Park Chan-Wook, director of Oldboy, this year’s grand prix winner at Cannes, has vengeance on his mind. Again.
Currently shooting Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the final installment in his “revenge trilogy” (2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was the first), Park will take a break from postproduction to bring his violent epic to this year’s Sundance film festival where “Cut,” Park’s short horror piece filmed as part of the three-director feature Three... Extremes, will also appear.
Park became a superstar in the world of Korean film with his second feature, Joint Security Area (2000), which at one time was the biggest box office grosser in Korean cinema history. Afterwards, Park became bleaker and bloodier with Sympathy, a hardboiled kidnapping tale with what he describes as “cold, flat, pessimistic” characters.
Sympathy didn’t fare as well in ticket sales, but it helped build his international rep, culminating in the director’s surprise invitation to the Cannes competition where jury president Quentin Tarantino marshaled enthusiastic international support for Oldboy.
It’s difficult to talk about Oldboy’s labyrinthine plot without tossing off one spoiler after another, but the skeletal version goes something like this: Husband and father Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is inexplicably kidnapped one day and imprisoned in a room containing only a toilet, a bed and a television. Over 15 years of isolation, Dae-su morphs into a hardened wild man, obsessed with escaping and one day meting out revenge on his mysterious captors. Meanwhile, he learns via TV news that his wife has been murdered and that he’s the prime suspect. One day, just as inexplicably as his imprisonment, Dae-su is released but given one juicy caveat: he has five days to figure out why he was imprisoned.
Though Dae-su and his captor, Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae), are nominally the film’s main characters, Park’s complex narrative structure and bold stylistics, which mix intense bursts of violence, odd animation and hallucinatory flashbacks, steals the show. “Time is very important to this film,” Park says. “Playing with non-linear time can be a cliché, but in Oldboy the characters are haunted by the issue of vengeance, which has hindered their emotional development. They are obsessed with something that happened years ago.”
Park continues, “Oldboy is a film not entirely based on the real. It’s not necessarily a film that takes place in Seoul [South Korea] in the 21st century. I used dreamlike conventions and mythological references to place this film into a surreal world. Maybe I have a romantic notion of cinema, but in Korea, film is somewhat myth-like anyway. There is what happens in the ‘real world,’ and there is what happens in the ‘film world.’ This isn’t to say that there isn’t a connection [between the two], though.”
The approach towards retribution offered in Sympathy, says Park, “dealt with the differences and problems of society and class. Capitalism in Korean society has created a situation where the haves and have-nots are standing face to face — there is real tension, a class struggle, and this tension isn’t taken seriously enough. Oldboy, however, addresses vengeance “at a much more personal level.” Lady Vengeance will complete his trilogy, combining, Park says, the approaches of the first two installments though perhaps employing a softer style. “I hope to keep this film simple and maintain a sense of purity. So instead of showing a lot of the physical violence, like in Oldboy, I hope to show more of the internal rage and atonement of the main character in Lady Vengeance.”
Park’s cinematic focus on inner range stems, in part, from his appreciation of the films of Robert Aldrich and Ingmar Bergman. “I’m very interested in the way they deal with conventions of ethics and social violence,” he says. “When I think of Bergman, I am impressed by the way he handles physical violence, which is to not show it. Rather, he deals with violence and tension as internal conflicts contained in the characters’ minds.”
Oldboy will be released this winter by Tartan USA, the new American arm of the provocative U.K. distributor Metro Tartan. And while Oldboy hits the arthouse screens, filmmaker Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow) is developing a U.S. remake with Nicholas Cage in the lead role.
Additional reporting by Han Chong-sok and Kim Sun-hyung of Kyungman University in South Korea.