VENGEANCE TRILOGY (SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE / OLDBOY / LADY VENGEANCE) – Blu-ray review

“Vengeance taken will often tear the heart and torment the conscience.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

The past decade has seen the welcome emergence of exciting new filmmakers from across the globe. South Korea has been one of the hot beds for cinema thanks to films like “The Host,” “Tae Guk Gi,” Mother, and the works of Park Chan-wook. Park garnered worldwide acclaim for his 2000 film, “Joint Security Area,” but it was his “Vengeance Trilogy” where he really made his mark. Connected thematically, the three films deal with the tangled web that comes with revenge and violence.

Tartan originally released the “Vengeance Trilogy” on Blu-Ray as a Best Buy exclusive back in March. Now, these high definition releases will be widely available at various retailers and online sites.

SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE
Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) is a deaf, mute, and not-so bright factory worker with a seriously ill sister. The sister has sacrificed a lot to support Ryu and now desperately needs a new kidney. Discovering he has the wrong blood type, Ryu uses his life savings to find one on the black market. Instead, Ryu is double crossed. He wakes up the next morning stripped of his clothes, money, and a kidney. Without the money, Ryu can no longer afford the expensive operation when the hospital finds a suitable donor shortly afterwards. And to put a cherry on top of it, Ryu is fired for missing work.

Ryu’s girlfriend, Yeong-mi Cha (Du-na Bae), sees herself as a revolutionary, yet doesn’t seem to do much other than hand out flyers. Yeong-mi comes up with the idea to kidnap the daughter of Ryu’s former boss, Dong-jin Park (Kang-ho Song). Yeong-mi justifies the abduction by stating that they won’t harm the girl and the money they urgently need is a drop in the bucket for Park.

The kidnapping goes off without a hitch, but what happens next was never in the cards. Once she learns of the truth, Ryu’s sister kills herself rather than be the cause of such a heinous crime. While Ryu buries her body, the girl accidentally drowns and her death sets Park on an unwavering search for revenge. At the same time, Ryu searches for the organ bootleggers to exact his own vengeance. Thus, the stage is set for the two to meet in a bloody, but tragic, confrontation.

Neither Ryu or Dong-jin Park ever each the visceral rage of Oh Dae-su from “Oldboy.” There is a detached coldness to their actions. They’re more likely to calmly smoke a cigarette, rather than enjoy the fruits of their brutality. Partly because of his loss of hearing, Ryu seems to just sleepwalk through life with a naive obliviousness. In one scene, he eats noodles completely unaware that his sister painfully wails behind his back. On a side note, Ha-kyun Shin does a fine job as Ryu and if you’d like to see him do a total 180 check out “Save the Green Planet.”

Chan-wook Park tries to infuse his film with a sense of social consciousness. The plight of the poor and an unjust medical system are the obvious themes. The social commentary comes off a bit heavy-handed, but not nearly as overbearing as a film like “John Q.”

There’s just enough violence in “Mr. Vengeance” to send the squeamish running into another room, but, perhaps, not enough to satisfy those expecting the same level as “Oldboy.” However, in my opinion, the most uneasy scenes are a result of what is not being shown. During the daughter’s autopsy, the camera remains on the father’s face, yet we do hear the sounds of saws cutting through bone and organs being pulled out.

OLDBOY
Intense. Gut-wrenching. Horrifying.

Those words cannot even begin to describe, “Oldboy.” I first saw this film when it was finally released in the U.S. at the end of March (it was originally released in South Korea in 2003). As the end credits rolled, I saw in my seat stunned at what I had just witnessed. It took me a while to digest the film.

“Oldboy” opens up with a wild-haired man dangling another man over the edge of a roof by his tie. The wild-man is Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik). In a flashback, we see a more clean-cut Dae-su in a goofy, drunken stupor inside a police station. The absurdity of the scene is enhanced by Park’s use of jump cuts. On his way to his daughter’s birthday party, Dae-su is abducted and held captive inside a hotel room for fifteen years.

