25 August 2012
Hello: perhaps you don’t remember me, as it’s been so long since I last posted. I am the previously-prolific Feminéma who used to blog at length on movies and feminism while also quietly conducting research on leave from teaching. Now I am the cranky Feminéma who’s starting a new semester and dealing with university bureaucracy, and can barely watch a film without falling asleep.
Hence, my return to revenge films. Can you believe I’d never seen Oldboy before?
That’s right! so much for subtlety, literary dialogue, or nuanced character development. Teachers and professors, let me recommend that you soothe your weary tempers by falling into Park Chan-wook’s amazing, twisted, compelling, and occasionally gross-out tale of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik). Dae-su was kidnapped, brainwashed, and tortured for 15 years only to find himself suddenly and mysteriously released. Filled with fury — not to mention questions about who did this to him and why — he sets off on a crazy, brain-addled quest to avenge his lost years. A female sushi chef joins him in his quest (somewhat inexplicably).
It has the kinetic weirdness of a great Spaghetti Western. If you can stand a few really unwatchable horror scenes (isn’t this why we have hands? to put them in front of our faces?), Oldboy is how to survive the nonsense of the institutions we work for.
What is it about revenge tales, and why is Park so good at telling them? This is the second installment of his Vengeance Trilogy (preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, which I quite liked back when I was grading an awful lot of papers a couple of years ago). Is there something to be said here about South Korean culture and politics and the way these brilliant vengeance tales strike a particular chord?
They certainly strike a chord with me. The revenge narrative seems so cathartic because it so often features a protagonist who’s helpless to prevent something bad from happening — so, in response, he/she undertakes a strict regimen of physical and mental training to be ready to exact revenge. That single-minded pursuit, and the clarity of the vengeance motive … oh, I can’t tell you how gratifying it is for those of us who spent an hour on hold waiting for some university administrator.
But it’s not just the actual vengeance; it’s also the ragged edges. The fact that Dae-su is going crazy in his cell as his hair grows longer and frizzier. The fact that exacting revenge is fraught with ambivalence and new revelations about himself and his enemy, revelations that affect his mental clarity.
You see? The vengeance movie shows you that revenge is madness, and perhaps even unsatisfying or soul-destroying. Which is just what I need at the end of a long week, when I looked quite similar to that image of Dae-su, all crazy hair and teeth.
Ordinarily I would have cared more that the female role of Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong, above) is so lackluster, but hey, that would take some feminist ire that I’ve suppressed to get my full intake of vengeance vitamins. Maybe I’ll muster more bile for the Spike Lee remake of the film, reportedly starring Samuel L. Jackson. I promise you, friends, I have not lost the bile; it’s just a question of administering it to the truly deserving.
In the meantime it’s back to lecture-writing and making the longest to-do lists known to humankind. As much as I do love those regular wages, I tell ya: professoring really tests one’s capacity for institutional bullshit.
7 December 2010
Greetings from a world in which final papers and exams cover me like a heavy snow — and hence my long silence. And because the end of the semester always mounts a serious test of my general good will, I’ve found myself in the mood for a few good vengeance films. Who doesn’t love revenge? Writers, filmmakers, and actors have been exacting it satisfactorily for years. For those of you who haven’t quite mustered a holiday spirit just yet, I offer you Feminéma’s patented Film Therapy. (Ahhh. I feel better already.) I’ve got three very different films here, as we’ve all got different revenge fantasies and therapeutic needs — and I thought I’d throw a few in your way that you might not know about.
For those of you in the mood for something quirky, funny, and lacking in much physical violence: Shirley Barrett’s “Love Serenade” (1996). Who’s the most cringe-making: shy, weird Dimity (Miranda Otto, very much before her “Lord of the Rings” makeover) with her poor posture and her waitress job at the world’s most pathetic Chinese restaurant; her sister Vicki-Ann (Rebecca Frith), a hair stylist in their dingy little Australian town whose face screams, “I am desperate for a boyfriend”; or their new neighbor, a radio DJ/personality named Ken Sherry, kicked out of Brisbane after a messy divorce (George Shevtsov), who plays a lot of Barry White and who’s so sleazy that one needs a towel? (Sidebar: why do Australians so love to watch cringe-making people onscreen, perhaps even more than the English?) He seduces both of them but insists that there be no repercussions. He is so wrong.
For those of you who really need to snarl at the world before you’re ready to face all that Christmas music: The BBC miniseries of “Vanity Fair” (1998). Near the beginning of “Vanity Fair,” Becky Sharp (Natasha Little) says to her friend Amelia, “Revenge may be wicked, but it’s natural” — thereby summing up the differences between the two women. Whereas Amelia is a boring and note-for-note embodiment of all women were supposed to be (sweet, unimaginative, propertied, mannered), Becky…well, where does one begin? After being treated like crap due to her low upbringing, she feels a lot of anger; but she’s also a lot smarter than the wealthy people around her. Her eagerness to climb the social ladder manages to be transparent to most women, yet her shameless use of her beauty and sex appeal cloaks it for men. She’s no heroine; Thackeray makes sure of that with his subtitle, A Novel Without a Hero. The sneaky thing about that line is that it’s really Thackeray who exacts revenge, and the target is us — readers who expect happy endings, evil punished and good rewarded. The miniseries isn’t quite so bleak as Thackeray intended, but you find yourself enjoying the misery of its vain and foolish characters nevertheless. Script by the indomitable Andrew Davies. And for those of you who want a feminine version of old-school Clint Eastwood without the utter bloodbath that is “Kill Bill,” you clearly need Park Chan-wook’s “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (2005), the final film in his Vengeance Trilogy (which includes 2002’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and 2003’s “Oldboy”). Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae) is finally out of prison, and still has the angelic face and gentle manner that baffled everyone 13 years ago when she was found guilty of kidnapping and murdering a small boy. What they didn’t know was that the real murderer — a dastardly schoolteacher named Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik) — threatened to murder her baby daughter if she didn’t comply. But Geum-ja is no angel. She’s had vengeance on her mind for years and has done a pretty good job of settling other scores along the way. She circles her eyes with red eyeshadow; dons a pair of red high-heeled pumps; hunts down her daughter; and gets to work finding Baek. Okay, maybe it’s not quite Eastwood’s The Man With No Name trilogy … in fact, the film combines an unholy alliance of influences from David Lynch to Quentin Tarantino, without indulging in their excesses. But you’ll watch every single minute and feel pretty good in the end.
And with that, I’m prepared to return to those pages and pages and pages of student writing. This is hardly a comprehensive list, but perhaps it’ll cleanse your palate of whatever bile is keeping you from feeling generous. Finishing these movies even took me out of my office on a tour of my neighborhood’s cheesy holiday lights display — and now I’m prepared to answer the most annoying email requests for extensions, special accommodations, and outright gifts. But I might think about a different shade of eyeshadow for tomorrow.