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Saturday, March 20, 2010

VENGEANCE TRILOGY (SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE/ OLDBOY/ LADY VENGEANCE) -- DVD review by porfle


As one who was eager to discover Korean director Park Chan-wook and his famed "Vengeance" trilogy, I found Palisade Tartan Asia Extreme's eight-disc VENGEANCE TRILOGY--containing SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, OLDBOY, and LADY VENGEANCE, and brimming with extras--to be a veritable treasure trove of fun. Not that the subject matter is fun, mind you, since this is hardly the kind of revenge flick where Charles Bronson blows away bad guys as we cheer through our popcorn. For these unfortunate characters, vengeance ain't necessarily good for what ails 'em.


SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (2002) begins the trilogy with the old story of a "simple plan" that inevitably goes all to hell. Ha-kyun Shin plays Ryu, a green-haired deaf-mute who toils in a factory while desperately waiting for a donor kidney for his dying sister (Ji-Eun Lim). His attempt to purchase the necessary organ on the black market ends disastrously, as he loses not only all his money but one of his own kidneys as well. Then he gets laid off from his job just as the doctor informs him that a donor kidney, which he can no longer afford, is finally available.

Ryu's domineering girlfriend Yeong-mi (Du-na Bae), a radical political activist with terrorist ties, concocts a scheme to abduct the young daughter of wealthy businessman Park Dong-jin (Kang-ho Song) and hold her for ransom, with the naive confidence that it will be a benevolent kidnapping and result in happy endings for all involved. Her prediction goes horribly wrong, as does the kidnapping, and she and Ryu find themselves the targets of a vengeful father whose emotional devastation demands a payment in blood. Ryu, meanwhile, attempts to track down the illicit organ merchants and extract some lethal payback of his own. Both find the price of revenge distressingly high.


"I wanted to make something that felt too real," director Park Chan-wook explains in one of the bonus disc's interviews. "I wanted the audience to be tired when they finished the film." As opposed to the later OLDBOY'S flamboyant surrealism and absurdity, the bad things that happen during this film are disturbingly matter of fact, with no suspenseful music or editing, often occurring in the background of a shot. We're allowed to search the frame for information ourselves rather than have everything pointed out to us, which can be strangely unsettling.

"As a director, I think this unkind way of presenting the story makes the viewer a more active participant in the film," says Park. Lengthy wide-angle shots often place the characters far from the camera, punctuated by unexpected images from odd angles which tease us with brief snippets of information. One of the most important death scenes in the film occurs almost peripherally within the frame as the static camera lingers over a placid rural setting. Without the usual editing and camera angles leading the viewer through the scene, we're left to watch helplessly as the tragedy unfolds with dreadful inevitability.


Still, Park occasionally gets up close and personal, as in a brutal torture-by-electricity scene or a shocking knife murder of a man by a group of terrorists. Here, in a subtle bit of absurdity that's almost funny, the camera impassively observes the dying man as he strains to read the death warrant pinned to his own chest by a knife. Even in a sequence which in any other film might play out as a brisk action setpiece, such as Ryu's bloody final encounter with the organ merchants, Park tweaks our expectations by approaching the familiar scenario with a fresh and pleasingly odd perspective.

Disc one contains the film plus a commentary track with director Park and actor-filmmaker Ryoo Seong-wan. Disc two features lengthy interviews with the film's director and stars, behind-the-scenes featurettes, storyboards, trailer, and Johnathan Ross's 17-minute profile of Park for the BBC.

"When you set out for revenge, first dig two graves," someone told James Bond way back in 1981's FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. With SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, Park Chan-wook takes that hoary old proverb and dramatizes it in dispiritingly downbeat and often heartrending new ways, focusing in almost clinical fashion on tragic details that linger in the mind. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this chain reaction of consequences is that there are two sides headed for a deadly collision, and our sympathies extend to both of them. This is a theme that will carry over into the next film in the series.


OLDBOY (2003) is very different from SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and might be seen as a stylistic evolution for Park. Where SYMPATHY was more lean and straightforward, OLDBOY is an explosion of cinematic expression that almost overwhelms the viewer with its aggressive intensity. SYMPATHY invites us to sit back and gaze attentively at characters gradually sliding into inevitable ruin; OLDBOY straps us in and takes us on a wildly disorienting bumper-car ride.