There is no way out and his captors provide him nothing but dumplings to eat. Dae-su’s only window to the outside world is a television set. It is through TV that he discovers that his wife has been murdered and that he has been framed for the crime. Dae-su copes by training his body, pretending to battle invisible enemies. Until, he is suddenly released, dumped onto a rooftop inside a suitcase and given a cell phone. The mastermind of his kidnapping challenges Dae-su to discover, not who he is, but why this has happened.

That is the mystery that drives “Oldboy.” The discovery of the main villain happens fairly quickly, but his connection to Dae-su won’t come out until the film’s shocking ending.

Dae-su is helped by a young and beautiful sushi chef named, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong). In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Dae-su asks to eat something alive and is given an octopus. Still moving on his plate, Dae-su devours it like a rabid carnivore, tentacles still slithering and squirming. The octopus is just the first of Dae-su’s victims.

Another great scene involves a fight scene done in one take that lasts about five minutes. With the camera facing the side, Dae-su confronts a gang of thugs inside a long corridor. This is an ugly, vicious battle with none of that fancy shmancy Jackie Chan choreography. This is dirty street fighting as men attack each other, sometimes falling, sometimes missing.

Park also punctuates the film with moments of dark humor, such as when Dae-su holds a hammer over an intended victim. Both men hold their position as a dotted line appears, tracing the trajectory of the hammer to the head. The villain’s right-hand man, Mr. Han (Kim Byeong-ok), is both amusing and menacing at the same time. Han is a short Judo master with cropped, bleached blond hair. He throws Dae-su about with superhuman strength and, in appearance, reminded me of Takeshi Kitano in “Zatoichi.”

Yu Ji-tae plays Dae-su’s tormentor and his handsome babyface features make him even creepier. Yu pulls off a chilling performance that reaches its peak during the climax.

I wish I could talk to you about the film’s ending, but I’d hate to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet. Suffice to say, the final confrontation will have you alternately at the edge of your seat and covering your mouth as you gasp in horror.

LADY VENGEANCE
Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) shocked the nation with the abduction and murder of a 10-year old boy. The case became a media sensation due to her youth (she was only 19) and her beauty. The only problem? Geum-ja was innocent. She took the fall for Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik), a teacher who took her in when she got pregnant. Baek held Geum-ja’s newborn daughter hostage to ensure she would take the blame. After thirteen years, Geum-ja is released from prison and initiates a plan of revenge that’s been brewing since her incarceration. At the same time, she must reunite with her daughter, Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), who was adopted by a couple in Australia.

The first half of the film is told in fragments of forward narrative and flashbacks. We follow Geum-ja’s putting her plan together, trying to track down her daughter, as well as her life in prison. We meet her network of allies, how they met, and how they fit into her scheme. As an inmate, everyone called Geum-ja “kind-hearted” because of her willingness to help others. She donates a kidney to an ailing convict, who gets her husband to build a custom-made gun for Geum-ja once she is released.

She also had no problem poisoning another inmate who had been bullying fellow prisoners. At one point, Geum-ja confronts the parents of the murdered boy and slices off her pinky finger as a symbol of atonement. A thick bandage is worn on her hand afterwards as a physical symbol of her inner pain. It is a lot of exposition and backstory to sit through, yet it feels like a jigsaw puzzle slowly being put together. You just have to be patient for the big picture to fall into place.

However, “Lady Vengeance” isn’t your standard revenge film. It isn’t a find’em and kill’em film like “Get Carter” or “Kill Bill”, despite the similarities between Geum-ja and Uma Thurman’s Bride. Geum-ja doesn’t hack and slash her way through an assortment of underlings before making it to the big boss. You expect “Lady Vengeance” to go one way after all the set-up, but it takes you in a different direction. I’m hesitant to say anymore lest I spoil the final act, but payback is found in a startling and unexpected fashion.

