Better the Second Time

On sharing our favorite media and the Korean New Wave

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As a modern nerd, I can no longer make generalities about my nerddom experiences and expect everyone to nod along. In fact, I wouldn’t want to. Also, nerddom is a terrible term, as with anything which interpolates “nerd,” but with more severe affect, as it’s encroaching on connotations of royalty or domination, and that’s counterintuitive. But one thing I like to think of as a constant in nerddom is the arc of finding one’s nerd community. It was, for me, a near-lifelong process, dotted by false starts and curveballs and dead ends. It isn’t easy to bring the people you love into your sequestered world. It’s probably like the proverbial “bringing your boyfriend or girlfriend to meet your parents,” though as a nerd, I wouldn’t know. See? Nerds are having babies these days.

On my own, I discovered the media which spoke to me and then I compulsively shared it with as many people as possible, stopping short of anime, in turn save Akira and Ghost in the Shell. One of my friends back in high school liked Ghost in the Shell (1995) but mostly turned his nose up at Stand Alone Complex. Anime is a tricky one, kids. My favorite to share was Korean New Wave, a sort of nebulous label I nevertheless found useful. My introduction to it was The Host, which I learned about from, of all people, the Angry Video Game Nerd, helpfully dating this to the mid-to-late 2000s. Shortly thereafter, a friend showed me Oldboy, and I met my absolute favorite weapon: Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy.

I showed episodes of the Trilogy to every last friend I could (maybe three in total?), and looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking. A recent, adulthood review of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance revealed one of the most heartless, stomach-churning assaults I’ve ever reckoned with, utterly lacking the toothy irony of Miike or the rejectable pretensions of Noe. That little girl floats and it fucked me up — a movie I’d seen as a high schooler probably a dozen times. Back then, it was my favorite of the three, I think because it was possessed of the sheerest raw power, perhaps the rawest sheer power. I recognized it back then, but understood it differently. It was edgy, the way the movie near-opens with a fraternity of naked men masturbating to the moans of a dying woman an apartment wall away. And who could forget the baseball bat scene? Quentin Tarantino sure didn’t, and weren’t we all delighted by the homage in his Inglorious Basterds in 2009?

Long considering Lady Vengeance the weak link, I soon reverted to Oldboy as the premier tear-and-share, and at that point, I’m not sure if my eagerness to share these movies came from a place of good or evil. Because I doubt I’ve enjoyed a movie as much as I did when watching Oldboy with QNA cohost Donovan over Rabbit, a long-threatened encounter that had him wailing in shock at cinema’s dirtiest twist reveal. It’s an infamous one, a shocker twist that cannot possibly lose its sheen unless social norms and mores shift tragically in the near future. Some things will always be taboo.

Watching people watching movies, even at a remove (Rabbit is a sort-of screen-sharing service), is more enjoyable to me than watching movies alone — but only after the curation. I don’t really like seeing movies in the theater with other people, but that’s mostly because I like to stuff my face with popcorn and — what are those things? — Nestle crunches? Unless it’s a for-serious movie. So, for example, I was practically trembling when my sister mentioned off-hand she wanted to get into the John Wick movies, because I know she’d love them, and I love them, too. I started running it through my head how it would go down, that the first movie would almost be the hurdle, because it lacks the bombast of Chapter 3. How would I, hypothetically, “coach” her through that, managing expectations set by a broad online discourse? Of course, this is only hypothetical, because my sister and I live 3,000 miles away.

It’s been an age that I’ve been able to share movies in person. I’m thankful for things like Rabbit, though Donovan’s plan to watch Johnny Mnemonic together remains ever stalled. I may have to watch it again to make sure it’d be up his alley. Back in high school, when I both had friends and was physically proximous, it was easy. But I was also a real shithead, even without the Vengeance Trilogy. A girl-friend of mine was also into movies, and we’d go on to attend separate film schools. She knew her stuff, and yet I still had this compulsion to “educate” her (I know, this is awful, and I have since apologized) in the film canon, while simultaneously circumnavigating her own suggestions (I know, this is awful — oh, I already said that. It bears repeating).

That said, she didn’t have a specific canon of her own, so when it was her hand on the remote, we mostly went adventuring, something I do not do. I do not watch a movie unless I know everything about it, a habit I’ve only recently been trying to break. So we endured some pretty bad indie movies like Cashback and In the Land of Blood and Honey (if Angelina Jolie directed it, is it really an indie?), just barely skirting treacly titles like Wristcutters: A Love Story (hurl!). So all told, I “educated” her with Joint Security Area, Blade Runner, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Boyz n the Hood, some of the movies I felt everyone should watch. Movies I later realized are all very male-centered, like a lot of any given film “canon,” and the trouble with “canon” to begin with, and that’s before it gets the Triforce.

