Much to my current regret, I avoided seeking out Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy (2002-2005) for a very long time. I’d read about the films and knew that they were highly regarded, but from their descriptions they sounded unrelentingly bleak and gratuitously unpleasant. This isn’t really the case at all. Although the subject matter is certainly grim and a lot of bad things happen – and parents of young children may well want to skip the first and third movies entirely – there’s less graphic violence depicted on screen than I’d expected, and Park brings a strong sense of compassion and humour to the material in unexpected ways. Featuring a roll call of South Korea’s top acting talent, the reputation of these three films is well deserved.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance [Boksuneun naui geot] (2002) introduces us to the the plight of Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf-mute factory worker whose sister (Im Ji-eun) is in desperate need of a kidney donor. After saving the money for the operation, he attempts to donate his own kidney only to discover that it’s incompatible. Attempting to purchase a black market kidney with his severance pay after losing his job, he wakes up naked in a parking lot, minus one kidney and all of his money – at which point (of course) a legal kidney finally becomes available. In order to afford the operation, his anarchist girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Doo-na) convinces him to kidnap the daughter of Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho), president of the company for which Ryu used to work – but although they treat the young Yu-sun (Han Bo-bae) well, further tragedies strike, culminating with Yu-sun’s accidental death by drowning. The remainder of the film switches focus to Dong-jin’s quest for revenge while Ryu and Yeong-mi attempt to find their own ways of coping.
The first of what would become the Vengeance Trilogy is grounded in the day-to-day reality of Korean society. By choosing to focus the first half of the movie on Ryu’s circumstances, Park Chan-wook makes it clear how difficult it is for the poorly paid lower classes to meet more than their day-to-day needs, something which the hospital administrator is unable to understand with his blithe assumption that the funds for the operation would be available on demand for any citizen. A mixture of poor decision-making and bad luck sends Ryu’s life spiralling down the tubes and the well-intentioned kidnapping-gone-wrong becomes the tragic capper to the path he’s on. Dong-jin comes from a more privileged executive class and has a much easier life, out of touch with the troubles of those less fortunate but still trying to do his best for his daughter and for the majority of his employees – however the ransom demand comes close to bankrupting him, and the loss of his daughter on top of that leads him down a more morally dubious path in his quest for revenge. It’s in large part his social status which makes him what would conventionally be considered the righteous avenger of the piece, but the way in which Park has framed the material makes the line between Ryu and Dong-jin much thinner than in a standard Hollywood revenge flick and forces the audience to confront the unwarranted collateral damage of the path of vengeance.
After the poor reception which Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance received, Oldboy [Oldeuboi] (2003) was Park’s major breakthrough, taking its basic structure from Tsuchiya Garon’s 1996-1998 manga series of the same name but making significant changes to the motivation of the central characters. Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is an obnoxious overweight businessman who is arrested for public drunkenness in 1988. Dae-su is kidnapped shortly after being collected by his friend Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han), waking up in a locked hotel room to the news that his wife has been murdered and he’s the prime suspect. After living there for fifteen years, one morning he wakes up on a rooftop and sets out to discover who did this to him. Along the way he reluctantly befriends a young chef Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), after which his captor – wealthy businessman Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae) – gives him a five day deadline to discover the reason for all of this.
The second entry in the Vengeance Trilogy is a whole world away from its predecessor. In contrast to the first movie’s grounded nature, this is an exercise in grandiosity and style. In line with the source material, the central story is an example of heightened comic book plotting involving a plan of ridiculous scope and excesses of human endurance which would kill any normal person – but despite this hyper-reality, it’s still built around an emotional core which is fundamentally based on recognisable human choices and reactions. Park and his design team have put an incredible amount of work into constructing the movie’s environment – the clothing and set design is an integral part of the storytelling, with specific colours and patterns carrying a significance which repays repeated viewing and has prompted all sorts of speculations about potential interpretations for particular events. Once again the two main characters initiate their own distinct trajectories of revenge, one of which in this case is a very different type of revenge from anything I’ve seen elsewhere. Two of the cast from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance make a return appearance. Ji Dae-hun, who played the detective investigating the first movie’s kidnapping, plays Oh Dae-sun’s internet café-owning friend Joo-hwan in the modern day scenes. More notably, Oh Kwang-rok returns in a smaller but arguably more impactful role. After appearing in the final scene of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance as an unnamed anarchist, he appears in the first scene of Oldboy as the suicidal man dangling off the rooftop, prevented from falling only by Oh Dae-su’s grasp on his tie – a scene whose significance (beyond being a great way to open a film) only becomes apparent later as the outstretched grasping hand becomes an important motif. (Plus Park Chan-wook singled out this role as the best performance in the entire film – possibly with tongue partially in cheek, but I certainly got the impression that he was sincere.)
