There is one scene from Sympathy for Mr Vengeance which summarises why I like Park Chan-wook so much – Ryu sits in his dingy room helplessly while his ailing sister moans in pain and the boys next door masturbate listening to it.
But that’s not how he shows it. What we see is a row of masturbating young men who are trying to keep up their illusion by touching each other selectively and by looking at pornographic images put at the back of the guy in front. They have pressed their ears to the wall, and we can hear in the background what appears to be the moaning of an orgasm. The camera keeps drifting, and we have some time to think about the scene at hand to allow us to detach ourselves with casual deprecation. Then we come to Ryu’s room to find him sitting on a chair with the kind of detachment that can come only from utter despair, and we find his ailing sister moaning in pain on the floor.
Now we have to judge those young men again in light of our previous impression.
Just another scene calculated to shock? Yes, but there is more that Park Chan-wook conveys here. Those masturbating young men, they are not perverts, they are common human beings just like you and me. Their lives are our lives, and that is all there is to life.
It is an undeniable fact that the shock-value is one of the main selling points of his movies, but patterns emerge when one puts everything together in order to understand them. The worlds he creates are an indirect critique on the one we live in, and corruption is the theme it is built on. I like his portrayals so much because they happen to coincide with my own discouraging view of the human kind. His characters are neither heroes nor villains, they are individuals driven by existential despair towards their uncertain and brutal ends. The brutality is both physical and mental. It is best expressed in his own words - In my films, I focus on pain and fear. The fear just before an act of violence and the pain after. This applies to the perpetrators as well as the victims.
His movies can be seen and interpreted literally, but I often find scenes which can be metaphorically interpreted, which, at the same time being graphic and stylistic enough to daze the audience, subtly bring out the existential theme of his world and blend it with the theme of his movie, often vengeance. The depth of his movies does not lie in the theme or the content; It lies in the outlook, the insight they offer.
If one were to evaluate him objectively, Old Boy should be his best work till date (I haven’t seen I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK), the one where he perfected his cinematic style finally, but somehow I find Sympathy for Mr Vengeance a bit closer to my heart.
While Mr Vengeance is far from Old Boy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance in terms of the cinematic style and techniques he is famous for, he clearly anticipates himself stylistically in this grim and depressing tale.
Park Chan-wook has sometimes been criticised for the extremism in his movies, but in the end that is what sets him apart. There is an integrity to the way he creates his corrupt worlds. That is the key to understand his movies, to overcome the moral ambiguity of his characters and understand that being corrupt is not being evil.
It reminds me of what Damien had to say in The Final Conflict (Omen III) – Most people confuse evil with their own trivial lusts and perversions. Now, true evil is as pure as innocence. Chan-wook’s movies are not about what we in our illusion of grandeur consider evil, it’s about the trivial lusts and perversions that actually underline our lives.