NOTE: Please be aware that this DVD is a Korean import and is coded for Region 3 DVD players. In order to view this DVD, you'll have to have either a Region 3 coded or Region Free DVD player. [Recommended Region Free Players] It will not play in standard Region 1 North American DVD players.
South Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park made a name for himself with J.S.A. and later with Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, a hard-edged and emotionally involving tale of revenge. He followed that film with the second in his 'revenge trilogy,' the masterful and very popular Oldboy. A year or so later, he finished the trilogy with the release of Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, a film which shares some of the same basic themes and principals of the two earlier entries but definitely stands on its own as a truly unique and gripping work of cinema. Needless to say, with the international popularity and critical acclaim that was lauded on Oldboy, expectations were high for this film – thankfully, Park delivers.
The movie follows the story of Geum-ja (Young-ae Lee who appeared in Park's J.S.A. as well), a very pretty young woman who has been imprisoned since the age of nineteen for the murder of a young boy. Thirteen years after she was convicted, she's released from jail and back into the general population where she winds up with a job at a small bakery. Before she left prison, however, she made some friends thanks to the fact that she was, with one major exception, very kind to her fellow inmates and would go out of her way to help them when they were down. The exception? Well, there's the small matter of murder, but the victim had a tendency to rape her fellow prisoners anyway, so she kind of had it coming to her.
What we soon learn though is that Geum-ja's kindness was all simply a means to an end for her. It wasn't born out of concern or love for her fellow inmate, it was simply a way to ally herself with a few people on the outside world so that she could put into motion the wheels of her plan for revenge. It seems that Geum-ja wasn't actually responsible for the murder of the boy, it was Mr. Baek (Min-shik Choi of Oldboy), her former high school teacher. At a young age, Geum-ja became pregnant and if she didn't take the fall for Baek, he'd have harmed her daughter – so she had no choice but to do the time for Mr. Baek's crime.
With her daughter less than a year old, she was put up for adoption. Now out of jail, Guem-ja has tracked her down in Australia where she's been raised by a nice, albeit, rather odd, couple who care about her very much. Guem-ja simply wanted to apologize and, in addition to getting her revenge on Baek, she knows she needs to redeem herself in the eyes of her daughter, but it isn't going to be that easy.
And we'll leave it at that.
What's interesting about Sympathy For Lady Vengeance is that it manages to fall squarely in between the cold, calculating revenge of Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and the completely over the top pre-meditated revenge of Oldboy and it works out quite nicely. As a whole, the trilogy stands as a very unique take on one of cinema's oldest and most reliable genres but it takes the formula for the standard revenge movie and dissects it, exploring new ways to deliver that dish best served cold. It's this unique take on what can be done with a rather simple premise and the many layers on which the three stories function that makes the trilogy not so much an exercise in style over substance but an exercise in style and substance. Admittedly, the visuals in all three films and specifically in Sympathy For Lady Vengeance are very flashy and definitely meant to impress but the stories hold their own and completely validate each and every excessive frame.
Through a multitude of minor subplots and interesting flashback sequences, Park fills us in as we go along with just enough information that it all makes sense but still manages to keep us guessing and keep us thinking throughout the duration of the film. It might seem a little confusing at first but if you stick with it and pay attention you're well rewarded for your efforts from about the half way point on, where the reality of Guem-ja's situation becomes more evident and the loose ends start to tie themselves up. When the end credits hit after one of the most memorable closing shots in recent years, you're quite simply left in awe and just how well done the film really is in terms of technique, performances, and narrative.
The cinematography and the way that the scene transitions are handled in the film are both top notch. The movie flows so incredibly well in terms of what you see on the screen that even if nothing happened in the storyline it would still be a completely hypnotic film. To call the look of the film smooth would be an understatement but it really is so fluid that it's hard to come away any less than completely impressed. The contrast, the color scheme, the use of shadow and the little touches like the hues in the costumes and the eye shadow Guem-ja wears all add up to one of the prettiest movies to come out in quite some time.
Young-ae Lee is absolutely fantastic in the lead. While she lacks the ferocious intensity that Choi Min-sik had in Oldboy, the part doesn't need it as the story really is more about the development of the revenge rather than the execution. Not only is she striking in her appearance here, particularly when she wears the red eye shadow, but she's completely believable whether playing the calm but driven woman out for blood or the mother so saddened by what has happened to her relationship with her daughter. She's quite mesmerizing and completely capable of sucking you right into her story. Speaking of Choi Min-sik, he's very good here, this time playing the villain. He makes a very good counterpart to Choi's performance, he's a little more manic and a little more off the wall here. The scene where he's dancing and singing with the children in his classroom demonstrates a serious contrast to what we know he's guilty of and later on, when we see the videotaped evidence of his crimes, the scene delivers quite a heavy blow.
The Fade To Black And White Version: Worth noting is that this two disc set presents not only the full color version of the film that played theatrically in Korea, but also Chan-wook Park's preferred version of the film, which starts to fade from full color to black and white around the middle of the film and continues that trend until about the ninety-minute mark where it remains in black and white for the duration. This is a really interesting trick and it does present the later part of the movie in a fairly different light. While seeing it in full color gives us the chance to appreciate the art direction, the black and white version somehow seems to fit the storyline better. Ultimately, it's nice to have both versions of the film so that you can make up your own mind but this is a really interesting visual alteration to an already very layered and interesting looking film.