Min-sik Choi gives a brilliant, intense performance as Dae-su Oh, a workaday family man who, after drunkenly celebrating his young daughter's birthday, suddenly wakes up in a motel room-like prison cell where he will spend the next fifteen years. During that time, his wife is murdered and the crime scene is doctored to make him the suspect, while his daughter is placed in foster care. He learns of this on television, which is his only link to the outside world.

After his release back into a world that is now strange to him, Dae-su is understandably obsessed with finding out who imprisoned him and why. Thus begins a mysterious and violent odyssey that eventually takes him back to a single indiscretion in his youth which ignited a chain reaction of tragedy for the person now devoted to punishing him. Dae-su is aided in his quest by a sympathetic young sushi chef named Mido (the very cute Hye-jeong Kang), who becomes his lover and offers much-needed moral support and solace. As he gradually gets closer to the shocking truth, he finds that prison was only the beginning of a diabolical web of torment devised for him by his unknown nemesis.


In some ways, the incarceration has a beneficial effect on Dae-su Oh. Over the long years he builds his physique, becomes a fierce boxer by banging his fists against a figure he's drawn on the wall, hones his instincts and willpower, and develops the patience and determination of a caged animal. He also divests himself of the frivolity and childishness his character displays when we first meet him, becoming a ruthless force to be reckoned with.

His repressed rage later allows him to take on well over a dozen oppenents in a cramped hallway during what I feel is the film's most astounding sequence. Most of this furious fight is done in one incredible take with the camera slowly dollying along with the actors as they perform a dazzling series of choreographed fight moves with bone-crushing realism. (This surely ranks among the greatest long takes ever filmed.) Wielding a claw hammer and with a knife protruding from his back, Dae-su becomes one of the most thrilling action heroes in recent memory in a balls-out brawl that eschews fancy moves or wirework of any kind.

Violence punctuates the film at several points--a man is stabbed to death with a broken DVD, another has his teeth yanked out one by one, people are driven to suicide--culminating in an extended sequence within the mystery man's spacious penthouse suite which becomes an escalating ordeal of physical and emotional devastation. Each shot is carefully devised by Park for maximum effect as Min-sik Choi's performance reaches a peak that is stunning.


A wealth of special features begins on disc one with three separate commentary tracks subtitled in English, each with the director and various crewmembers. Disc two features cast and crew interviews in which they discuss the conception of the film and its characters beyond the usual sound bites doled out to the press. There's a brief phone interview in which the author of the original story, Tsuchiya Garon, offers his favorable impressions of the film while we get to see several pages from the graphic novel. The film's production design, music, and special effects are explored, along with deleted scenes. Of additional interest are a look at the film's success at Cannes and a thoughtful Q & A between director Park and a small gathering of fans.

In addition to some Palisades Tartan trailers, disc three boasts a three-and-a-half hour documentary entitled "The Autobiography of Old Boy Video Diary." An exhaustive record of the making of the film, it documents the shooting of virtually every scene in great detail, without narration, demonstrating not only the meticulousness of the director but also how grueling the shoot was for the actors. This is especially true for star Min-sik Choi, who did many of his own stunts and got banged up quite a bit. Good spirits generally prevail (although the difficult New Zealand shoot frayed some nerves) and the details of how some of the most memorable scenes were accomplished make for absorbing viewing.

Dense, complex storytelling that is anything but light viewing, OLDBOY demands viewer involvement on a much higher level than the usual revenge flick. Like SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, the complicated story presents two identifiable points of view in a conflict that goes beyond the usual heroes and villains and refuses to offer easy or clear-cut resolutions. Park Chan-wook's command over the language of film enables him to express all of this visually to a degree that's endlessly impressive. "They say you can't catch two rabbits at once," he reflects on his accomplishment. "I feel like we caught two rabbits, a deer, an otter, a badger, and many other animals."



I first thought LADY VENGEANCE, aka Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), was going to be another hot-action-babe flick along the lines of MS. 45. So it came as a pleasant surprise to find that it's the most thoughtful, richly artistic and deeply introspective film in the trilogy. It's also the one in which Park Chan-wook seems to express his most heartfelt, poetic, and yes, sympathetic thoughts on the subject.

