Saturday, March 11, 2006

The State of the Art

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[OldBoy: Daesu eats a live octopus before an awestruck Mido [left], and later screws the girl [right], only to discover something so devastating about her that he’d ask the first asshole who comes along to “shoot him in the head.”]

Revenge is a dish best served cold.

I first saw that line in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather; some decades later, Quentin Tarantino’s marketers would use it as slogan for Kill Bill.

And some years after Kill Bill, I would slather those same words on my own birthday cake.

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[November 14, 2005]

“That is such a strange cake,” said somebody who saw it.

I thought I was being funny. What was funny was that I paid for it, I chose it, simply because I could. I felt good because it proved I could comfortably choose to be a real idiot, as opposed to being naturally idiotic most of the time. That cake was some sort of “controlled” idiocy; something I could separate from myself and stare and marvel at and chuckle over.

It was something over which I could chide myself, “Darn. You’re so bad you’re good!”

But right then, when she said how strange it was, it made me stop.

Because, after all, it was self-mockery. It was me telling myself all my bubbles of self-delusion can be popped with a needle. It was me showing to myself I can do anything on my birthday, even the weirdest, most exceedingly outlandish piece of shit.

But her disgust made me ask: Why is vengeance bad, and justice good? Isn’t it the same burning animal?

Vengeance is a very profitable commodity itself; you see, read, watch it everywhere. There’s something about people that drives them to always want to get even.

Personally, I’m not really a vengeful fellow; I’d usually just stand around the guy who pissed me off and scratch what itches. When it comes to physical trouble, I’m the first one to sound the retreat. But that doesn’t mean I’m all nice; show me to a cockpit with lots of buttons, with each of those buttons capable of launching a missile to any city I might fancy. It would probably take me some seconds browsing Google Earth to choose my target and I’d be a happy kid.

In other words, give me a chance, and I’ll shove this planet deep in my pocket.

But so is the guy next to me. And so is my mother. And so is this kid next door who shows up at my living room most mornings and tells me, “I’ll kick your ass when I grow up. Just you wait.”

Take Korean director Chan-wook Park. He is a man who thrives on the terrific idea of vengeance. It’s easy to imagine him in a cave, stirring together the juices from a thousand tragedies, cackling like a witch. He’s probably made billions of Korean won out of his oeuvre that includes three films I love for many mixed reasons: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.

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[UK poster of the film]

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance has the weakest story of the three. It’s about a girl with an unbelievably lovely face, but behind that face is desperation that’s both so contrived and so self-consuming. The story’s one of those things that aspire to appear “cute” and “terrifying” at the same time. It’s in fact a grand Rube Goldberg contraption—for having so many things that beg for stupid questions. For example, why does the main character need a fancy, double-barreled revolver—a project that requires making friends with other characters that could fashion such a fancy, double-barreled revolver—only to see in the end that she wouldn’t even need the gun; that the gun turns out to be useful only as an afterthought. In a negative way, it somehow reminds me of Ricky Lee’s Trip to Quiapo metaphor: here’s this girl who wants to kill somebody next door, but instead of sharpening the axes, she goes to France, watches an opera, flies to Brazil to buy a kilo of weed, and comes home and... and… and still kills the bad guy with a balloon.

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[Lee Young-ae as Lady Vengeance]

But while my blather seems to point to the Exit, I’d still say this number’s the “prettiest”; anything that stars Lee Young-ae of A Jewel in the Palace becomes golden, anyway. Before the film is over, you would have already forgiven the whole thing for her sake.

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[One of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance's nuts: Seeing her come out on the screen for the first time, this was exactly how I reacted]

In Oldboy, we find somebody like Daesu, swimming in confusion and in his own piss. He finds himself imprisoned for fifteen years in a motel room, and in all those years, he’d bear the endless hours watching a mind-numbing TV show and asking himself, “Why?”

Why, indeed.

So he writes down the names of everybody he might have offended in the past. He comes up with dozens of names because, hey, this guy’s like me, he’s pissed off everybody. He goes all the way back to grade school, to former jobs, former lives, trying to pick out a name.

And for the mean time, somebody murders his wife and his daughter vanishes. He sees all these things only on the news on TV and all he could do is bang his head on the wall and cling on desperately to his hallucinations.

And when he comes out after fifteen years, all he sees is this clock ticking. All he sees is this life, and how it’s heartbreakingly short. It’s over before you notice it, before you realize the hours have some worth. And this love, even if it arrives now, it’s already doomed. Doomed for arriving too fucking late.

He gets his answers in the end, but like many things in our lives, those answers are not the things he would have wanted.

But the thing that placed Chan-wook Park in the radar screen was Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, his first critically acclaimed “vengeance” film.

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[Rep. Joel Villanueva...err, I mean, Ryu doing his "stupid gaze"]

It stars a character named Ryu, a deaf-mute who has an uncanny resemblance to Eddie Villanueva’s son. Ryu’s sister needs a new kidney, or else she’s dead—and that’s something the fellow would never want to happen. And I believe him; you take one look at her sister and you feel like going to the nearest bank and robbing it for her sake. But Ryu’s not smart enough and lucky enough to find his way out--heck, if you have any brain, why in hell would you dye your hair yellow-green?

Soon, he hits one wall after another, with people around him dying in the process.

Soon, the film’s exceedingly painful theme unravels like a festering wound.

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[Spectacle: The last murderer smokes a cigarette as he watches his victim slowly die.]

The point of these stories is simple, Chan-wook Park says on his three films. Vengeance is utterly futile, that’s why some smart aleck thousands of years ago reinvented it into something that’s easier to swallow; in ancient times, when somebody from another tribe killed one of your own, you and your cousins could slaughter the offender’s tribe—all of them. Later, some genius prick realized it was too much work, and suggested, “Let’s revise it and agree on a simpler line; something like an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

And the rest of humanity said, “Okay.”

These days, people like Katrina Legarda call it “justice.”

These days, it’s what Filipino bishops call “unbelievable shit.”

On my birthday some months ago, that was what stared at me in the face. And something else, some new question: Why is it really strange to choose something outrageously different? The baker earlier that day could not—would not—even understand what I want. When I dictated on the phone the sweet, sweet words I want written on that cake, she could not—she would not—believe it.

“Sir, are you serious?” She asked me that line five times. She was probably expecting something along the lines of, “Dear Hugh Hefner, here’s some sweet thing for the sweetest day of the year.”

Instead, she got some shit about revenge being a dish best served cold. Dang!

“Sir, are you serious?” she asked me.

I said yes; she only relaxed when I said I’m sending it as a "nasty joke" to the neighbor who accidentally killed my pet duck. I guess in her universe, as well as in the universe of most ordinary folks, you can only talk about these things with a target. You can’t hate without finding first a target for that hatred. You can’t be poor without blaming the president of the Philippines. Or your father.

That night, as the folks in our house were laughing hysterically over the goddamn cake, I saw that the only slice left was that particular part with the word “revenge” on it. I sampled a dollop of the cake’s icing with my finger, and tasted it. And relished it. And discovered that all those soap operas were right, all those brutal stories were right.

“Revenge” is “sweet,” after all.

For similar posts, see Random Acts of Strangeness.

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