Altered States

Park Chan-wook's Incomplete, Amoral Visions
by Simon Abrams  posted March 8, 2013
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South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook's aesthetic vision is typically amoral. Stoker, Park's new film and his first feature filmed entirely in English, concerns the innate, quasi-incestuous bond that tethers an uncle to his estranged niece, played respectively by Matthew Goode and Mia Wasikowska. The fact that Park's lead protagonists are related by blood doesn't make their not-quite-romance inherently good or bad. Instead, the two characters feel a kinship for each other because they're essentially both sociopaths. Wasikowska's character, India Stoker, even introduces herself to viewers by saying that she feels alienated from everyone around her: she knows that she can see farther, and hear more sounds than most people.

India's character arc is defined by the emotional turmoil she experiences after her father dies mysteriously. But the fact that we are only introduced to India once her father is already dead is telling. There is no normative point of reference for us to initially refer back to. Like fellow Hitchcock worshipper Brian De Palma, Park loves shocking viewers with indecipherable information, and then slowly giving them the details they need to understand what and why they've seen what they've seen. Park's movies are as vital as they are because they celebrate the act of seeing things through self-limiting points-of-view. Park is often drawn to obsessive and emotionally unbalanced characters because their myopic lack of perspective and frequent mood shifts makes it easier to accept a multiplicity of ideas instead of any one character's take on events. There are no authority figures in Park's films, only hurt people looking for relief in new ideas.



Stoker is like Oldboy is like J.S.A.:Joint Security Area is like I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK insofar as each film treats hallucinations, daydreams, and momentary lapses of sanity as equally realistic states of being. In Thirst, Park's liberal 2009 adaptation of Emile Zola's Therese Raquin, Ok-bin Kim's unhappy housewife is alarmed at how much pleasure she gets from being bitten by Kang-ho Song's vampire priest. As Song dips his fangs back into a wound on Kim's shoulder, she gasps, "Are other women like this? Am I a pervert?" Kim's lack of perspective is alarming here for the same reason that the Pollyanna-like naivete of Lady Vengeance's Christian priest (Byeong-ok Kim) is funny. He's shocked when Young-Ae Lee's supposedly reformed is released from jail on parole, and she tells him to go screw himself. Kim's priest, an overzealous, sexually frustrated man with a Prince Valiant bowl cut, can't process being rejected: isn't this woman Kind-Hearted Geum-ja Lee (Lee), the model prisoner that's famous for the a saint-like halo of light that naturally emanates from her face? Yes and no: Geum-ja is first introduced to us as a revenge-obsessed woman, and then a woman that unnaturally preaches tolerance and Christian reform.  


Lady Vengeance

Park mocks religion in Lady Vengeance because for him, faith is too monochromatic a lens through which to see the world. By contrast, Song's priest in Thirst is immediately sympathetic because, while he tells a suicidal congregant that suicide is a sin, he practically helps her by encouraging her to seek out anti-depressants, and try to forget the people that hurt her. Once characters stop seeing themselves as a jumble of conflicting emotions, and start suppressing their instinctive urges, they become objects of ridicule for Park. Without a dogmatic understanding of the world, Park's characters are free to see and do that much more. Kim's protagonist in Thirst could just as easily be speaking for Lee's anti-heroine in Lady Vengeance when she declares matter-of-factly, "I don't have faith; I'm not going to Hell." In Thirst, vampirism is not just an affliction, but also a means of expanding one's consciousness. 

Thirst and Lady Vengeance are both relatively mature expressions of Park's typical themes. If you were to take a chronological look at Park's films, you'd see that Park's films have inexorably become more surreal. The queasy, whimsical tone of I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, a 2006 romantic comedy set in a mental institution, contrasts sharply with the relatively level-headed J.S.A.:Joint Security Area, a 2000 drama about the arbitrary nature of North and South Korean tension along the DMZ border. But both films are essentially reliant on a lack of resolution that emphasizes present events over the future. Characters that learn to better understand each other, or their own personal manias, rarely profit from that greater sense of understanding. 



In J.S.A.:Joint Security Area, two soldiers learn that the geographical border that separates two countries is meaningless, but that doesn't meant that they can can stay best friends. And in Oldboy, the second and most famous film in Park's famous "Revenge" trilogy, Min-sik Choi's Dae-su Oh learns who is tormenting, and therefore why they're hurting him, but that only leads to unpleasant revelations that he can't live with. So Dae-su voluntarily brainwashes himself, limiting his point-of-view for the sake of managing his pain. It's not just a coping mechanism, but an acknowledgment that American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox was right when she wrote, "Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone," a phrase that haunts Dae-su throughout Oldboy. To return to society, Dae-su has to forget everything he's learned. It's an unsettling conclusion to one of Park's most satisfying thrillers.

Similarly, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first film in Park's Revenge cycle, is probably the most accessible film of that trilogy because it's the most firmly grounded in present-tense immediacy. Its narrative is also comparatively straight-forward, which is striking given that the biggest revelations in Park's films are usually iruptive, interrupting the flow of information for its own sake. Two men, one rich and one poor, seek revenge, each one scheming in such a way that they don't realize until it's too late that their respective avenging quests are related. 
At the same time, while Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is more realistic than some of Park's more recent films, that doesn't mean it's any less reliant on operatic role reversals, or a lack of closure. Knowledge still isn't inherently empowering in Mr. Vengeance, another highlight of Park's exceptional body of work. The most shocking acts of violence in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance are as effective as they are because they're reliant on the withholding of key bits of visual information, as in the terrifying scene where one character severs the other's Achilles tendons, and leaves him stranded neck-deep in a stream. First we see an antihero we've grown to care about over the course of Park's film harming another antihero. It's unclear what's happening since the water obscures our view. Then we see the second man, a victim, writhing in pain, but again can't exactly make out why. Finally, Park plunges us underwater, and we see the source of his anguish: his legs have literally been cut out from under him.


Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Characters in Park's films are only relatively better or worse than each other, but in a movie like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, it's impossible to harshly judge antagonists that essentially share the same motives. Likewise, I'm a Cyborg But That's OK, Park's most divisive film, highlights two lovers that feel a kinship for each other because they're both terrified at the thought of being abandoned. K-pop star Rain grows to understand Soo-jung Im's robot-obsessed patient because his own mental illness lets him absorb other people's personalities by eating other mental patients' personal items. But once Rain has a breakthrough that might potentially allow him to cure Im of the delusion that she's a robot that was made to destroy the world, no major change in the film's tonally-unbalanced status quo occurs. 

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK's final scene is one of the most poignant in Park's films because it suggests that sometimes it's OK to wait for a change that may or may not ever happen. The film's two lovers sit in a rainstorm, and, with a lightning rod on-hand, wait for Im's visions of the end of the world to come true. We know her self-destructive dreams won't happen though once Park pans to the top of Im's lightning rod and shows us a wine cork at its peak. It's an especially gratifying revelation because the cork was stolen a few scenes prior to this one, and because that knowledge makes the couple's rain-soaked vigil that much more quixotic. Here are two people that don't, and maybe can't, see eye-to-eye with each other. They share a moment together, alone with their competing thoughts, and that's it. Park has always taken great pains to shock his viewers into a greater sense of recognition, but that tendency never been as better than Cyborg's ending, where seeing more of the world is not as important as knowing that there is more to see.  



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Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and a freelance film critic who writes for such outlets as the Village Voice, Esquire, and

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