Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Two weekends back, I visited Minneapolis’s Trylon Cinema—a tiny theater with wonderfully idiosyncratic programming—to see Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Released in South Korea in 2002, this first installment in Park Chan-wook’s “vengeance trilogy” (which includes the more highly acclaimed Oldboy) follows a young man named Ryu, who is deaf and mute, as he struggles to arrange a kidney transplant for his dying sister. His blood type isn’t a match, and his sister’s doctor warns that they’re unlikely to find a donor in time. So Ryu turns to a group of organ traffickers who promise her a kidney in exchange for one of his—and his life savings. Of course, the gang reneges on their end of the bargain, leaving Ryu broke. He soon learns that a suitable kidney has miraculously become available, but they can no longer afford the surgery. (It costs the exact amount Ryu has lost; this heavy-handed irony is typical of the film’s almost allegorical melodrama.) His radical anarchist girlfriend convinces him to kidnap the daughter of the factory boss who recently fired him, reasoning that they can simply collect the ransom money and return her unharmed. For somewhat ambiguous reasons, the couple decides to target the daughter of the company’s president instead; things soon go horribly awry, sending both Ryu and the president on murderous paths of revenge. The results are harrowing, as the violence coursing beneath an unequal society bursts to the surface.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is as beautiful as it is wrenching, setting terrible suffering within stunningly composed shots. When it arrived in the US in 2005—three years after its South Korean release, on the heels of Oldboy—many critics, overwhelmed by the film’s bleakness and disturbed by its marriage of brutality and formalism, wrote it off as a cynical aestheticization of violence. In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis declared that “the violence carries no meaning beyond the creator’s ego”; the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips called the film “disingenuous” and “callow at its core.” But where these writers saw gratuitous reveling in human cruelty, I saw a sensitive critique of our desire for spectacular retribution. While Park makes monstrous acts pleasing to the eye, the same gorgeous scenes leave us aghast and guilty for our sympathy. Cinema of revenge often rejoices freely in justified bloodshed—but this haunting film never lets the viewer off the hook for our investments in the characters and their inevitably catastrophic choices.
Arielle Angel (editor in chief): I thought season one of Hulu’s The Bear—about a world class chef named Carmy who returns home after his brother’s suicide to run his failing Chicago sandwich joint—was fine. The second season feels a bit more improbable, and therefore a bit more artificial, than the first. For convoluted reasons they have to transform the crumbling “Beef” into the fine dining “Bear” on a truncated three-month timeline. And perhaps most improbable considering the financial strain that necessitates said timeline, they are retaining all of their staff (i.e., the characters we know and love from season one) instead of finding people who already have the requisite skills to run such an establishment, scattering them across the city and the globe to apprentice for the best in the biz.
And yet, the artifice and hyped up stakes makes room for things to get loose elsewhere. Indeed, this season luxuriates in the creative process. There are extended montages that jump between what’s on the plate and what’s in the mind; a scene where a practitioner repeats a skill—in this case, producing that fancy, football-shaped ice cream scoop, called the quenelle—again and again until he gets it right. The plot, to my delight and surprise, ends up taking backseat to a kind of essay on the pursuit of mastery. This was already my favorite aspect of season one, crystallized in the character of Marcus, a former McDonald’s cook who takes Carmy’s arrival as a spur to begin upping his pastry game. His pursuit of the perfect doughnut last season nearly brought me to tears. His arc continues here, but is replicated in the storylines of a number of other characters, who one by one find and nurture their purpose in food and hospitality.
Carmy has been through this already—he found his purpose, and more or less achieved this mastery, long ago. His storyline is more about what it looks like to try and have a life (in this case, a romantic relationship) when your capital-L Life blots out the sun. There is distress and pathos in the way he regards the ambition of his young protégé Syd. If you really want this, he warns her, “you have to care about everything more than anything.” It’s not clear that he thinks she should heed this call. It was painful at times seeing myself in him—his perfectionism, his monomania, his fear that letting up an inch will cost him everything. Is there a route to mastery that bypasses these qualities, this sacrifice? I was impressed to see a popular show foreground this question.
That this show is about upscale restaurants—an industry that relies on low-wage work while catering to the wealthy—certainly complicates its noble portrait of the kitchen; I wished the writers attempted even a gesture at the uncomfortable interplay between creative labor and capital. I winced when a character working as a host at a Michelin-starred restaurant compared restaurants to hospitals (hospitality, get it?), harshly admonishing the malingering Richie about his lack of care in drying the forks. Anti-work, this show is not. And still, it’s pretty moving when Richie starts tending the forks properly. Even after capitalism, there will still be intrinsic value for people in doing what needs doing, well.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Associated Press video journalist Mstyslav Chernov’s new documentary, 20 Days in Mariupol, was filmed by the only journalists remaining in the Ukrainian port city when Russia began its siege in February 2022. On the very first day, with no information, the press crew optimistically reassures a woman that the Russian forces won’t be firing at civilians, and that she can return home; when they run into her again a day or so later, her home has been shelled. 20 Days in Mariupol captures the assault in all its terrible violence. We witness the shelling of the university, apartment buildings, hospitals, and individual people. Chernov doesn’t spare us the worst, including the deaths of pregnant women, children, and babies. The crew of three follows Ukrainian doctors and nurses into operating rooms, documenting their often vain efforts to save lives while ducking to avoid the impact of Russian artillery.
At one point, they encounter a policeman, Vladimir, who addresses the camera to say how important it is that these images be shared, to reveal Russia’s crimes to the world. He becomes their guardian angel for much of the film, escorting them to spots that still have connections to the outside world so their images can be transmitted to the AP. By now we all know the horrors inflicted over the course of the war—the blood, the crying families, the mass graves—but seeing it all in this concentrated form, we are reminded of the sheer monstrousness of Putin’s Russia. To add insult to murder, Russian officials and journalists are shown describing the very footage we are seeing as faked and describing the victims as actors. It seems that Alex Jones has spawned imitators all over the world.
While the doctors, nurses, and firefighters are heroes, most of those we see here are not, and Chernov makes no effort to depict them as such; the ordinary Ukrainians are merely people suffering a fate they can’t escape, and not always with grace and dignity. Bombed stores—as well as those simply closed due to the siege—are shown being looted, with people taking soccer balls, office chairs, and electronics. And while the city’s residents hate the Russians, they are also quick to complain of those on their own side. Suffering, we are reminded, ennobles no one.
Despite its significance and power, I do have a bone or two to pick with the film. More than occasionally, we hear Chernov patting himself on the back for sticking it out in Mariupol. And it’s always painful to hear a journalist ask someone throwing bodies into a mass grave the stupidest questions imaginable, such as “how does this make you feel?” These days, with the press under attack, one would prefer not to have to roll one’s eyes at journalists doing what journalists do. But it’s hard not to wonder what the hell someone asking a question like that could possibly be thinking.
Before you go: Applications for the 2023–2024 New Jewish Culture Fellowship (NJCF) are now open. The Fellowship brings together an interdisciplinary cohort of groundbreaking Jewish artists to share work, discuss issues and texts, and learn from and with each other over the course of an academic year. Each fellow will receive a $1,000 stipend to support creative work, and the opportunity to propose supported/paid events, workshops, or classes. Apply here before August 7th, 2023.