Sunday, June 23, 2013

Movie Reviews: Park Chan-Wook's Vengeance Trilogy

I was thinking the other day (well, actually several days ago because it took me way longer than it should have to write all this) that it had been a while since I had watched an Asian movie - weird as that may sound - and realized that I never finished watching Oldboy. I KNOW. Then I also realized that Oldboy was actually a part of director Park Chan-Wook's "Vengeance Trilogy," three movies that aren't related story-wise at all but they do all deal with someone seeking revenge for various wrongdoings. So here they all are!

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
I watched the three movies a bit out of order, as I saw Oldboy first, then this one, then Lady Vengeance, and then this one again because I didn't quite get it the first time around. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is perhaps a good one to pay attention to because it introduces a kind of theme that I picked up from the other two movies. Of course they all deal with vengeance of some kind, but each movie also deals with two different levels of vengeance, or two people seeking vengeance for different but equally important reasons. In this one, Ryu is seeking out the organ thieves who took his kidney and his money which blew his chances of saving his sister - who later kills herself - by getting her a badly need kidney transplant. In turn, Dong-jin is seeking out Ryu for the accidental death of his daughter after she was kidnapped by Ryu so he could collect ransom to pay for the transplant.

Too confusing? That's what I thought at first and that's why I had to watch the movie twice to fully appreciate it. But it's a good way to get Park's message across and lends weight to the title of the film - you do have sympathy for both Mr. Vengeances. The actors playing Ryu and Dong-jin do a wonderful job, with Ryu being the lovable, fumbly not-so-good criminal, and Dong-jin being just the one-track-mind, heartbroken father.

You feel the pain of both of these characters, and the love they have for their respective family members. You want to jump into the screen and explain the situation to Dong-jin so he does not kill Ryu because it was just a stupid plan hatched out of desperation that went terribly awry. The end scene at the river finally shows that both of the characters actually understand this concept but the need for vengeance overcomes. In fact, the cycle doesn't end with them. While searching for Ryu, Dong-jin does something which causes others to seek vengeance on him. A nod to the old "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind" concept? I'm thinking yes.

The pace of the movie is quite slow, which actually helps when some of the more shocking incidents occur. There are a few key scenes of violence - Dong-jin interrogating Ryu's girlfriend with electrocution, Ryu killing the organ theives - but overall I wouldn't call the movie a violent one. The most shocking incident is when Yu-sun, Dong-jin's daugher, dies just because of how it all goes down, with Ryu completely unaware. That shot of her body half in and out of the water is also beautiful and heartbreaking.

There is also a quirky amount of comedy in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a trait which would also be in both Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. My favorite example is when Ryu is looking after Yu-sun at his sister's apartment and purposefully makes her cry, then chases her around with a camera to get a convincing picture of her crying to send along with the ransom demand to her father. I got right away what he was doing and it totally cracked me up. Also Ryu's girlfriend's story of the man who thought he had two heads. Did he shoot the right or the left? I guess we'll never know!

Oldboy (2003)
Gah! This movie is awesome. There is no more honest way to put it. I had started watching it a loooong time ago on Netflix but something, I can't remember what, made me stop and I never went back to it. This movie-lover SNAFU has obviously now been rectified, and I am now hopelessly devoted to Oldboy, no doubt my favorite of the Vengeance Trilogy, and new overall favorite.

Park's direction is at first glance some of the same-old, same-old but when looked at closely, you notice that he deftly frames each shot and lets scenes linger just as long as they need to. There are so many iconic images from this film - the body falling on the car, the octopus eating, the teeth pulling, and the beyond awesome one-take hallway fight scene. Like, that was so cool, you guys. I loved how there would be a bit of fighting, then a pause, then more fighting, then a pause, then that great ending with all the bodies falling out of the elevator. Absolutely beautiful, and totally fucking amazing.

Our lead Oh Dae-su is played with gleeful ease and skill by Choi Min-sik, who would go on to kick even more ass in I Saw the Devil. The crazed looks he gave the camera during the scenes of his imprisonment were both funny and creepy. Antagonist Lee Woo-jin (who is also kinda hot) is played with cold and calculating brilliance by Yu Ji-tae, and he has perhaps his best moments during the movie's shocking reveal scene, where he lets Oh Dae-su know why he kept him imprisoned for 15 years and how he got his vengeance. Wrong. So wrong.

So then again, we have two different characters seeking vengeance for two different reasons. Oh Dae-su obviously wants those 15 years of his life back and Woo-jin is holding a long-standing grudge about the death of his sister. Contrary to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I felt no sympathy for Woo-jin or the lengths he went to in order to get his undeserved "revenge" on Dae-su. Woo-jin was putting the blame on someone else for a wrong he was the major cause of, and that is something that will not get me all teary-eyed for him. Dae-su, I really like you, man. You definitely did not deserve this crap.

