August 30, 2005


Park Chan-Wook's second movie, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCEPark Chan-Wook's second movie, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, is a pretty amazing film. It's not very enjoyable, and seeing it once is enough for most people, but it's hard to argue that it's not provocative and worth seeing. Unfortunately, many American critics just don't like it. It made about US$21,000 in its first couple of weeks in release, with a respectable per screen average of US$2-$3,000 and while some critics have sung its praises, I've been surprised at the number of critics who not only don't like it, but who just don't get it and aren't interested in getting it.

Maybe the movie is too Korean for them, maybe it's because OLDBOY was bound to generate some backlash and we're seeing it now, but I've been surprised at how many critics can't seem to see a serious movie here. Park Chan-Wook, for better or worse, is a serious director. He's not interested in cashing in, nor is he interested in exploiting trends or making movies that do nothing more than entertain (although there's nothing wrong with simple entertainment).

His first big film was JSA, a movie that went on to be a Korean blockbuster but was so unpopular when it was being made that his production office was actually occupied and his crew held hostage by Korean Army vets who objected to the movie. When JSA went on to be a mammoth success he used that as a blank check to make SYMPATHY, a grim relentless probing at societal decay and movie violence that audiences stayed away from in droves. Undeterred by total financial failure he announced that he would now make a "revenge trilogy" and produced OLDBOY which became a surprise hit. Then he ditched the comic book violence of OLDBOY to make the stripped-down SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE, a movie about emotional violence rather than the graphic kind that made him so much money and won him so much acclaim with OLDBOY.

But US critics can't seem to accord Park's movies the same benefit of the doubt that they give to a brittle ironist like Wes Anderson, a navel-gazer like Jim Jarmusch or even a "he was great once, but oh, what happened" nod that they give the now-doddering Robert Altman. SYMPATHY is not a complicated film to understand, but there seems to be a willed blindness to its rather obvious point on behalf of critics who don't like it.

The usually-perceptive Owen Gleiberman in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY suggests that SYMPATHY is "brutality for brutality's sake" after raving about the great insights into humanity given to us all by Quentin Tarantino's RESERVOIR DOGS, one of the most entertaining, and most shallow, movies ever made.

Brendan Bernhard of LA WEEKLY seems to think he's watching a revenge thriller designed to jiggle his adrenal gland, finds the movie lacking in the excitement category, and spends the rest of the short review lambasting Hamish McAlpine of Tartan (the movie's US distributors) for his anti-American views.

Manohla Dargis in the New York Times rejects the movie as pointless because, if I'm reading correctly, the images of violence are too beautiful and the virtuosity of the director is too readily apparent. This is a very American response (beautiful violence has always gotten up the noses of US critics: from THE WILD BUNCH to Peter Greenaway's films) and here she seems to feel it negates empathy for the characters onscreen.

There's a summary of more critical responses here, and you can see some of the good reviews here, but it does dazzle me that so many critics seem unable to grasp Park's simple point: revenge is essentially dehumanizing; the violence you think will make you feel better does nothing more than numb you and turn good people into monsters. I don't think this is that complicated to grasp, and I don't think it's a message that is exactly hidden deep inside SYMPATHY. The movie practically screams this point from every frame.

What's interesting is that so many well-educated, cultured members of the critical community complain that there's no point to the movie, and that it's meaningless, but a populist film geek like Harry Knowles of AIN'T IT COOL easily grasps the movie and goes on to call it the best of 2002.  How come Harry gets it, but supposedly more serious critics don't? Whether they like the message of the movie or not is up to them, but to suggest there's no message is just, well, pointless.

August 30, 2005 at 11:19 AM in News | Permalink


I wonder if the last paragraph of your entry may hold the hidden answer to its own question. Could it be that some (or all) of these big-time print critics are aware of Harry's early and enthusiastic championing of Park's film, and that this colors their own reactions, even subconsciously (they don't want to appear to be following in the groove of such a disreputable internet critic)? There appears to be almost a purposefulness in the collective "not getting it" that an anti-AICN backlash might help explain.

Posted by: Brian | Aug 30, 2005 1:57:03 PM

"SYMPATHY, a grim relentless probing at societal decay and movie violence that audiences stayed away from in droves."

SYMPATHY is an extremely black comedy.

Posted by: Steve | Aug 30, 2005 7:01:36 PM

I share your wonder at the number of generally smart American critics who can't see any point to SYMPATHY (my own review was an attempt to jump into the debate, even if I didn't cite anyone else by name), but Harry Knowles' comments really say absolutely nothing, except that he likes it. He really, really, really likes it. There's about 4 sentences of content amidst a river of drool. I wouldn't characterize Jarmusch's DEAD MAN and GHOST DOG as navel-gazing either: the former is one of the most radical revisionist Westerns ever made and the latter is like Tarantino if he really gave a damn about exploring issues of race and culture.

Posted by: Steve | Aug 30, 2005 9:26:22 PM

I'll admit it: I've never gotten Jim Jarmusch. I like the guy an awful lot as a movie person, he always seems to come across as intelligent and really interesting. But I just can't click with his movies.

However, calling him a navel-gazer is just downright mean, and I did it to be cruel.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Aug 31, 2005 7:19:02 AM

Well, one thing is for sure.
Korean critics, free of online self-proclaimed critic and cineaste such as Knowles, clearly got the film and most of them included the film in their top 10 lists for the year 2002.

Is this movie so esoteric to its locality that only the Korean audience can get it?
Its cinematic brillance overshadowed by its brooding violence displayed between disparate Korean social classes?
I really don't that is the case.
A great film ought to transcend race, region and religions.
And this is a great if not perfect film.

Brian might be onto something. Something quite tangible yet credible.
Harry Knowles, whom selected mediocre 'Taegukgi' as the best of 2004 film, is singlehandedly undermining the Korean films' possible entrance into the mainstream US living rooms by praising and giving unheralded and unproven thumbs up to most if not all Korean films.
If he really loves Korean cinema, perhaps he ought to write less about it.

BTW, Silmido and Taegukgi didn't (possibly couldn't) make the top 10 picks for most of Korean critics.

Posted by: maanbong | Sep 1, 2005 2:12:49 AM

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