For better or worse, Korean director Park Chan-Wook's three films with vengeance as the motif are going to be his legacy for cinematic audiences. They have been a benefit on several levels; they've introduced audiences to Korean cinema and specifically to Park's style of storytelling. And what began as a novel idea has grown into a massive fan following for the director, and it's great to see all three films arrive on Blu-ray. So why not take a stroll down memory lane?
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Lee Jae-Sun and Lee Jong-Yong co-wrote the screen that Park directs. The film looks at revenge from two slightly different perspectives, almost splitting the movie in half. In the first half, Ryu (Shin Ha-Kyun) is a deaf factory worker who is desperately trying to scrounge up money for a kidney transplant for his dying sister. He even agrees to donate a kidney to a black market organ donor in exchange for money and one of his own kidneys. However when he wakes up, neither the money nor the information on a donor kidney can be found.
This forces Rye to scramble a bit to find some help for her sister, and he resorts to kidnapping the daughter of the factory boss who recently laid him off from his job. When this fails, they kidnap the daughter of the boss's friend, who is boss of a different factory. This gentleman, Park Dong-Jin (Song Kang-Ho, Thirst) tries whatever he can to get his daughter back, and even pays the ransom to get his daughter back. But before the child can be returned, Ryu's sister has learned of the plan and kills herself. When burying her body in a secluded area next to a river, the child (who comes with Ryu) drowns in the river by falling off a rickety bridge. Ryu's problems have escalated.
This is when Dong-Jin's half of the film picks up. He goes to the crime scene. He goes to the mortuary. He and his family watch her daughter get cremated. He's riddled with guilt and pain through the process, which is evident in a scene after the cremation, when he sees his daughter and hugs her one last time. He then flips a switch in his head to make sure that those responsible for it pay with their lives. However, Dong-Jin's obsession consumes him in a cold-blooded, precise manner. When he finally gets the chance to confront Ryu, he almost regrets that it has to come to this. But Dong-Jin has nothing left, and this is something he's compelled to do, regardless of how it ends.
Watching Song's performance, I took away just how effectively he was able to close everything off and become single-minded on his focus, but like Park tends to infer in interviews and these films, the revenge motivation is not only futile, but tends to have an effect on others around you. While the ultimate end of the movie seemed a little convenient for my tastes, the overall film itself remains a great opening film for this trilogy, and little did we know what was coming down the pipeline in Park's next two films.
When Oldboy came to audiences, and to me for that matter, I was new to Park's ways and mannerisms, but in the film, I saw a story, pared down to its more visceral emotions told in a daring and equally visceral way. And of the three films, Park seems to capture vengeance in its most primal form, palpable to the viewer.
Adapted from a Japanese manga, the premise is simple; Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) is a businessman with a wife and child at home, and after a night of excessive drinking and abrasive behavior, finds himself abducted and forced to live in a hotel room for 15 years. He is fed, his hair is cut and his room is cleaned periodically. This is done when he's knocked out from a valium gas that is pumped into his room. When he is released, he has five days to figure out the reasons (and the person) behind the kidnapping, or those few remaining important people in his life will be murdered.
When I say this is a more primal or emotional feeling viewing experience, Choi helps accomplish this with a physical transformation that is DeNiro-esque in accomplishment. While he doesn't gain or lose large amounts of weight, Choi helps us see and feel his imprisonment, and his transformation into a quietly physical force. During the now infamous sequence when he fights more than a dozen people armed with only a hammer, normally you wouldn't think that a man of Choi's build could do this, but he's been training for one thing for the last 15 years, and a dozen people are but a blip on the screen to him.
Those who complement Choi in the film also turn in accomplished performances; Kang Hye-jeong plays Mido, the sushi chef that Dae-Su encounters and eventually falls in love with. She helps soften Dae-Su's one-sided goal of vengeance that he wants to realize, and Yu Ji-Tae plays Woo-Jin, the man responsible for Dae-Su's imprisonment. His proposal to Dae-Su is simple enough, and if he finds out the guilty party, Woo-Jin has no qualms in killing himself as a prize of sorts. Woo-Jin is much more aware of his role in this soap opera, and when Dae-Su realizes it, he seems to feel the same tinge of closure that Woo-Jin does, and it's hollow for him.
