resource or a fetishist?) and inelaborate defenses of someone else's writings are pretty smug about having the final word on an obviously open-ended conversation. In my subjective reading, the final shot of A History of Violence is as much about identity as it is about ambivalence towards violence that can't be taken back, so why does either of us have to be "right?" I'd expect more professionalism from you, dude.

md'a

Okay, I apologize for the fetishism remark, which was out of line. But there's still a rank-pulling element in Filmbrain's response that I find irksome. Hillis accuses me of wanting the final word (which I don't see where he gets that, really, apart from I guess my authoritative tone), but it's the whole "your ignorance of the very specific cultural context here represented precludes blah blah blah" that seems more likely to halt conversation. Especially since no examples of Sicinski's alleged oversights or misunderstandings were provided. (I'll let him defend himself from here on out, if he cares to; I know he's aware of this thread.)

As for pandering to the AICN crowd, I do think that's what Park's been doing (and indeed I seem to recall SFMV being Harry Knowles' favorite movie of 2002). The existence of the "Asia Extreme" label tells you there's a fanbase for this sort of thing, and as someone who saw and quite liked JSA when it first premiered (I saw it at Berlin 2001) I've been disappointed by the direction Park's career has subsequently taken. "Cut" in particular I found virtually worthless, and I'm relieved to hear that you didn't like it much either. I look forward to reading your future thoughts on the new film, presumably when it goes into commercial release in the U.S. 'Cause right now I just don't see the incisive socio-political commentary you speak of.

msic

[THESE COMMENTS ARE RIFE WITH SPOILERS. MY APOLOGIES, IT IS UNAVOIDABLE.]

Well, I suppose I have to address this, and I'll try to be thorough as possible. And I'm sorry if I have to expound too much in your comments section. I'll honestly be as brief as I can. This is *your* blog, Filmbrain, and I'm not going to use your site to make my own critical points. Plus, your comments make it clear that you haven't much respect for my position, or possibly my intellect, such as it is. My (very informal) review obviously made you angry. And actually, I'll happily admit that my writing about SFLV is probably not by best work since the film made *me* very angry, and I didn't necessarily want to engage it at all. (Could we perhaps agree, at least, that neither of us does his best work in a rage?)

I'm not going to bother engaging issues of tone, except to say that I think it was pretty clear that I had been a Park supporter and am now starting to wonder what I ever saw in the guy. My smarmy epistle is in fact a self-criticism, and yes, it's an attempt at a joke since, like I said, in the midst of TIFF and lots of films I wanted to write about but didn't have time, I resented having to even contend with SFLV, which I feel spends most of its energy defending victims' rights to blood revenge and then, after exercising its bloodlust, makes some halfhearted gestures toward questioning this impulse. Too little, too late.

Even if we accept the premises of SFLV's world, outlandish though they may be, we are still left with some basic facts. Geum-ja and the detective collude to do something that I consider beyond the pale, that should by any real-world logic show them to be monsters. They show the killer's videos to the grieving parents. There is no world other than Park's jury-rigged, revenge-as-right universe in which this would occur, much less occur and be bypassed as an immoral act in itself, being treated like a neutral vehicle for the communication of the depth of the killer's evil. Subjecting the victims' families to this material is, in my opinion, an act whose moral repugnance is on par with the killings themselves, and yet while it is played for shock value and is indeed shown to be harrowing for all concerned, the film doesn't interrogate the immorality of this act. Just as Guem-ja's violence against the fat bull-dyke prisoner is excused as justified retaliation (and played for laughs, and by the way I do know a thing or two about Korean cinema's infamous tonal shifts and unless we're reduced to criticism-as-trainspotting we have to judge them, or the use of the melodramatic framework, on the basis of their formal and thematic appropriateness, not just "that's what Korean cinema does"), showing the families the videos is an act necessary to take their bloodlust to the next level, to make decent, ordinary people capable of taking turns torturing the murderer of their children. This is only excusable in a right-wing context, wherein capital punishment is good, and flipping the switch yourself is even better. Vengeance, for the overwhelming majority of this sequence, is shown to be an act of healing. (It's even played for laughs, although dark ones -- the line-up of family members waiting their turns in the chairs recalled the line of people in AIRPLANE! waiting to slap the hysterical passenger.)