“Lady Vengeance” isn’t as gruesome as “Mr. Vengeance” or “Oldboy.” Much of the violence happens off-screen. Still, I wouldn’t say Park’s latest endeavor is a kindler and gentler film. There’s a sharp edge to the film thanks to Park’s unique visual style of shot composition and camera movement, along with a heavy dose of dark comedy. The look of the film is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie” or Neil Jordan’s “Butcher Boy.” In one scene, we find Geum-ja praying as light surrounds her head as if she was the Virgin Mary. A later scene dips into the surreal when Geum-ja dreams of dragging Baek (whose head is attached to the body of a dog) onto a snow covered cliff. She draws her gun and blows his brains out as a slight smile breaks across her sleeping face.

Lee Yeong-ae is perfect as Geum-ja, easily embodying the angelic face that the character is described as having. From the clean innocence of her youth to the older hardened Geum-ja who cakes her face with white powder and purple eyeliner to erase the face that made her famous. Yeong-ae’s deadpan delivery makes the morbid humor of the film all the more amusing. A preacher welcomes Geum-ja on the day she is released with a choir and a plate of tofu. The consumption of which symbolizes the eater’s wish to cleanse their soul and become pure. Geum-ja nonchalantly tips the tofu onto the ground and tells the preacher to “go screw yourself.”

White plays a huge part in “Lady Vengeance” thanks to Park’s use of tofu, pastries, and snow. The film is as much about Geum-ja’s path to redemption as it is about her path to revenge. She did not kill the boy, but still played a role in his kidnapping and the guilt of that crime and of being a terrible mother haunts her throughout the film.

VIDEO:
All three films are presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Both “Mr. Vengeance” and “Lady Vengeance” look amazing and in near-pristine condition. The transfer for “Oldboy” is a little more erratic. At times, the picture is close to quality as the other movies with “Olboy” rich in green. At other times, the picture is soft with noticeable graininess. In particular, the infamous hallway fight scene suffers from both problems.

Individually, I’d rate “Mr. Vengeance” and “Lady Vengeance” a 9 with “Oldboy” receiving a 7.

AUDIO:
“Mr. Vengeance” and “Lady Vengeance” come with robust DTS-HD 5.1 tracks in the original Korean language. The boxset takes a hit again with “Oldboy.” The packaging advertises a DTS-HD 7.1 track which was available on the previous standalone Blu-Ray. However, it is not present and was likely dumped to make room for the additional extras. In its place, the disc comes with a Dolby Digital EX 5.1 track and a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, both of which are in the original Korean language. Tartan also threw in two English dubbed tracks in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0.

I didn’t bother with the dubbed tracks, but the 5.1 EX track is pretty good. Still, it’s no substitute for lossless audio. The exclusion of a high definition track knocks “Oldboy” down to a 6 while the other films get an 8.

EXTRAS:
The boxset comes packaged in a nice tin and comes with a 30-page booklet containing essays by the likes of Eli Roth and producers Don Murphy and Susan Montford, among others. All the extras available on the discs are in standard definition.

“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” contains all the previous extras from the DVD release as well as a wealth of new material. There is an audio commentary track by Chan-wook Park and fellow director Seung-wan Ryu, who acts as moderator. It is in Korean with English subtitles.

The Process of Mr. Vengeance (32:05) is a behind-the-scenes documentary taking us through the filmmaking process beginning with the actors attending sign language school. The feature moves onto they achieved the fight scenes and make-up effects.

My Boksu Story (17:22) is a series of new interviews with the cast as they look back on making the film.

Cast Interviews (40:03) feature more words with the cast and crew during production and shortly afterwards. There is quite a lot of overlapping and some of the footage here was also used in Process.

Jonathan Ross on Park Chan-wook (16:58) is a feature about the director hosted by the British talk show host.

Rounding out the Blu-Ray are storyboards, a quick photo montage, and the original theatrical trailer.

“Oldboy” contains all the same extras that were available on the 3-Disc Collector’s Edition.

First up are three commentary tracks, all in Korean with English subtitles. Track 1 features Park and cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hun and it’s a very technical track touching upon topics such as lighting and shot composition. A second track features Park with actors Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, and Kang Hye-jeong It’s the usual breezy track that occurs when you gather a big group like this. They’re all happy to see each other and discuss the film. There’s nary a moment of silence and everyone is always asking each other questions. The third track features Park flying solo. He tends to repeat what’s happening on-screen, but, for the most part, he explains the different choices he made in creating the film.

