(On DVD, November 2018) Park Chan-wook doesn’t mess around when it comes to vengeance stories, and Lady Vengeance is a masterful companion to the thematically-linked Old Boy. Telling us a highly melodramatic story about a young woman manipulated into accepting a prison sentence for a murder she did not commit, it’s a feature-length vengeance story with wild twists and turns, spectacular sequences and strong characters. It doesn’t pull punches when comes the time to show human depravity, and doesn’t try to paint even its heroine as being completely justified. Stylish but not duplicating other films from the same director, it’s an extreme character study as well, playing off our ideas of what good and evil looks like. Lady Vengeance may not be to everyone’s liking, but it’s a strong entry for thriller fans with the stomach to appreciate what it’s trying to do.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) Oh, what a fiendishly troubled family relationship is set up in Stoker‘s unapologetic gothic madness. Big foreboding house, dead father, crazy mother, troubled daughter and deranged uncle: it’s all there, along with generous helpings of tentative incest and confirmed murder. It takes a special kind of audience to play along, but director Park Chan-wook’s stylish direction means that everything look good even as the script makes no effort to be anything but a deep genre homage. The film surely takes its own time setting up all of its elements: Stoker is moody and contemplative at the best of time. It doesn’t help that the entire film exists in its own reality out of time, the characters living in personal orbits that have more to do with Hitchcockian homage than anything else. Mia Wasikowska is remarkable as the introspective teenage heroine, easily stealing the spotlight away from Nicole Kidman’s by-the-number deranged mother, but it’s Matthew Goode who gets the acclaim with his Anthony-Perkinsesque role as the visiting Uncle Charles, as his handsome features barely disguise a completely demented mind. The best moments of the film are in the heroine’s reactions to his psychopathy, as they take us farther from classical gothic thrillers and into something quite a bit more twisted. And then there’s the sumptuous direction, which imbues a great deal of class to a script that could have been handled as schlock in less-experienced hands. Where Stoker isn’t as successful is in doing anything with the elements at its disposition. Much of the third-act revelations are obvious, whereas what actually happens during the conclusion feels a bit flat despite the increasing amount of blood being spilled. Stoker makes more sense on a shot-per-shot basis than a sustained film, but the direction is so striking at times that it’s hard to be all that disappointed in the result.
(On DVD, September 2011) I really should have seen Oldboy earlier: Not only had it gotten widespread praise everywhere I looked, but I should know more about a popular director like Park Chan-wook. Oh well; there’s a time for everything, including watching Oldboy. From the get-go, we’re in interesting territory. Much like Quentin Tarantino, Chan-wook can’t help but play around with the grammar of cinema, and even the more familiar moments of the story have a cinephile kick to them. Not that there are many familiar moments, given the unusual premise: A seemingly ordinary man is held prisoner in a room for fifteen years, then abruptly released and encouraged to seek vengeance. The identity of the captor is a brief mystery as he quickly reveals himself to ask the hero to find out why he’s been held fifteen years. It’s easy to see why Oldboy got so much praise, with its mysteries upon mysteries, with a stylish sense of storytelling and a conclusion that upends the vengeance motif. Slickly executed and filled with odd little moments, this is a movie whose foreign origins make even better, as we’re plunged in contemporary South Korea for a thriller that would play just as effectively anywhere else. If, at times, it’s hard to differentiate between cultural barriers and the film’s elliptical sense of storytelling, it wraps up decently and doesn’t leave too many loose ends lying around. (On the other hand, the plot does get more and more far-fetched as it progresses, but given the premise, that’s to be expected.) Oldboy does live up to its great reviews; don’t wait as long as I did to see it.