Film & Theology Part 3

I have been posting my postgrad dissertation in blog-sized chunks (see part1 and part 2), here’s the next installment.


Film as Parable


Park Chan-Wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance[1], the stylised third installment in his vengeance trilogy, is ostensibly very ripe for theological examination. With reference to Christian themes such as atonement and redemption as well as numerous visual motifs, it seems to prompt viewers towards consideration of religious themes while remaining authorially detached, thus allowing the viewer to make what they like of these triggers or ignore them completely.


However, my theological interest in the film lies not in its thematic content; indeed, the implication “that theological meaning is in a film simply waiting the discovery of trained theological interpreters”[2] is exactly the sort of thinking I wish to distance myself from. Instead, I wish to discuss something less quantifiable – film’s capacity as medium of spiritual experience or transformation.


One of the vehicles frequently posited by emergent scholars as a corrective to the overemphasis of modernity on “correct doctrine” is a reemphasis on the transformative power of the parable format. Rather than providing data about our world, parables seek to transfigure the very soul of the listener from the inside out, to invite the reader into a different mode of being through a process of wrestling and implication.


A parable does not primarily provide information about our world. Rather, if we allow it to do its work within us, it will change our world – breaking it open to ever-new possibilities by refusing to be held by the categories that currently exist within that world. In this way the parable transforms the way we hold reality, and thus changes reality itself.[3]


This begs the question: if parable is a story-telling format, and film tells stories, can films impart something of the transformational power of a parable?


Many commentators on Lady Vengeance have picked up on how well it implicates the viewer in its moral quandary[4]. As the title suggests, the film has at its heart a desire for retribution, and Chan-Wook builds up a grotesque picture of the villain Mr. Baek’s wrongdoing that implicates the viewer in the driving force of the narrative – the quest for vengeance. The film’s story revolves around the kidnapping of the daughter of Geum-Ja (the ‘Lady Vengeance’ of the film’s title) by Mr. Baek, who forces her to confess to the murder of a young boy called Won-Mo. As the story develops, more of his evil deeds are uncovered  – we witness him raping his wife, the pleas for help of the children in his snuff tapes, and the consequences of Geum-Ja’s false imprisonment and separation from her daughter.


Our desire for vengeance is problematised by the cinematic apparatus employed by Chan-Wook. The non-linear plotting means that Geum-Ja’s vengeful appetite is revealed before her motivation.  Thus, our alignment with her perspective is convoluted, creating a disorienting effect. Eventually, as more of her back-story is revealed, the film’s dominant codes prompt us to move from judgment to empathy.  As we are aligned with Geum-Ja’s perspective[5], we are implicated in the desire for retribution that lies at the heart of the film.


Eventually, Geum-Ja discovers the full extent of Mr Baek’s crimes and rounds up the victims’ parents, ultimately deciding to exact revenge on the perpetrator together. Here the film’s cinematography takes a bleaker turn. Whereas throughout the film we had been treated to a full-sensory experience – with rich textures, vivid colours and a well-rounded soundtrack – all of a sudden the shades grow dreary. Although this section is not entirely without its visual pleasures (the editing is particularly effective immediately after the parents discover the fate of their children), it is geared towards an overwhelming sense of emptiness. The viewer thus is persuaded into a visceral experience of the futility of vengeance, and potentially forced to face up to his or her own implication and complicity with Geum-Ja’s desire for retaliation.


This conviction is solidified by one of the final scenes in the film. After the murder, Geum-Ja is shown in a bathroom removing her pink eyeliner – the visual motif of her quest for vengeance all the way through the film. This is supposedly the point of satiation, wherein the task she has undertaken to carry out with single-minded purpose throughout the film has been realised. However, the spectator has been experiencing the absence of visual pleasure throughout the previous scenes, and thus the scene is anti-climactic. As she removes the final traces of make-up, she is interrupted by a vision of the boy for whose murder she was framed. As she approaches him, are closely aligned with Geum-Ja’s perspective – the camera lingers on her facial expressions and we are given a high level of access to her emotions; this carries the potential of heightened character identification. She opens her mouth to speak, but suddenly Won-Mo’s hand reaches below her chin and pulls a ball-gag into her mouth identical to the one used on Mr. Baek during his murder. As the scene ends, the boy – now appearing as a fully-grown man – stands up, looks at her in disgust, and walks off.


While spiritual function remains difficult to quantify in academic terms, a useful parallel to the parable-like operation of certain films, particularly Lady Vengeance, may be found by applying at the insights of psychoanalytic film theory. This is not without its problems; Murray Smith draws attention to the ways in which the overemphasis of psychoanalysis within film studies “has often led to descriptive inaccuracies and explanatory simplifications in the discussion of both the form and rhetoric of films, and the way in which spectators engage with such form”[6]. However, it is my contention that the psychoanalytic model nevertheless can lend significant insights into the power of parables to renew the mind.