The anamorphic 2.35.1 transfer looks very, very nice on this DVD release. Blacks are solid, colors are very well defined and flesh tones look lifelike and natural. Compression artifacts and edge enhancement are almost non-existent and there isn't a whole lot to complain about. There's plenty of both foreground and background detail present in the image from start to finish and color reproduction is drop dead gorgeous. There's a tiny hint of aliasing present in a few scenes but other than that there aren't really any digital transfer issues worth noting aside from some very slight edge enhancement here and there. Print damage is pretty much non-existent and while there is some fine film grain in one or two spots, that's okay as it isn't ever once overpowering or distracting in the least. Sympathy For Lady Vengeance looks damn good on this DVD.
Surround sound options are available in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and a DTS 6.1 mix. The DTS mix is great – very active and properly balanced demonstrating distinct channel separation, crystal clear dialogue, and great use of the rear channels for sound effects and background music. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix has slightly less LFE in it, but is also quite solid and the score sounds fantastic regardless of which option you choose. Optional subtitles are available in Korean and in English. Clarity is great on all three tracks, and the DTS mix sounds exceptionally good, particularly when the soundtrack kicks in or when the more action-oriented scenes take place. There are optional subtitles available for the feature only in English and in Korean that are clean, clear and easy to read.
Please note that the version of the film on the second disc has only one audio track, and that's a Korean DTS option so if you don't have the proper hardware setup, you're going to be out of luck.
CJ Entertainment has released Sympathy For Lady Vengeance in a two disc special edition that contains both cuts of the film and spreads the extras across both discs. Here's what you'll find and where you'll find it:
Aside from the full color version of the feature, this disc also contains two commentary tracks. The first track features director Chan-wook Park (he's joined by actress Young-ae Lee), and the second one features director Chan-wook Park, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung and the film's art director, Hyeon-seok Choi. Unfortunately, neither one of these commentary tracks include any English subtitles so unless you're fluent in Korean, they're not going to be of any value to you, which is unfortunate as it's certain that it would have been quite interesting to hear the people who made the film discuss their experiences and ideas in more depth.
Aside from the commentary tracks, the first disc also includes a featurette entitled The Making Of Sympathy For Lady Vengeance. Again, in Korean without an English subtitles, this one is a bit hard to follow but it does give just under eleven minutes worth of behind the scenes and on set footage that show the cast and crew members in a more jovial mood than you might expect given the heaviness of the film that they're making. While it's difficult to follow what's being said, the footage here is interesting enough even without English subtitles and this is worth checking out if you were into the movie and would like to see more about how it was made.
Characters For Lady Vengeance is a collection of four interviews: Young-ae Lee, Min-shik Choi, Bu-seon Kim, and most of the actors who played the family members of the deceased children from the movie. Combined, these four interviews fun a total of just a few seconds over twenty-six minutes in length and again, they're in Korean without any subtitles making them impenetrable to those who don't speak the language.
Sympathy For Lady Vengeance In Venice is eight and a half minutes of footage from the film's premiere at the Venice Film Festival. There's some neat footage here of a press conference, a few cast members are interviewed, and we also see some footage from the festival itself. No subtitles, but you can still get the general idea of how the film went over as everyone seems very upbeat and positive here.
Rounding off disc one are two theatrical trailers for the movie, a single television spot, and a still gallery of poster art.
The second disc includes the 'fade to black and white' version of the film already discussed, as well as a few other interesting extra features. Included as a secondary audio track for the film is a commentary track from a Korean film critic but again, no English subtitles are provided.
A documentary entitled The Style Of Lady Vengeance is an interesting peak at the look of the film was developed. With a combined running time of roughly half an hour in length, the five sections of this documentary are: Visualization, Production Costume And Make Up, Special Art and a section on Computer Graphics Effects. This is a pretty interesting look at how the filmmakers and technicians came up with the unique look of the movie, with a lot of attention given to the integration of computer graphics.
Rounding out the extras on the second disc is a series of deleted scenes that are available with or without an audio commentary from Chan-wook Park (neither the audio for these scenes or the commentary have English subtitles). Presented in 2.35.1 widescreen (non-anamorphic) with the time code overtop and with a combined running time of just over fourteen minutes, it's a little difficult to know exactly what's going on in some of them as a few are simply unfinished bits with the actors in front of a green screen. It's interesting to go through them and see what Park removed from the finished version of the movie, however, so CJ Entertainment should be commended for including them here.
The two discs are bundled up nicely in a slick looking black digipak housing that also includes a liner note insert (in Korean only) with some nice artwork from the movie and some notes about the film.
Chan-wook Park continues his amazing run with Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, a film that hits the perfect balance of drama, humor, suspense and character development with so much style it almost hurts. The two-disc set from CJ Entertainment looks and sounds fantastic and has the added bonus of including both versions of the film. Despite the fact not all of the extra features have English subtitles (it's hard to fault a Korean release for being in Korean only, even if it is disappointing), there is a wealth of supplemental material included in this set and it's without any hesitation at all that this release comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.