Sunday, April 24, 2022

Kafka, Korean Movies, and Spike Lee (Spoiler Alerts)

I am neither an expert on Kafka or on Korean culture or on Spike Lee, so forgive me if my logic is absurd.

Recently, I listened to The Metamorphesis and The Trial.  Usually, I listen to some commentary and some criticism about the books, too.

Thug Notes amuses me.  Here is a quick commentary on The Trial:

Quick thematic overview on Kafka.  Kafka explores punishment.  Early in his writings, he wrote about unreasonable punishment from an authoritarian father, but later in his work, as in The Trial, he writes about punishment from a legal system that is nonsensical and unjust.

Now, I'm about to make an illogical jump to Korean movies.  

I discussed popular Korean movies like The Host with a Korean friend.  He told me that in Korean history, Koreans have felt trapped by chance, invaded by China or Japan simply because of their location, and often pulled into brutal wars.  This history influences Korean culture, being punished by large, outside forces and being unable to control or withstand the punishment.

While living in South Korea, I watched different Korean movies, including The Vengeance Trilogy by director Park Chan-wook.  These movies, while disturbing and not intended for the faint-of-heart, explore a similar theme to Kafka: irrational punishment.  The main characters in these movies fight against horrible, severe punishment, seeking vengeance against cruel punishment.

Old Boy is the second installment of the trilogy from 2003.  

Here is where the spoiler comes.  

I'm not sure that I can easily or briefly summarize the plot because this is a complex story and because the characters have Korean names.  Basically, a mystery man imprisons the protagonist in a room that is like a hotel room.  The mystery man lets the protagonist out after 15 years but tells the protagonist he must find out why he was punished.  

In the end, the mystery man is someone the protagonist knew in high school.  The protagonist caught the mystery man having sex with his sister and spread rumors around school.  The rumors caused the sister's humiliation and suicide.  The mystery man blames the protagonist for his sister's suicide.

The final, and most horrific blow, is in the final punishment for the protagonist, the mystery man tricks the protagonist into falling in love and having sex with his own grown daughter.

The mystery man/antagonist punishes the protagonist for his own horrible actions--and tricks him into doing the same actions that caused him to loose his sister.  

In the end and through a strange twist of fiction and stretch of willingful suspension of disbelief, the protagonist is hypnotized to forget everything that has happened, choosing to live a happy life with his daughter--presumably, as husband and wife.

These parallels struck me as I was reading Kafka.  Perhaps Park Chan-wook takes this to a different, more graphic level, but the irrationality and brutality of the punishment in Old Boy reminds me of Kafka. 

Here comes Spike Lee.

Spike Lee did a remake of Old Boy in 2013.

I watched this remake last weekend for the first time.  After watching this, I was disappointed for two reasons.  First, the amazing shots and cinematography from Park Chan-wook's original were duplicated without much originality.  The angles, the color, the camera action, and the sets that made the original so interesting seemed very recognizable in Spike Lee's version.

Second, and again this is another spoiler alert, the ending differed in three significant ways.  The antagonist in the Spike Lee version did not have sex with his sister.  The protagonist caught the antagonist's father having sex with the antagonist's sister.  The movie implies that the father slept with the sister and the antagonist--the antagonist was a victim of incest as well as his sister.  

When the protagonist humiliates the father and sister, the antagonist's father kills the sister, himself, and tries to shoot the antagonist.  The father intended to kill both children (including the antagonist) and himself, but the antagonist lives to fulfill his vengeance. 

And one last, significant deviation: the protagonist chooses to leave his daughter in the end.  He leaves a letter for his daughter saying he will never see her again and she must forget him.

Why are these deviations significant?

In the Park Chan-wook's version, the antagonist punishes the protagonist for something the antagonist himself did wrong.  Certainly, the protagonist spread rumors in both movies, but I believe most people would not consider gossip as harsh as incest.  In Spike Lee's version, the antagonist punishes the protagonist for something his father did wrong--he was a victim of his father's wrongs.

In both movies, the protagonist is just that--the protagonist.  In the beginning of both movies, we see him as foolish and as a bad father, but through his unfair imprisonment and his struggles, we root for him and want him to understand why he has been treated so unfairly.

In the Korean film, the protagonist is punished for the antagonist's wrongs, but he chooses to forget everything and continue a completely new life.  In the American version, the protagonist is punished for someone else's mistakes, but he chooses to leave his previous life and to remember the pain forever.

I'm not sure with which version Kafka would identify?

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