Drawing on the theories of Jacques Lacan regarding the stages of infant development, Christian Metz posited that one of the reasons we so frequently position ourselves as spectators is that the film screen is one of the arenas where we play out our desire to escape our divided subjectivity and return to the “Imaginary” stage wherein we feel unified and ‘at one with the universe’. In particular, our identification with characters on screen enables us to play out certain wishes or desires which we would be unable to fulfill in real life. However, because the identification occurs with a mere image, there is an element of delusion involved that is frequently referred to as the interplay of absence and presence.


Most conventional Hollywood narrative cinema is geared towards encouraging the experience of presence rather than absence – through continuity editing, sound design and mise-en-scene, mainstream cinema creates a full-bodied experience that heightens visual pleasure and escapism. Conversely, through the use of cinematic language in Lady Vengeance, we are denied access to the realisation of our vengeful desires through the withdrawal of the visual pleasures freely available at the film’s outset.


Interestingly, parables operate along similar lines – the focus in parables is on suturing the listener into the story in, hopefully, a transformative way. According to Howard Mellor, the point of a parable is that we interact with the story and imagine ourselves into it.


Jesus uses parable to create a window and invite his hearers not merely to look upon it, but to look through and see the significance for themselves. It is of the essence of a parable that there is an engagement by the listener with the story.[7]


In a recent book on parables, Emergent author Peter Rollins tells a story which compels the reader through alignment to identify with the Biblical character of Judas. The commentary critiques “our tendency to identify with the favorable characters in the Bible”:


For instance, when reading about the self-righteous Pharisee and the humble tax collector, we find it all too easy to condemn the first and praise the second without asking whether our own actions are closer to the one we have rejected than the one we praise.[8]


By strategic use of cinematic apparatus, Lady Vengeance produces a similar effect in the sensitive viewer; it functions – and potentially attains the same power – as a religious parable by the way in which it viscerally persuades us to face up to our own inner darkness. Moreover, depending on the depth of character identification that takes place, the relationship between psychoanalytic subject and screen character is not allowed to function according to the wish-fulfillment (‘presence’) function of conventional Hollywood representation – instead of pleasure, we get negative consequences and conviction, and we are thus critiqued through our identification. As with Rollins’ parable, Lady Vengeance searches the heart of the sensitive viewer and forces us to own up to our own complicity in the guilty actions of the object of our identification.


Through this analysis, I hope to have offered an endorsement of the possibilities for future theological engagement with film afforded by the evaluation of filmic texts according to the spiritual and psychological function of parables. A whole-hearted commitment to examining the actual function of parables in relation to film must be embraced, then, in order to move the dialogue forward – ie. what films, as parables, do to the viewer and what theological activity this can produce.


Christopher Deacy’s 2002 article ‘Integration and Rebirth through Confrontation: Fight Club and American Beauty as Contemporary Religious Parables’[9] is useful to consider as an example of how such investigation can be bettered. Deacy’s article stakes a claim for the religious power of David Fincher’s Fight Club, yet his analysis appears to attribute the film’s theological potential to its correlation to Christian doctrines, and obscure ones at that[10] – “a disguised medium for transmitting an already-known ‘message’”[11]. Such an approach to the theology-film dialogue is problematic, as these codes of recognition will not be self-evident to most viewers. Indeed, if this were the primary way in which film operated theologically, its only possible spiritual benefit would be to ground those viewers already rooted in a spiritual narrative more fully into their own story – a valid project, certainly, but not particularly useful for those who do not share this narrative. Indeed, the implied exclusion from meaningful spiritual encounter of those who do cannot identify theological accounts and propositions that such an approach would imply is more Gnostic than Christian, relying on secret knowledge to pave the way for enlightenment. Moreover, this approach tends to reinforce the hindrances posed by those who “come to the dialogue with such strong religious commitments that they cannot view a particular movie on its own terms”[12].


Deacy then goes on to dedicate a single paragraph to exploring what the film actually does to its viewers, but his designation of theological activity is limited to its ability to generate momentary existential reflection, which seems to be a rather insubstantial account of religious experience. This highlights the necessity of operating from a robust definition of spiritual encounter, particularly “within a society with no criteria and poor terminology to judge or describe inner states”[13].


To this end, Robert K. Johnston makes a useful distinction between two principal types of transcendence. One, which he labels ‘Transcendence A’ or ‘The Holy’, is an experience of the divine or “that which lies beyond the natural but which gives meaning to it”[14]:


Regardless of the religious tradition, phenomenologists of religion point out that the encounter is always a mystery that is at one and the same time inviting and yet awe-inspiring, fascinating and yet evoking of dread.


