Only the Lonely

In Park Chan-wook's moody operatic films, the grisly violence is an afterthought.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 30, 2005

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Back with a Vengeance: Sympathy won the Jury Award for Best Film at the 2003 Philadelphia Film Festival, but was never shown in theaters here.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Includes: Commentary track (in Korean!), trailer, photo gallery.
You'll Like It If You Like: Asian action movies, Chungking Express, Oldboy.


Is anyone lonelier than the lost souls of Asian cinema? No matter how different their styles and films, directors like Wong Kar-Wai, John Woo, Edward Yang and Park Chan-wook envision a modern world full of color and feeling but starved for human connections.

Their characters drift through cold cityscapes filled with bright fluorescent lights that seem like a cruel mockery of light and cheer. Sex and violence are the only ways to reach out to each other, to break through the sterile surfaces.

If you've seen Lost in Translation, you know this mood secondhand. As strong as Sofia Coppola's Oscar-winning indie hit is, it stole its aura and colors from Asian cinema (the languorous, wistful films of Wong Kar-Wai and Chen Kaige) yet stripped away the vivid, sometimes grisly action that makes some of these movies more than a hazy drift.

The DVD release of Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance-which won the Jury Award for Best Film at the 2003 Philadelphia Film Festival but has never been shown in theaters here-is a key event for Asian cinema, especially since Park's Oldboy, made after Vengeance, has become a cult favorite for fans of both Asian action and world art cinema.

Like other Park movies, Vengeance combines the fierce revenge tragedy of a Jacobean play with the moony romanticism, lonely-souls vibe and cold urban surfaces of its Asian film cousins. What the R rating calls "strong gruesome violence" feels in context more aestheticized. An unforgettable scene in which a geyser of blood shoots out of someone's neck seems part of a painterly scheme.

Like his fellow Asian auteurs, Park offers a world reimagined by cinema-not just the slams and bams of a Bruckheimer-style action movie, but a moody, operatic environment in which film has a purpose and an aesthetic specificity: to open up the strangeness of the world, to show us the emotions and menace of what lies right in front of us every day.

Sticking his camera at odd angles, filling his frame with greens and blues and yellows, stranding his characters in cavernous Citizen Kane-like deep spaces, Park wants us to see the world in a new way-or maybe in the same old way-and to not take it for granted.

The movie's violence isn't gratuitous, and it isn't of the blow-things-up and blow-people-away style either. It's all about bodies, about waking up to our physicality in an almost spiritual, pantheistic way.

In one of the movie's many striking tableaux, a man slices into his skin. At first nothing happens. Gradually, almost in slow motion, the lines he etched begin to drip blood, and then he pulls down his white T-shirt. The blood blooms through his shirt like a visible violation of innocence, until the red finally wins out over the white.

Vengeance is especially cohesive and satisfying because its story is about bodies and communication too. Park's metaphors aren't just stuck onto a story about something else (or about nothing else but gangsters shooting each other up and pining for their lost loves, as often seems to be the case in John Woo movies).

Ryu, the deaf/mute green-haired hero, loses his kidney (and a large amount of money) to black marketeers who promise they'll give him a kidney for his dying sister. Because he then needs money for his sister's real transplant, his anarchist girlfriend decides to kidnap the daughters of a suburban industrialist. As you can imagine, many things go wrong and many people wind up dead in the kind of blood-soaked tragedy of vengeance upon vengeance that links Asian action movies to ancient traditions of Homeric epics, 17th-century revenge dramas and centuries of opera plots.

Yet violence feels secondary in Vengeance, an afterthought to regrets, mistakes and inconsolable heartaches. Park creates a middle ground between the wistful urban anxiety of Wong Kar-Wai and Edward Yang and the more violent tradition of John Woo-especially since Ryu and the industrialist become the kind of fate-driven doppelgangers familiar from Woo movies. One thinks he's an active driver of his own destiny; the other seems to be a passive vehicle of other people's destinies. But both are ultimately reduced to what we all are: bodies and blood.

Slutty Summer

Don't let the title fool you-this isn't a hardcore porno. It's a pleasant romantic comedy about Markus, a young New York City guy who breaks up with his long-term boyfriend (who, caught naked on the floor with another man, cries, "This is not what it looks like!"). The movie centers on the people at the restaurant where Markus works: Luke, a madcap slut; Peter, an earnest shy guy looking for romance; Julian, a hot foreign model; and Marilyn, a borderline alcoholic who can't find love. As summer passes Markus gets involved with Julian and considers taking back his cheatin' man, while his friends fall in and out of romances and find their own methods of happiness. Shot on location in the East Village in only 14 days, Casper Andreas' film has an enjoyably breezy style, as well as believable emotional issues. It's written and acted more convincingly than many similar gay-romance movies, especially given that most of the cast had little or no experience. (Jesse Archer, who's especially good as Luke, also contributes an excellent DVD extra, in which he asks various Chelsea boys questions about sex and dating.) If it doesn't quite have the range of Bedrooms and Hallways, it's close to a gay male Go Fish, with a similarly strong sense of place and believable characters to root for. B+

Includes: Commentary track, deleted scenes, screen tests, interviews, outtakes and more.

You'll Like It If You Like: Gay comedies, romantic comedies, New York City movies.

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