Behind the Scenes Documentaries is a five-part look at the production and each chapter is pretty self-explanatory. Included are: CGI Documentary(7:06), Flashback (23:34), Making the Film – The Cast Members (10:55), The Music Score (16:48), and Production Design (13:12)

Cast and Crew Interviews (49:50) is an exhaustive collection of 11 different interviews with director Park Chan-wook, “Oldboy” manga writer Tsuchiya Garon, and various members of the cast. Most are pretty short running anywhere between three to five minutes.

Le Grand Prix at Cannes (8:49) features footage of the cast and crew making the rounds at Cannes as well as their reactions to the film playing there and winning the Grand Jury Prize.

The Autobiography of Oldboy runs close to three and a half hours and was the crown jewel of the Collector’s Edition. It gives us an up-close and in-depth look at the making of the film. There isn’t any voice-over or narration, other than someone occasionally addressing the camera. We are essentially watching them make the movie. For film buffs, it’s certainly interesting, but over three hours of this footage can be a tad tedious.

Finishing out the “Oldboy” Blu-Ray is a collection of deleted scenes with optional commentary tracks and the film’s original theatrical trailer.

“Lady Vengeance” comes with the extras from the previous DVD and new ones from the Korean release. The highlight is definitely the Region 1 debut of the “Fade to White” version of the film in which the colors slowly drip away until it becomes a black and white picture.

The Blu-Ray also comes with three commentary tracks. The first is with Park Chan-Wook and actress Lee Yeong-ae as they discuss the making of the film. The second is with Park and the film’s cinematographer and art director. This track is more technical as they discuss special effects, lighting, and production design. Both are in Korean with optional English subtitles. The third track is by film professor Richard Pena, who takes a scholarly approach to talking about the film. He delves into the symbolism and themes of the movie, but tends to describe or summarize the plot a bit too much.

The rest of the extras are housed on a separate DVD.

Making of Lady Vengeance (10:44) is your standard behind-the-scenes look with interviews and raw on-set footage.

Lady Vengeance EPK (28:07) is a press kit with more behind-the-scenes footage, scenes from the film, and trailers.

Style of Lady Vengeance is a five-part documentary focusing on creating the look of the picture. Included are: Visualization (6:23), Production Design (8:17), Costume & Makeup(8:05), Special Art (7:02), and Computer Graphics(6:58)

The Park Chan-Wook section contains four separate pieces.Interview with Park Chan-wook(42:04) is a sit-down interview with the director and translator done during a press junket. Park Chan-wook, Mr. Vengeance (17:21) is a shorter interview which covers some of the same material. Photography (9:48) is a featurette about Park’s penchant for snapping photos during production. To make this even cooler, Park states he was inspired to do so by Jeff Bridges. Director’s Choice (3:08) is a very quick interview with Park recommending the short film, “The Freaking Family,” and a word from the filmmakers. And, no, the short was not included on the disc.

Character Interviews are a quartet of interviews with the cast discussing their characters. Included are: Lee Geum-ja (6:29), Professor Baek (6:39), Prisoners (5:21), and Families (7:38)

Lady Vengeance in Venice (8:24) features footage of the cast and crew at the Venice Film Festival.

Get Together (9:28) is a featurette about the actors from Park’s previous films returning for the finale in various cameos and supporting roles.

Rounding out the DVD is a collection of deleted scenes, trailers, and TV spots.

FILM VALUE:
Three of the best films of the decade included in one set make this the must-own release of the year. If you haven’t seen these films then I urge you to rush out and watch them. Tartan’s Blu-Ray boxset contains a wealth of extras and two excellent transfers. The only disappointment is the treatment of “Oldboy.” The transfer is spotty and the exclusion of a lossless audio track is a black mark. The extras for “Lady Vengeance” were included on a second disc so I’m not sure why they couldn’t have done the same for “Oldboy.” This would have freed up memory on the Blu-Ray for the DTS-HD track. Despite that, I recommend the “The Vengeance Trilogy” whole-heartedly.

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