Something I’ll always remember from sessions like these was the moment before something important would happen on-screen. We’d mostly be talking through the movie anyway, but when Oh Dae-su eats the octopus, you better be paying attention or I’ll have a stroke. In retrospect, I don’t know why I’d so often shoot up with that eager anxiety. What is it I wanted from their reactions? What was I trying to gain? I truly hope it isn’t some sort of pseudo-social media thing, where the showing of the film reflects back on the show-er. It’s cool how Oh Dae-su eats the octopus, but it does not make me cool. I may have suffered that delusion as an already perpetually confused teen, especially before I knew how smart the octopus is. Do not harm the octopus.

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I was a remarkably curious student of film in college, not to any real standard, but to my own: these days, I can’t watch movies unless I’m on a plane. That’s the only way I’m gonna watch Widows, but damn was that a good movie. However, back then, early Netflix streaming was serving me up with Wong Kar Wai’s entire catalogue, Park’s Thirst and I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Okay, and neighboring Korean movies I’d also come to love, like I Saw the Devil and Memories of Murder. I’ve gone on to appreciate a lot of these movies, though there were disappointments (A Bittersweet Life, what happened?), and Park in particular as a master stylist. His most recent film, The Handmaiden, may not be his best, but it solidly indicates a talent at its peak.

What is his best film, I hear you query, quietly, almost afraid to ask? Well, that’s Lady Vengeance by a country mile. Any other superlatives we can lay at Guem-Ja’s red pumps? I’d say it gives Children of Men a strong run at best of its decade. I think it’s the best film to come out of South Korea (though I haven’t really kept up with the output in recent years). And while I personally favor Joint Security Area, also by Park, Lady Vengeance is a swift uppercut to the groin that left me in tears when I reviewed it last year for the first time in many, many years.

The narrative is too simple, and media critics fall in line with a simple narrative like Pavlov rang a bell*. Lady Vengeance was the capstone of an accidental trilogy, as Park made two vengeance-themed movies in a row, the second of which, Oldboy, rocketed him to international acclaim. He decided to round it out nice, leading the filmgoer to question the integrity of pretense behind Lady Vengeance. And while Oldboy is a loud favorite, and Mr. Vengeance is the aforementioned assault, what does Lady Vengeance have to distinguish it? This was disappointing to me back then, because of course I wanted to love a movie called Lady Vengeance more than anything, and perhaps I was nursing a little crush-erino on the lead, a little crush-erino that hasn’t actually subsided.

But for one, Lady Vengeance is incomprehensible. Even now, I don’t fully understand what’s going on, or rather, what the point of it is. But on the most recent viewing, I hooked into the daughter character as an emotional vector and that pulled me into a wholly new experience.

If you can find that hook, I’m hoping you can get past its context in the Trilogy and its lack of overt character. No, Guem-Ja doesn’t beat up a hallway of thugs with a hammer or cut someone’s Achilles’ heel underwater so they drown. I’m not even sure why “extreme violence” equates to “character” in my mind, but of course I’m sure why. The eponymous Lady Vengeance is stylish as fuck, and she tromps around with those pumps in a wintry Seoul that is in turn hauntingly beautiful and delightfully surreal. How’s that for film criticism? “In turn,” “hauntingly beautiful.” Five stars, me.

The question is whether or not Lady Vengeance, for all its sway over me, is one I’d share, especially in a “these days.” It’s different, and there’s more to account for. Springing movies on people as a weapon is something only to be done between close friends. Unless I know for sure that the sexual violence in Lady Vengeance won’t trigger someone’s PTSD, I can’t go there, and I wouldn’t want to. And also, I need to better understand why I’m sharing whichever movie to begin with. Does the person need to get on my level as a bona fide cinephile? Do they need to understand that I only watch the hardcorest movies about dead little girls floating down the river?

There is a pure joy in that moment where we don’t, in fact, talk through the important bit, when their eyes go wide and they see something special, something they’ve never seen before — most importantly, they feel what I felt. I guess you’d call that a human connection, but I think that moment, that purity, is better left uninvestigated. Until the next time…

…Donovan.

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*I don’t even know where to begin, but this stems from my nerddom’s origin as a science-fiction fan. A perfectly decent film like Total Recall (2012) gets trashed on because it’s an “unnecessary remake” while contemporary hit Looper (2012) is lauded despite the fact of itself. And what about Doomsday? Just because a movie wears its homages on its sleeves without the leering wink of Tarantino doesn’t make it bad! Peel the film-critic-as-pattern-recognition-lens off your 3D glasses and like a damn Alita despite the baggage of Cameron! Or at least, compartmentalize these things and maybe you will like it. Of course, the movie landscape has changed dramatically with the MCU and other innovations, like horror remakes being cool thanks to It, I think? Science-fiction movies these days are either MCU movies or beautiful gems like Arrival and Annihilation, and everyone agrees those are good.


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