Oldboy is easily the favorite of the three movies, probably because it is the most exciting and action-filled, while Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance serve as the two more quietly effective bookends. I think Oldboy is more easily accessible to a wider audience though, as I can see the other two movies boring the average movie-watcher. Oldboy again has Park's dry and dark wit, a more fluid method of story-telling, and an undeniably awesome lead character that you want to follow around to the end of the world. As a sort of contrast to the rest of the movie, Park throws in that wintry end sequence, which despite its ambiguities was actually a wonderful way to conclude the story.

My only problem with the movie is the aforementioned hardcore octopus-eating scene. As cool as that is, I am more than a little freaked out by octopi, so I almost ran screaming out of the room when the tentacles started sticking to his face and shit.

E gads! Seriously, get this out of my brain. I don't ever want to think about  it again.

Lady Vengeance [a.k.a. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance] (2005)
The trilogy concludes with Lady Vengeance, the story of a woman who goes to jail for 13 years for a crime she did not commit, and who has been planning all this time on how to get back to the man responsible. She confessed to the kidnapping and murder of a 5-year-old boy but only because the real murderer was threatening the life of her daughter. I'd rank this one as my second favorite because I love the evolvement of the story into something much bigger than it started out as.

The beautiful and fearless Lee Young Ae portrays our Lady Vengeance, Lee Geum-ja, and she can wear red eye shadow like nobody's business. She also wields a really sweet gun. Choi Min-sik returns to the trilogy as Mr. Baek, Geum-ja's target for vengeance, and he was almost unrecognizable to me at times just because of his glasses, which I know is kinda weird. He seems to be the perfect actor for these really cold, evil characters (like Kyun-chul in I Saw the Devil) because he can seem to be so perfect and normal on the outside. That thing with him and his wife at dinner? WTF?Some of the women who played prisoners were also strangely enjoyable, though I would never want to know them in real life.

The comedy element of the trilogy comes back into play with Lady Vengeance, mostly in the scenes at the women's prison (a very cushy prison, might I add) which were often disturbingly funny. Geum-ja's demeanor both in and out of prison are also quite delightful to watch, especially after you realize that her nice gal rep in prison was mostly a ruse to get what she wanted. Her true emotion only comes out when it deals with her lost daughter, Jenny, who has been raised by Australian foster parents. Jenny is not as super-excited to see her mother as Geum-ja would probably like, and Geum-ja feels the guilt of making Jenny feel abandoned and perhaps undeserving of her forgiveness.

Seeing two Australians in a Korean movie was also quite funny, I gotta say.

And again we have two different sets of vengeance-seekers here. Geum-ja actually sort of passes along her vengeance to others when she finds out Baek, who committed the murder she went to prison for, also killed several other children. Instead of personally killing him like she intended to, Geum-ja brings together the dead children's parents and gives them the option of choosing what to do with Baek. Here, then, is every parent's dilemma - if you had the chance to kill the person who hurt or killed your child, would you actually do it? And would it be worth it? I also found a bit of dark comedy in this sequence as well (with the parents in their plastic coverings and whatnot) but mostly I was feeling the pain too. Geum-ja almost tortures the parents by showing them videos of their children just before they died and I can't help but wonder if she did that just so they would kill Baek. As if their vengeance was more deserving than hers. Maybe yes... maybe no. You decide.

Lady Vengeance did a wonderful job of balancing out some very serious and emotional issues with some of the kick-ass stuff that we want to see in revenge films. The acting is terrific, there are more iconic scenes and individual shots (I particularly like the one of Geum-ja smoking while laughing hysterically and throwing her head back), and there are true issues about the price of vengeance raised. Great movie.

As for the Vengeance Trilogy as a whole, I give it two big thumbs up. There's lots of good stuff in all of the movies and though they are not technically related in any way, they all seem like they belong together in a trilogy for their similarities in themes and style. If you only see one, that's good! But you should definitely see them all.


  1. I could not agree more. Good review.

  2. Love it! This trilogy is awesome

  3. Great review!
    Oldboy is also my personal favorite, and it is, in my humble opinion,
    the first manga-based movie that actually surpasses the manga itself,
    plot-wise and evrything.

    Looking forward to more of your reviews :)

  4. I know that this is late, and that you'll probably never read this, but if you enjoyed Choi Min-sik, you might want to check out Swiri (I've also seen it written as Shiri). He plays a villain in that one who is... I'm not sure how to describe it. I'll say this for the movie, though: It's an awesome mix of action and romance, and everybody that I've shown it to has walked away misty-eyed, including "tough guys" who never cry over movies. It's well worth your time, if you can find it.

    1. Indeed, I do love Choi Min-sik! And Shiri is available on Netflix, so I'm adding it to my queue now. Thank you for the recommendation!

    2. Even if you don't like it, let us know what you think! I dig your reviews and am horribly curious. (But no rush, I am a patient man.)