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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Revenge Week: Filmic Self-reflexivity and Revenge in Park Chan-wook’s Cut (2004) - Part I

Part of MKC's Revenge Week (July 8-14, 2013).

By Rowena Santos Aquino

We all know what revenge is as an act: a self-serving system that goes beyond in the absence of, or rejects, institutional justice. In short, when one has been wronged physically and emotionally or has witnessed another experience, and acts privately and accordingly, based on one’s ethical line, to punish who has committed that wrong. As film scholar Steve Choe writes, ‘Vengeance requires the existence of a past transgression or trauma, which demands that it be met with equal compensation in the present’ (30). Even more summary still, revenge is about personally ‘getting even’ and (idealistically) bringing about a moral parity but often through immoral ways.

Outside the definition of the act itself, what revenge is in cinema is perhaps another thing. In the context of the substantial number of films on the theme of revenge in Korean cinema, does it denote a genre or rather more specifically a narrative trope that accommodates all genres and vice-versa? Does it (also) denote a particular cinematic style, like film noir, with characteristics that involve the spectacularisation of violence to define the act of revenge, which also accommodates all genres and vice-versa? In the very well-known case of Kim Ji-woon’s 2005 film A Bittersweet Life, which involves a high-ranking gangster who descends into an abyss of revenge when he does not follow his boss’ order and gets punished and then instinctively fights back, the ‘revenge film’ is about both narrative trope and style. The same could be said regarding an earlier, lesser-discussed case but one that pushes the envelope of filmic style and self-reflexivity and revenge as narrative trope: Park Chan-wook’s 2004 short film Cut, his contribution to the omnibus film Three Extremes (2004).


In a 2006 interview, Park describes his so-called ‘vengeance’ trilogy thus: ‘If Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance [2002] dealt with social issues and Old Boy [2003] was mythical then [Sympathy For] Lady Vengeance [2005] is a fairytale. And humour plays a key role in making it fairytale-like’ (Jaafar). If Cut were to make the cut, as it were, and transform Park’s trilogy effectively and ultimately into a quadrilogy, how does it deal with revenge specifically and distinctively in comparison to the above-mentioned films? Cut is a continuation as well as a variation of the narrative structures of Park’s vengeance trilogy, though the subject of how it is so has yet to be fully considered. Surprising, since Cut is sandwiched right in the middle of the making of these feature films, as is evident in their release years.

Given Cut’s short format, there is an instinct perhaps to shortchange it, as if it were merely a rough sketch of what could be a feature film. But Cut is as compelling a work you can get not only on the theme of revenge but also on filmmaking and the blurred boundaries between art and life, regardless of running time. It is arguably one of Park’s most distilled, playful and self-reflexive films, already implied in its title, due partly to its brisk forty minutes. It manages to weave together the issues of filmic self-reflexivity and form in terms of repetition and gothic style, and the narrative trope of revenge as an elaboration of class difference/divisions, in a way that is nearly astonishing, by situating its two male characters in a face-to-face encounter of power, humiliation, self-pity, narcissism and masculine rationale in one space. It is self-reflexive both inside and outside the film: by making transparent staging, direction and style, and the use of repetition and by referencing (arguably even to the point of parody) Park’s own vengeance trilogy in the making at the time, the privileging of revenge as a narrative trope in contemporary Korean cinema, and how contemporary Korean cinema has often been reduced to this ‘extreme’ trope in world cinema terms. In retrospect, Cut is already evidently self-reflexive in the sense that it comes to us under the ‘extreme’ moniker of the omnibus title Three Extremes.


Cut’s filmic self-reflexivity involves the collapse of boundaries between film and real life and rendering transparent film techniques and performance. Park constructs this self-reflexivity through the trope of revenge enacted by an extra (Im Won-hee) on a director (Lee Byeong-heon). The film begins with the director shooting a scene for what is obviously a vampire film. When the scene wraps, one gets a brief behind-the-scenes glimpse of the set and film crew at work as the director is on his way out. Banal as it may seem, this portion of the film anticipates what will happen in the rest of the film in that elements of this portion will be repeated later in the representation of the revenge act, namely, staging and direction, the play with gender and the female vampire. To further make explicit the film's collapse of the boundaries between film and real life, when the director arrives at his home, we realize that the film set just recently seen is an exact replica of his house, as he so ticklishly mentions to his wife (Kang Hye-jung) on the phone on his way home.

In his 1625 essay ‘On Revenge,’ English philosopher Francis Bacon writes about the revenge act, ‘Some, when they take revenge, are desirous, the party should know, whence it cometh. This is the more generous. For the delight seemeth to be, not so much in doing the hurt, as in making the party repent.’ In contemporary Korean films with revenge plots, the dramatic draw stems in part from the fact that ‘whence it cometh’ is unknown to the receiving party, all the better to spectacularize violence, pain, the abusive exercise of power and suffering, and to make the avenger the one in the right and awe-inspiring regardless of transgressing ethics. Repentance is but an afterthought in most revenge situations, such as in Park’s vengeance films, A Bittersweet Life, Bedevilled (2010) or I Saw The Devil (2010), if at all. The same goes for Cut. An extra who has worked multiple times for the director begins his revenge scheme for the director and his wife by catching the director unawares at home. The rest of the film is about the fetishization and spectacularization of the revenge act.

Part II will be published soon.

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