Earlier this week, I wrote an article for the Dallas Observer on OldBoy and Lady Vengeance, two films by South Korean filmmaker, Park Chan-wook. I did the best I could with it but it didn’t have the specificity I wanted it to have. I’d like to correct that here by noting two moments–one from each film–that encapsulate why I appreciated both as much as I did.
The first, from OldBoy, is the long hallway fight sequence that pits the revenge-hungry Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) against an impossibly large gang of thugs. It’s filmed in a single take, and really, it would have to be to have the awe-inspiring power that I would imagine Park intends for it to. How are we to believe–I mean really believe–that Dae-su can single-handedly take all these guys on if the sequence is delivered to us piecemeal, with one quick cut after another? A rapidly edited fight sequence can be impressive, but it comes at the risk of magnifying the film’s artifice and calling attention to the limitations of its cast. A single-take moment like this not only demonstrates Park’s audacity and control over the details of his film, it also convinces us, in exhilarating fashion, that Dae-su is a machine or an animal, capable of almost anything. We’ll have to wait and see if Spike Lee gives us anything as mesmerizing as this in his upcoming remake.
The second moment comes at the end of Lady Vengeance, which I think is the better film and a genuine masterpiece. After hunting down and capturing the man who committed the crime Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) took the fall for (kidnapping and murdering a five-year-old boy) she convinces the parents who lost children to this monster to take gruesome justice into their own hands. Afterwards, the parents are appeased, but Geum-ja is no better off. If anything, she seems to be in a worse state. That’s good in one sense, because it shows us what Park must surely think of revenge–that the eye-for-an-eye impulse is natural but also deceptive; it can’t really bring satisfaction. If Park had left us with that, however, the movie wouldn’t have ended on the redemptive moment of Geum-ja offering her daughter a taste of a pure white cake before plunking her own face into, as if she were trying to swallow it whole.
It would be a comical moment if it weren’t so charged with meaning. Her action hearkens back to the opening, when Geum-ja, fresh from prison, refuses to eat from a block of tofu presented to her by a religious figure. Eating of the tofu would have signified fresh intentions to live a pure, holy life, but Geum-ja had other plans. Now, instead of coldly refusing purity, she attacks it vigorously, as if she’s starving. This one moment redeems, for me, the brutality of both OldBoy and Lady Vengeance. It signals Park’s recognition that, yes, there is another way; hatred and violence aren’t the only answer to tragedy, as natural as they might seem. It also demonstrates that no one is too far gone to reverse course and embrace what is good and holy.