And yes, after the deed is done, everyone is rather sullen, but is this in itself enough to problematize not only the acts they just committed, or Geum-ja and the detective's collusion in making them happen, but the audience response Park generates (by design) while the killer is being dispatched? When I wrote of violence as "ritual" in SFMV, I didn't mean harakiri or formal execution, but the sense that it is a joyless duty performed by men who feel constrained by social codes of honor and masculinity that they have to do things they don't really want to do. There is a solemnity and a regret that permeates SFMV's application of revenge, whereas LADY V revels in the pleasures of torturing the bad man and then, as a kind of Hail Mary, reminds us oh, Geum-ja has blood on her hands, her false imprisonment made her into what she most hated, how will this compromise her ability to be a mother, etc. None of this is very convincing. It is like an obligatory "sorry" after Park has spent thirty or so minutes making torture appear as righteous and as thrillingly cinematic as possible. (Similarly, the fact that the parents end the "celebration" by arranging to get their ransom money back does not reflect a tonal shift, a veer into black comedy that would underscore the parents' venality -- not that this would be preferable, mind you -- but instead it's just shown matter-of-factly, as something odd but, in context, comprehensible.)

This is why I think the film is right-wing. Where is the critique of vengeance? How does the film imply that these families are not in some small way healed by killing the killer? Frankly, if this question has specific valence in Korean culture that I am not aware of, that is an academic point at best. I do not think every film can *only* be understood in its specific cultural context, although that certainly deepens one's understanding. If I am imposing Western values onto LADY V, that is only because I reject a knee-jerk multiculti relativism that says that maybe capital punishment is not so wrong in other cultures with different value systems, etc. (I'm not calling you knee-jerk, Filmbrain. I'm speaking more generally about attitudes I encountered while in the academy, that basically took all manner of heinous activity -- from capital punishment to female circumcision and caste divisions -- off the table of critique.)

Anyway, I have gone on way too long as it is. I could expound on the film's formal failings, how Park will throw in any visual idea just to look cool and provide a thrill (horizontal wipes, Fincheresque animations, etc) or how he uses the Australian family as a cheap joke, which is my real objection (not that I think the film should focus on the white people more [!!!] but that if this film is as emotionally ambivalent as its proponents claim it is, shouldn't Jenny's adoptive parents, or for that matter Jenny herself, be more than a mechanical function in a plot machine? I am in a bind since to adequately address all of your objections to my LADY V piece, I would have to ramble even more, well beyond the boundaries of blog-comment courtesy. (If you would care to continue this discussion via email, I'm willing, and would even happily form the result into a point-counterpoint adjunct to my piece on my website. I figure you have better things to do, but hey, I may as well offer.)

Finally, a concession -- you are an Asian cinema specialist, and I am a generalist. I don't think this means I see all Asian films though a Western gaze, although to some extent that's inevitable. It's something I try to be cognizant of at all times, without, as I mention above, lapsing into relativism. But you are more well-versed in Korean cinema than I am. But I've seen my fair share of South Korean films (none from the North, sad to say) and am qualified to evaluate them as a part of the "global village" of cinema. In being a generalist (as opposed to sticking to my area of expertise -- believe it or not, I have a few of them), one always risks looking like a rank amateur. Better than staying "off the res," as they say. But I seriously doubt that any amount of cultural context will make me think Park's alleged critique of revenge is anything more than glib lip-service. Sorry, I believe this is a victims' rights film, and I'm morally opposed to it.

Again, my apologies for this liberal use of your comments space.

pixel

Mr. Sicinski,

I'm not going to debate the relative morality or immorality of SFLV, but I do find a flaw in your assertion that victim's families are never shown, or never desire to see, the evidence of the crime.

Murderers rarely document their crimes, but when they do, as in the case of Lake and Ng in California in the mid-80's, this material is certainly shown in court and shared with the victim's families:

http://www.cnn.com/US/9902/24/charles.ng.trial/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Lake

The 9/11 emergency response tapes, which document in horrific detail the last moments of dozens of people lives, were only released after lawsuits and intense pressure brought upon officials by victims families:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8926416/

During the Q&A session after the 9/30 screening of SFLV at NYFF, Park was asked why we're not told anything about the teacher's motivation or past. Park responded that he finds such explanations trite and unconvincing. He wanted to portray the teacher as "pure evil", a black screen upon which you can't project meaning or explanation, so that you're left only with Guem-ja's actions to judge and make sense of.

Steve

As I've said elsewhere, I think A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE has far more to say about identity than violence, so I largely agree with Mike. Nevertheless, that final shot does strike me as a parallel to some of the closing moments of LADY VENGEANCE.

