Monday, July 15, 2013

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

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

By Rowena Santos Aquino

Continuing the collapse of the boundaries between filmmaking and real life, when the director comes to, he finds his hands tied behind his back and cinched at the waist with a red band to curtail his movement and his wife gagged and her seated body woven into the piano as if condemned to play the instrument for all eternity. But as a shot reveals, what looks to be their home, where the unnamed avenger first appears, is actually the film set used at the beginning of the film. Who is the director and who is the actor now?

The avenger answers this question soon enough. When the director says to the extra to take everything he wants, the latter expresses disappointment and replies that the director should not have given up so early in order to play well his role of the male victim character, on whom his wife must depend for her release.

The extra then tries to remind the director who he is and their relation by acting out a series of roles that he has played as an extra in his films, including performing a short dance number. While laughable on the surface, this face-to-face encounter between the two men references the hierarchy of power and control in the film industry through their respective vocations as a director and extra. By extension, this director-extra set-up belies the not-so-laughable hierarchy that is class difference, or class division. The extra betrays incrementally that he has deeply internalised this socioeconomic and abstract wrong, to the point of transforming his destitute status into the direct effect of the director’s economic well-being and moral goodness. Topped with his good looks, the extra reasons, what chance do guys like him have in the average world, let alone in the film industry?

As Joseph Tomkins and Julie A. Wilson argue, in Park's films, revenge is often the narrative hinge to address and represent class difference/division. Nowhere does this idea achieve a purer expression than in Cut. The revenge situation presented here is distilled through the direct and physical face-to-face encounter. At one point during this encounter, the extra chokes the director as he emotionally narrates his life of paucity, alcoholism, wife beating and remorse. Here, too, the revenge situation's kinship to torture is quite explicit because the power difference translated into subjecting the other to pain is so graphic and clear. Torture's relentless logic of an abstract wrong individualized, humiliation, breaking a body and spiri, and confession under duress are all fully operational in the extra’s revenge scheme. In a way, revenge is an ideal audiovisual and philosophical trope for the kind of corporeal cinema that Park wants to make so that the spectator is physically spent by film’s end.


As already mentioned, the revenge act here is greatly fetishized and spectacularized with the extra as the ringmaster performing it on a film set and consciously referencing plot clichés. On this note, because of the film's self-reflexivity, Park infuses this otherwise horrific situation between two human beings (though actually four) with morbid comical gothic details that invite a reading of Cut as a parody of the revenge film, in particular Park's vengeance trilogy that he was still in the process of making at the time. Some of Cut’s details reference or anticipate details from the individual features. Across the three films that make up the trilogy, with the exception of Lady Vengeance, the trope of revenge among a group of characters is a segue to a cycle of violence and Dantean damnation for all. More specifically, Cut references the feud-like back-and-forth revenge acts of Oldboy, so that revenge becomes self-sustaining like an organism that ends up controlling the characters, and anticipates the motivation for revenge in Lady Vengeance. During the extra’s revenge scheme, he unveils to the director a child whom he will force the director to kill. The child turns out to be the extra’s son, who witnesses the death of his father and thus vows revenge.

Recall also that Park once admitted in a 2006 interview that he had never meant to make a trilogy, and somehow rashly made a statement about Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy being a part of a triptych to rationalise back-to-back revenge-themed films to the press, so that the trilogy ‘owes its conception to Korean journalists’ (Jaafar). That he made Cut the way he did makes it a bit like a wink-wink aside to himself, the Korean film industry and Korean journalists.

In addition, the repetition of elements of staging and direction, the play with gender and the female vampire earlier mentioned not only suggests the film being a parody of itself and of Park’s other vengeance films but also continues the thread of blurring the boundaries between film and life. Park’s use of repetition here is one of the film’s visual highlights because it sets up the equation of art and life, performance and self. In turn, this equation feeds into the extra’s choreographed revenge scheme and puts him in the director’s chair, literally.

The film’s play with gender echoed twice is flamboyant in the first instance and unexpected in the second instance. As the director is on his way out of the film set at the beginning, he bumps into an actor decked out in a schoolgirl’s uniform and with braids to boot. As a standalone detail, it seems absolutely gratuitous, if comical. Yet later in the film, when the director is forced to choke the child brought by the extra as a part of his revenge scheme, the child’s hair falls to the ground to show that the ‘girl’ is in fact the extra’s son. Seemingly minor plot details, but highly potent visual ones.

The same goes for the element of a female vampire, which certainly fulfills Park’s visceral, bodily cinema represented by the vengeance trilogy and also what will come to be Thirst (2009). Kim Ok-bin’s character of Tae-joo in Thirst can in fact be read as a fusion of the parallel characters of the vampire (played by Yeom Jeong-ah) in the film-within-the-film and of the director’s wife in Cut. In the film-within-the-film, the vampire sucks on a victim, plays the piano, and then vomits out blood that has reached its expiration date; in the extra’s revenge scheme, the wife bites the perpetrator’s jugular while her body is still confined to the piano and then spews out the blood once freed, the two elaborating a role-reversal of sorts of victim and perpetrator. In this sense, Thirst is a significant reference with regards to this element in particular and to Cut’s notable place in Park’s filmography in general.

Read Part I

Works Cited

Choe, Steve, ‘Love Your Enemies: Revenge and Forgiveness in Films by Park Chan-wook,’ Korean Studies 33 (2009): 29-51.

Jaafar, Ali, ‘Interview: Park Chan-wook,’ Sight & Sound (February 2006): <>.

Tomkins, Joseph and Julie A. Wilson, ‘The Political Unconscious of Park Chan-wook: The Logic of Revenge and the Structures of Global Capitalism,’ Post Script 27: 3 (June 2008): 69-81.

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