NOTE: For some reason, Tartan Video has abbreviated the title of Chan-wook Park's Sympathy For Lady Vengeance and shortened it to simply Lady Vengeance. Personally, and for reasons that remain mysterious, that annoys the Hell out of this reviewer and so the film will be referred to in this review by its proper title just because.
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: The two disc release that came out in Korea last year featured an alternate version of the film where the color slowly faded to black and white. That version has not been included on this domestic release from Tartan.
As with the Korean release, the anamorphic 2.35.1 transfer looks very, very nice on this DVD release though there are some differences between the two transfers. Once again, black levels are solid, the colors are very well defined and flesh tones look lifelike and natural. Compression artifacts and edge enhancement are once again almost non-existent (you'll note some artifacts in the darker scenes but that's about it) 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 just as it did on its Korean counterpart. So where does it differ? The Tartan disc has slightly brighter colors than the Korean one and the black levels, while decent, aren't quite as strong. The differences are fairly miniscule but they are there. Both discs look really nice and free of any major authoring or digitization issues so it really comes down to personal preference as to which one you'll like better though you might pick up on some saw tooth artifacts on fast movement where the reds are concerned (although the transfer is flagged for progressive scan from the looks of things). Again, it's a small thing, but it's there if you want to look for it.
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 Spanish that are clean, clear and easy to read. A Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix is also included for those whose hardware can't decode the surround sound options provided. These sound mixes don't differ much at all from the two sound mixes that were present on the Korean DVD.
If you've already got the Korean two-disc release, some of this material might look pretty familiar to you but the inclusion of English subtitles across the board is a marked improvement in that regard. Here's what you'll find in the extra features for this release…
The commentary that Chan-wook Park provided with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung and the film's art director, Hyeon-seok Choi, that was on the Korean DVD has been ported over and subtitled for this domestic release. This is an extremely technical commentary; in fact it's almost completely technical, so if you're into hearing about how certain shots were set up and how certain effects were pulled off then you'll probably really enjoy it. On the other hand, if you want stories about life on set, interaction with the performers or interpretations of what is happening on screen then this isn't one you'll want to bother with. That being said, there are some interesting stories in here alongside the bombardment of technical details (many of which are also quite interesting). They discuss Park's 'specific demands' on set and his use of split screen. They talk about the impact of some intentionally sad scenes and what makes them effective and how they experimented a lot with the various backgrounds used in the movie and the importance of the color red. They also talk about how they tried to show the passage of time in the film by using a few interesting tricks and how certain scenes didn't necessarily go as planned but worked out in spite of themselves. This might seem dry to some, but again, if you're into the technical side of filmmaking this is a smart, intelligent and well paced discussion and dissection of the movie.
Also ported over and subtitled from the Korean release is the commentary that features Chan-wook Park and actress Young-ae Lee. This is a fairly observational commentary with the two spending a fair amount of time talking about what's happening on screen but they do delve into some interesting stories here and there. Park talks about how a woman's looks can make her crimes seem to be an even bigger deal and he also spends a fair bit of time discussing the score that's used in the movie. Lee isn't as active in the talk as her co-conspirator but she gets a few words in edgewise and seems to enjoy talking about the parodies of her character in the film that have emerged since it was released. These two definitely have a good relationship, it comes through very nicely in their interaction and they seem quite comfortable here, almost too relaxed at times in that there are more than a few moments where things slow down a little too much which results in some dead air. Hearing Lee explain her motivations as an actress is interesting, however and if you're a big fan of the movie you'll definitely take something away from this track even if it really would have benefited from having a moderator around to keep the pacing tight.
A third commentary track is also here, courtesy of Richard Pena who is an Associate Professor of Film at Columbia University. This is essentially a critical commentary and it gets a bit dry at times but he really does have a knack for dissecting the film and he does a really good job of pointing out some of the more subtle techniques that used throughout the movie as well as some of the obvious and not so obvious symbolism that is scattered throughout the movie. He also covers the connections between the three films in the 'Revenge Trilogy' but states how Sympathy For Lady Vengeance stands on its own. He also covers the technique and the visual style that plays such an important part in the movie and contrasts this movie to Pick Pocket and other films that use spiritual enlightenment as an important plot device. He also covers some of the more unusual comedic aspects that are used in the movie, as well as the subversion of power that is an important part of the storyline. Periodically there are moments of silence, which go on for a little bit too long, but overall this is a satisfying examination of the movie.
Tartan has also brought over the featurette entitled The Making Of Sympathy For Lady Vengeance that was on the Korean disc, this time in Korean with English subtitles. This is essentially 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. There are some interviews in here but they're brief and conducted on set amongst the chaos – the real reason to watch it is for the behind the scenes footage of which there is quite a bit and which also happens to be pretty interesting.
Last but not least is an on camera video interview with Chan-wook Park who speaks in Korean and is aided by an interpreter who translates his answers into English. Here he talks about his casting decisions, the differences between male and female vengeance, whether or not the type of revenge in the feature is specifically female, how his attitude has changed over the years, and more. It's a pretty interesting interview though subtitling his answers instead of having them translated on screen certainly would have been preferable as this forty-two minute interview could have been cut down to twenty-minutes had that been done.
Rounding out the extra features are animated menus, chapter stops for the feature itself, an audio set up menu, domestic and international trailers for the feature, and a Tartan Asia Extreme trailer reel. There's an insert inside the keepcase that contains the chapter listing on one side and advertisements for other Tartan releases on the other. The keepcase fits inside a cardboard slipcase though the artwork on both is exactly the same.
If you've already got one of the import versions of the film then whether or not you'll want to upgrade depends pretty much entirely on what the extra features are worth to you. That being said, if you've yet to purchase a copy of Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (I'm being stubborn and not abbreviating the title) then Tartan's domestic release is a great way to see it without having to deal with region coding and it 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.