The story begins with Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee) being released from prison after serving 13 years for the kidnap and murder of a little boy, Won-mo. Former cellmates with whom she reunites on the outside are shocked to find that the cheerful and loving "angel" they knew before now appears to be cold and emotionless. In reality, she's been gaining their allegiance in order to use them to help carry out a plan of revenge against Won-mo's actual killer, Mr. Baek (OLDBOY star Min-sik Choi), a serial child murderer who threatened to kill Geum-ja's infant daughter if she didn't confess to the crime. The fact that she aided in Won-mo's abduction (naively thinking it to be the same sort of "good" kidnapping as described in SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE) makes her desire for atonement and redemption all-consuming.


Geum-ja tracks down her now 14-year-old daughter Jenny (Yea-young Kwon), who thinks that her mother "dumped" her, and desperately tries to reconcile with her. In the meantime, she has found Mr. Baek, still working as a school teacher and preying on children. She summons the families of several murdered children to an abandoned school, shows them Baek's own videotapes of his gruesome deeds, and reveals to them that he is bound and gagged in the next room. Geum-ja then gives them all a choice--turn him over to the legal system, or deal with him themselves.

Flashbacks of the beatific image Geum-ja projected while in prison are starkly contrasted with her later zombie-like state, which reflects a deep self-loathing. These jarring impressions are often depicted with abrupt editing and off-kilter camera angles. Only when she reunites with Jenny does she allow her feelings to overwhelm her again, and as the story becomes more emotional Park Chan-wook's direction settles into a more stately and elegant style while remaining fluid and inventive. This is especially true of the protracted revenge sequence in the abandoned school, as Park lingers on the inner conflict and seething rage of the family members. As the film winds down to a wistful and almost dreamlike denouement, with Geum-ja grasping for a last fleeting chance at redemption, we're left with haunting, delicately-wrought images of serene beauty and sadness.


There are several fascinating closeups of the remarkable Yeong-ae Lee as she runs the gamut of emotions with impressive depth. One that's particularly striking comes near the end, when her face twists into a masklike rictus of mindless, sadistic glee. Hardly the typical action heroine, her anger is expressed in messy, kinetic bursts. There is one thrilling sequence, however, in which she fights off two attackers hired by Mr. Baek (Ha-kyun Shin and Kang-ho Song of SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE) in a snowy alleyway at night, and for a brief moment is given full cinematic awesomeness by Park Chan-wook.

Disc one features two commentary tracks in which Park is joined by actress Yeong-ae Lee and his art director, and a third with film critic Richard Pena. Disc two is virtually identical to disc one, except that it contains what is described as the "Fade to White" version of the film. Here, after a brief introduction by the director, we see his original intent to slowly drain the color from the film during its running time until finally the last twenty minutes or so would be completely black-and-white. Park himself had trouble deciding whether or not to go with the idea, which he'd been considering as far back as the first film in the trilogy, so it's not exactly what I'd consider his "original vision" of the film. But it's an interesting "what-if."

Disc three begins with a "making of" featurette and an electronic press kit with various goodies. These are followed by technical featurettes, director and cast interviews, deleted scenes, a look at the film's successful showing at the Venice Film Festival, trailers and TV spots, and a poster gallery. "Get Together" shows how many of the actors from the first two "Vengeance" films returned to appear in this one.

All three films are in anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 DTS and surround sound. Language is Korean with English and Spanish subtitles. In addition to the previously-mentioned extras, the set comes with a 32-page booklet of essays by Eli Roth, producer Don Murphy, stunt-coordinator John Kreng, Palisades Tartan's Rick Stelow, and filmmaker Susan Montford, and is richly illustrated with full-color photographs. All in all, this set turned me into a Park Chan-wook fan and continues to make me giddy with cinematic joy each time I rewatch these amazing films.


It's been said that LADY VENGEANCE lapses into the conventional by having a one-dimensional bad guy devoid of the usual shadings. I think it's good that Park ends the trilogy by finally giving us a bastard who clearly and richly deserves his punishment, which serves as an uneasy catharsis for the viewer as well as the story's participants. Still, their satisfaction is short-lived and brings not happiness, but merely another level of spiritual uncertainty that they must continue to deal with. If Park hadn't touched on this aspect of revenge and explored its consequences, the trilogy begun by SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and OLDBOY would have been incomplete.


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(Blu-Ray will be available June 15, 2010)
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