I'm not arguing that Park is a genius or that all of his films are good. While I like JSA moderately and think SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE is a near-masterpiece (Sicinsk's review is the best thing I've read about it - Filmbrain really ought to take a look at it), OLDBOY and CUT really do bear out his reputation for empty flash. For me, LADY VENGEANCE lies somewhere in between SYMPATHY and OLDBOY. Nor do I find its treatment of violence un-problematic: I was pissed off by the murder of the lesbian and the way it's played for laughs. Leaving aside moral grounds, many of the tonal changes of the first half simply don't work. (THE PRESIDENT'S LAST BANG pulls them off better, if not entirely successfully.) Nevertheless, I find the last hour extremely moving and disturbing: I don't think the notes of regret are simply tokenism; they're central to the film's project. When I saw it with a couple friends in Toronto, one of them immediately said afterwards "It's a pro-capital punishment movie!" At the time, I thought that was the most simplistic reaction one could have to it, but I could see that it would be fairly common.

Filmbrain

Michael --

First off, no need to apologize for the length of your post. The comments are here for that very reason, and I really appreciate you taking the time to respond.

The bulk of your response is a perfect launching pad for a discussion of the film, and the issues raised are exactly the things I didn't want to write about in my review, given that the film has been seen by so few. [Spoilers follow!]

I couldn't agree more with you about the shock (for lack of a better word) of the final act. The detective's involvement immediately forces us to ask questions about vigilante justice, the role of the law, etc. However, whereas you see Park as being complicit in this (and thereby conclude that the film is a right wing screed), I see it as the exact opposite. The fact that Park explores these acts of (as you correctly call them) moral repugnance does not equate to a support of them. That he didn't interrogate the immorality is one of those key differences between East/West, and a topic that can be discussed to great length (but not at the moment!)

...showing the families the videos is an act necessary to take their bloodlust to the next level, to make decent, ordinary people capable of taking turns torturing the murderer of their children. This is only excusable in a right-wing context, wherein capital punishment is good, and flipping the switch yourself is even better.

In theory, this is correct, and on a personal political level I agree with you. I'm strongly against capital punishment, but I fail to see how this film is a defense of it. The fact that people can be manipulated/coerced/driven to commit horrific acts of vengeance is what Park is exploring here, and as a parent I found the scenes almost too much to bear. Are we all sure that we would stand by our convictions in such a situation? Who can say?

At the press conference the other day, Park stated the he noticed a big difference towards revenge in West vs. East – specifically that in the West, the one that exacts revenge often walks away the hero -- contented, satisfied, happy. (He used The Count of Monte Cristo as an example.) In the East, the opposite is more often the case, with the individual often ruined by their acts.

While it's easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to the film ("it's pro-capital punishment!") I choose to give Park the benefit of the doubt -- at least find him innocent until proven guilty. This isn't a Charles Bronson film or Man on Fire -- films with questionable politics. Park has stated that he feels revenge is something that all of us are capable of, and while the film might be somewhat of a provocation, I feel it's better served to think it through rather than flippantly write it off. It's not like Park has a history of making right wing films. In fact, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance with its criticism of the callousness of the upper class, the division between rich and poor, and the political underground is really quite a left-leaning film.

Naturally, I found myself thinking of M, and the mock trial that ends that film (again by parents of murdered children). Is Fritz Lang's film therefore also reactionary and a support of mob justice? (For that matter are violent war films all pro-war?)

The absence of a critique of vengeance is what led you to believe the film is reactionary. But do we need a lesson by Park (or any director for that matter)? Can we not come up with that conclusion on our own? Personally, I prefer a morally ambiguous film that results in personal reflection, thought, or even heated debate. A film that wags its finger and tells me "revenge is wrong" is boring at best.

md'a

The difference between SFLV and M seems pretty clear to me. Look at the difference between the way Lorre's character is treated and the way Choi's character is treated. Which of them seems more human? Can you imagine Lang characterizing his killer as "pure evil," as pixel says Park did?

Glenn Kenny

I see that "fanboy" is now to professional film reviewers what "pretentious" is to yuppies who didn't much like what they just saw at the Angelika.

md'a

Or, say, what "yuppies" is to...oh, skip it.

Glenn Kenny

OOf! And so I stagger backward, reeling from the unstoppable force of D'Angelo's "authoritative tone..."

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