‘Transcendence B’ refers to experiences with a “this-worldly focus”[15]:


…the human possibility of exceeding our limitations, of experiencing wholeness within brokenness…In the vernacular, we sometimes get a glimpse of Humpty-Dumpty put back together again.[16]


The recognition of both types of transcendence is of great importance; research by David Hay suggests that after taboos surrounding such experiences have been overcome, three out of four people recognize having had spiritual experiences, whether holy or human. Nevertheless, many interviewees “had not chosen to talk about these experiences before, fearing misunderstanding or rejection”[17]. However, while both types of encounter are equally important and valid, I would recommend that the film-theology dialogue focus on Transcendence A as it is more overtly theological; this is not to suggest that there is no spiritual component to human transcendence, but for a discussion still in its infancy – and one which has suffered from abstraction in the past – clarity is of fundamental importance. Thus, if a parable (whether biblical, literary or cinematic) operates in an individual according to its spiritual function, it will nudge a person towards an awareness of the sublime/divine and their position in relation to it.


Finally, laying aside momentarily the parable concept’s descriptive usefulness, there is another reason as to why film as parable is worthwhile as an avenue of theoretical exploration:


…there is evident aversion on the part of cinemagoers…to being preached at or compelled to reflect or be taught when they are trying to enjoy themselves.


One of the emergent critiques of contemporary Christian practice is the use of apologetics, didactic teaching and “power discourses”[18] – “selling God as if God were vinyl siding…shoving your ideas down someone’s throat…”[19]. Power discourses attempt to convince via the constraint of thought; instead, the parable provokes listener participation – it “does not teach a spectator a lesson; rather it invites and surprises a participant into an experience”[20]. Stories have a power to help us understand our lives in a way that informational discourse does not. This insight has been underestimated in recent times; Murray Smith points out how modernism, aided by the theories of Brecht, has led to an academic climate in which “treating characters in any way as if they were real, especially by responding emotionally to them, is regarded as at best naïve”.[21]


The parable is a powerless discourse; it does not attempt to cajole its addressee into responding according to the wishes of its author. Instead, it invites the hearer/viewer into a way of being which the individual is then able to receive or reject depending on his or her openness to its working. This ‘weak’ approach to theology prompts spiritual journeys through intrigue rather than instruction:


Instead of religious discourse being a type of drink designed to satisfy our thirst for answers, Jesus made his teachings salty, evoking thirst…in a poetic discourse that spoke to the heart of those who would listen. In a world where people believe they are not hungry, we must not offer food but rather an aroma that helps them desire the food that we cannot provide.[22]

[1] Lady Vengeance (2005) [DVD]. Park Chan-Wook (director). USA: Tartan Films.

[2] Marsh (2004: 110)

[3] Rollins, Peter (2009) The Orthodox Heretic, and Other Impossible Tales. Orleans, Paraclete Press: xi

[4] For example: Bradshaw, Peter (2006) ‘Lady Vengeance’. Available: Last accessed 2nd January 2010

[5] For more on the role of alignment in character identification see Smith, Murray (1998) Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema. New York, Routledge.

[6] Smith (1998: 5)

[7] Mellor, Howard (2009) ‘Evangelism as parable’. Mixed Economy: The Journal of Fresh Expressions [online]. Autumn/Winter 2008/09: 10-11. Available: Last accessed 10th September 2010.

[8] Rollins (2009: 163)

[9] Deacy, Christopher (2000) ‘Integration and Rebirth through Confrontation: Fight Club and American Beauty as Contemporary Religious Parables’. Kent Academic Repository [online]. Available: Last Accessed 28th September 2010.

[10] Norton’s character is drawn as a Christ-figure according to Antiochene Christology. The character of Tyler Durden is also posited, somewhat implausibly, as the Holy Spirit.

[11] Marsh (2004: 144)

[12] Johnston, Robert K. (2003) Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. Grand Rapids, Baker Books: 151

[13] Viola, Bill (1995) Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994. London, Thames & Hudson: 248

[14] Johnston (2003: 154)

[15] Johnston (2003: 155)

[16] Johnston (2003: 155)

[17] Johnston (2003: 156)

[18] Rollins, Peter (2006) How (Not) to Speak of God. London, SPCK Publishing.

[19] McLaren, Brian (2002) More Ready than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix. Grand Rapids, Zondervan: 12

[20] McFague, Sally (1975) ‘Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology’. Religion Online [online]. Available: Last accessed 25th September 2010.

[21] Smith (1998)

[22] Rollins (2006: 37)



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