It's easy to see why Oldboy took North American audiences by storm, because it was unlike anything that had been seen before to many of us. Park gives us a mix of action, suspense and dark humor in some moments, and uses the image frame to mix computer graphics and practically shot footage, and subtitles put in the middle of the frame on occasion. It was a pronouncement like no other, and Park came back with a vengeance (I walked right into that one)...
Park co-wrote this film, and the title character's more formal name is Lee Geum-Ja (Lee Yeong-Ae, JSA). Lee confesses to the murder of a child and serves more than a decade in prison for it. She is forced into this confession by Mr. Baek (Choi Min-Sik), who not only was the real culprit of the crime, but he threatened the life of Lee's infant daughter in exchange for her confession.
While in prison, she's a nice enough person. She helps other prisoners who are in tough situations, but when she gets out of prison, she visits them and asks them to repay their favors, part of a plan that she's been developing while inside. Also when she gets out, she attempts to locate her daughter, who is now living in Australia with foster parents, but she also tries to reconcile her daughter's feelings of abandonment. When he does find Baek, not only does she find out that he has killed several other children since Lee was imprisoned, but she decides to make sure the family members who paid the ransoms to Baek (who eventually killed their children anyway) confront him and decide what they'd like to do with him.
If you're familiar with the film, you'll know that Park decided to slowly transition the color out of the film, to the point where the second half ran almost entirely as a black and white feature. The reasoning for this is that Park wants Lee to gradually get to a point inside her head that she can ask for forgiveness. From whom remains to be seen, but compared to Oldboy, her quest is shown with more of the ramifications of it in mind. Dae-Su has nothing left when he starts on his path, and his path has revenge at the end point. Lee's vengeance isn't the end of her character. She still has time she wants to spend with Jenny (her daughter), and Jenny serves as the new part of her life. It's no shock that her gesture of redemption (eating Tofu) isn't done with the preacher who took up her cause, it's done with Jenny.
Perhaps why that's why, for as much as I love Oldboy, I like Lady Vengeance almost as much. Where the former focuses on the emotion itself, the latter looks at the collateral damage from it, and each is compelling in its own way. Even with Mr. Vengeance you get to see how and what could be done to propel someone to feelings of revenge. So while the Vengeance Trilogy of films from Park Chan-Wook may not be Lord of the Rings in pure size, it makes up for this in emotional impact and unique storytelling by an increasingly polished voice in filmmaking. It seems fitting that in Lady Vengeance we see many of the actors in the other two films appear in cameos here. To celebrate what has been a grand journey, both for them and for us.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Note: All three films are presented in 1080p high-definition and use the AVC codec.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
The 2.35:1 high-definition presentation afforded to Sympathy is worth the wait for devotees of the film. Flesh tones are reproduced accurately and fine image detail is much better than expected. Blacks are sharp and consistent throughout the film, and the greens that seem to be prevalent in the film appear just as Park would intend for this film, without little in the way of bleeding. There's a moment of softness here and there, along with some edge enhancement, but it's a definite upgrade over the existing standard definition discs.
The 2.35:1 presentation looks fine, though one could confuse quick glances with its standalone predecessor and swear it looks a tad better. Skin tones appear to be a little closer to natural, and blacks appear a shade darker and more consistent, and the background detail is a little more discernible than it is in the single-disc version. Don't get me wrong, Oldboy is NEVER going to be a reference quality disc, but it looks a little better in small notes than it did before.
Whether it's the color or 'Fade to White' version, Lady Vengeance is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and looks outstanding. Image detail in tighter shots can be spotted in facial pores and hair, and you can spot snowflakes hitting faces and melting on cheeks without any problem. Background depth is consistent despite the occasional bout of artifacts, and blacks are surprisingly solid through the feature. Even some of the more vivid colors like reds are reproduced accurately and without oversaturation. It's only fitting that Park's final film in the trilogy is given the proper treatment it deserves.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track for the film is OK, though there's not a lot of action to speak of in it. There's more environmental effects in the film than I remember it, and the rainstorm that occurs while Dong-Jin was visiting one of the slums made you feel like you were one of the people outside. And in the autopsy scene, the saws, cracking and thuds of organs being handled and bones being cut gives you the proper effect that Dong-Jin was experiencing at the time. There's not much in the way of surround/directional effects, and I don't recall the subwoofer firing, but it's still a worthwhile improvement over the standard definition edition.