Lady Vengeance [Chinjeolhan geumjassi] (2005) returns to the subject matter of the first film but switches focus to a female protagonist, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae), who has served 13 years in prison for the kidnapping and murder of a 6-year-old child. Due in large part to her status as a beautiful young woman (barely 20), her trial was a media sensation, attracting the patronage of a Christian minister (Kim Byeong-ok) who feels called to redeem her. She is a model prisoner throughout her term, making friends with everyone, leading church services and becoming an expert baker. Greeted by the preacher upon her release, bearing a platter of tofu representing her spiritual purification, she knocks the platter to the ground with the comment: “Go fuck yourself.” From this point she drops her prison persona and allows her true emotionally deadened state to show – she has served a prison term for a crime she didn’t commit in fear for what the true culprit (Choi Min-sik) might do to her newborn child Jenny. Geum-ja tracks down Jenny (Kwon Yea-young) – now living in Australia with adoptive parents – while beginning the final stages of the revenge plan she has been orchestrating since her imprisonment.
The final part of the Vengeance Trilogy is more of a hybrid creation than the previous two films. The first half is far more intensely stylised than Oldboy – Park applies various filters to the prison flashbacks to give the feel of worn out clips from a 1970s film and there are various surreal touches such as Geum-ja’s head emanating the holy rays of a Madonna, or the clouds above Jenny in the Australian sky spelling out “You Have No Mother”, only for the “No” to disappear with the arrival of Geum-ja. The use of colours and patterns isn’t as prevalent as in Oldboy but is still present – here red and white are the most important colours, but the range of pattern textures is less varied. The biggest difference is the use of the camera, constantly on the move in Oldboy to capture the frenetic emotions of the protagonist, but here completely still, much like Geum-ja. As the back half of the movie begins to shift tone to a push for personal redemption and a greater concern for the emotional needs of others, the stylisation drops away and the camera begins to move. The crimes of Mr. Baek become more vivid and are given greater emotional reality as Geum-ja shifts tack and (in some versions of the film) the colour begins to drop away, emphasising the whiteness of purification represented by both snow and tofu.
Park brings back many of the actors from the previous two films to tie the trilogy together. Song Kang-ho and Shin Ha-kyun, the two lead actors from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, appear as a pair of assassins hired to kill Geum-ja. Lee Dae-yeon changes career from private investigator in the first film to Prison Head. Choi Man-sik, Oldboy himself, plays the child murderer Mr. Baek, while his co-star Yoo Ti-jae has a small role as the imagined grown-up version of the dead child. Kang Hye-jeong (Mi-do) plays a TV announcer and Kim Byeong-ok transforms from the white-haired killer in Oldboy into this film’s Preacher. Oh Kwang-rok (Suicidal Man), Oh Dal-su (Oldboy’s prison warden) and Park Myung-shin (Woman) all come over from Oldboy to play the parents of other missing children. Lee Seung-shin (Oldboy’s psychologist) and Yoon Jin-seo (Lee Soo-ah) also return from Oldboy, and action director Ryoo Seung-wan cameos as a passerby after playing the Delivery Boy in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
Arrow Video have assembled a typically extensive range of features for their Blu Ray box set of the trilogy. Kim Newman provides a 15 minute ramble on the vengeance theme in movies, but it’s unusually light on detail compared to his contributions to other home releases. Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns provides a valuable in depth discussion of Park Chan-wook’s career, marred only by an offhanded (and unsupported) statement that his work on The Little Drummer Girl (2018) “tarnished” his career (I fail to see how). But the most satisfying features are the multiple interviews with Park and the other actors and crew who worked on the films, delving into all sorts of aspects and peppered with behind-the-scenes footage. I’ve worked my way through most of these features over the past week, but I still have hours of material remaining to explore: eight (8!) commentaries (one for Sympathy, four for Oldboy, three for Lady); a whole extra disc about Oldboy with a 2 hour documentary and a 3½ hour video diary; and the “fade to black & white” version of Lady Vengeance. These are all on the backburner for now, but I’m excited to have so much still to explore and am really looking forward to filling in the gaps in my experience of his filmography.