Tartan touts a DTS-HD lossless mix, but none is to be found on the disc. There's a Korean Dolby Digital EX, and English Dolby Digital Surround track, and two two-channel stereo mixes. The lossless EX track is serviceable; dialogue is inconsistent through the feature and it lacks any real directional effect placement in the channels, but it really loses ground in the low-end, during some of the fighting sequences. Those are the types of things that could have benefitted from the lossless track, so while it's an "Ultimate Revenge Edition," it's not an "ULTIMATE Revenge Edition."
The DTS-HD Master Audio lossless track that's advertised here is, in fact on the disc, and it's holds its own weight. Dialogue is well-balanced in the center channel and requires little adjustment, and the fact that there's little action in the film shouldn't be a deterrent, because the soundstage has nice use made of it, with environmental sounds as directional effects in the support channels, with subwoofer activity occurring sporadically through the feature. It's more steak than sizzle, but in the case of Lady Vengeance, you'll get no argument from me.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
So if the commentary from the Region 1 release and the extras from the Region 3 release got together and had a kid, you'd have this Blu-ray disc. The only really new extra is a piece on Park's work from JSA to Oldboy, done by British presenter Jonathan Ross (16:58). Park also covers the intent and style for his films there and what makes them particularly good. It's a comprehensive set, though of the three is the lightest in the bunch, supplementary speaking.
The extras from the previous Blu-ray are brought over here (feel free to peruse Daniel Hirshleifer's review for more on those), but the big extra is "The Autobiography of Oldboy" (3:29:37), which is a video diary of the film's production. It's admittedly a little hard to sit through without a little more order in the piece, but it includes loads of cast and crew interviews on set, and shows Park's interactions with the cast, instructing them on what to do for a particular scene. More behind the scenes moments like working through production challenges on the subways are shown, and some more candid moments with cast/crew birthdays are even given some attention. And rehearsals for some of the more notable sequences (cough, live octopus, cough cough) are given some focus as well. Put together a little more smartly and this would be an essential piece on any DVD, but it's excellent as is.
Tartan has not only trumped the recent Region B UK BD release, but put many of the extras found on the standard definition R3 Limited Edition release (which Ian Jane reviewed many moons ago here) onto this Blu-ray disc to make for the Ultimate-st edition possible. Disc One includes the color and "Fade to White" cuts of the film, along with two commentary tracks, one by Park and Lee and the other with Park, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung and the film's art director, Hyeon-seok Choi. Richard Pena handles the 'critic' portion of the third commentary track. Pena's track has its fair share of information, but ultimately doesn't add much new information to the track. Park also includes an introduction to the "White" version (1:22), explaining his reasons for it.
The features on the Making of the Film and its style follow on Disc Two, along with the deleted scenes, character interviews and "Lady Vengeance in Venice" segment. New to this edition is a section on Park, starting with an interview done with him ahead of film publicity (42:02), where he discusses film styles and ideas, and some of the larger concepts in the story. "Mr. Vengeance" (17:20) includes Park discusses the Vengeance films or more specifically, this one and Oldboy. This also shows the actors from other Park films appearing in this one, and film critics (including Harry Knowles) talk about how they came to Park's films the first time, and their thoughts of them. Some photos taken by Park are next (9:47), along with his reasons and motivations for taking on-set pics (think Jeff Bridges). Park also talks about a short film called "The Freaking Family" which he recommends, though the film isn't included here.
From there, "Get Together" (9:25) is the dedicated piece that shows the actors from Park's other Vengeance films and their cameos in this one, and two trailers, a TV spot and poster gallery complete the set.
A small postscript to this tin, there's a 30-page booklet which includes thoughts on Park's films by contemporaries like Eli Roth. It's well-written and put together for something that doesn't have 'Criterion' on the side of the case.
Without a doubt, the Vengeance Trilogy from Park Chan-Wook is one of the better such trilogies out there, and deserves experiencing. Tartan has packed each disc to the proverbial gills with supplements, and while I'd give this the Collector's Series label, the dropping of the lossless track on Oldboy is the only blemish on an otherwise stellar set. Run, do not walk, to get your copy of this set on Blu-ray.