Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy (2002-2005) | Retro Review

Park Chan-wook, one of South Korea’s finest filmmakers, is fast becoming one of my favorite directors. I first encountered the director with his 2016 feature The Handmaiden, a stylish and precise near-masterpiece, which then made me go back and watch Oldboy, which I thought was just as brilliant. Years later, I have now reviewed his so-called vengeance trilogy, which includes the aforementioned Oldboy. In this article, you will find reviews of the three films in the thematic trilogy known as the vengeance trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005).

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

Shin Ha-kyun in SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE — PHOTO: CJ Entertainment / Tartan Films.

Directed by Park Chan-wook — Screenplay by Park Chan-wook, Lee Jae-soon, Lee Moo-young, and Lee Yong-jong.

In 2000, Park Chan-wook found critical and box office success with Joint Security Area, which I just reviewed the other day. It, a humanist film about a murder on the border between North and South Korea (and the men who guard the border), is a brilliant film that was at one point the highest-grossing film in South Korea. His next film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance did not fare as well commercially, but it did kickstart the thematic trilogy that launched his career internationally.

Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance tells the story of a young deaf-mute man, Ryu (played by Shin Ha-kyun), who, in an attempt to secure enough money for his sister’s kidney transplant, kidnaps a wealthy man’s daughter and holds her for ransom. This crime sets in motion a path of vengeance and a series of tragedies that Ryu finds it difficult to control.

This film gets off to a relatively slow start and the deliberately slow pace immediately presents somewhat of a challenge to the audience, as you are meant to sit with the truly sad, grim, and hopeless events of the film. Outside of the challenging pace, I would say that the decision to sometimes communicate Ryu’s thoughts and sign language through on-screen text with black backgrounds as if it were a silent film is an interesting choice that may take viewers out of the film they’re watching.

The film invites you to sympathize with certain characters and their plights and your allegiances will change over the course of the film, but that sympathy is then punished by the trail of blood that these central characters leave on their paths. I think of this as somewhat of a tragedy of errors as much as it is a film about the endless cycle of violence. And it is really violent.

Park does some interesting things with regard to framing and what he cuts to and from. These cuts can feel quite inventive but they also often seem to suggest some kind of violence happening off-screen. He toys with your mind and your expectations. Park also makes sure to have both of these main characters with red markings on their hands early on in order to suggest what is going to transpire. I thought that was rather smart in one of the instances. Not so much with the cut in Dong-jin’s hand, but especially so with the red fingerprint powder leaving an imprint on Ryu’s finger as he is laid off (indicating blood on one’s hand).

I think there might be some interesting social commentary in the central plot of the film. We are meant to have more sympathy for one character than another because of their perceived social standings and plights, and, on top of that, it feels somewhat like a critique of how expensive operations are. Ryu’s sister isn’t the only one here who needs to get a life-saving surgery and she isn’t the only one lacking the funds to make it happen. The existence of black market organ sellers, and the fact that it is apparently a family organization (I believe I remember a mother and a son being a part of it), also seems to suggest some societal problem with the price of health care and perhaps even cost of living and employment.

Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is masterfully made but also exhaustingly bleak. It is a film that I think successfully communicates its central theme and also its social critique. The main performances are also quite strong. The one thing that, to me, holds it back from being as impressive as some of his other films is the pace of the film and the mood it leaves you with. I can understand why it didn’t get as much of an audience as Joint Security Area did, but this is still a great film.

8 out of 10

Oldboy (2003)

Choi Min-sik in OLDBOY — PHOTO: CJ Entertainment / Show East.

Directed by Park Chan-wook — Screenplay by Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Jun-hyung, and Park Chan-wook.

Though it probably needs no introduction to my fellow cineastes, I will do my best to set up Park Chan-wook’s incredible neo-noir action thriller Oldboy. It is the second film in Park’s vengeance trilogy and undoubtedly his most well-known film. The film, which was based on a manga, is a worldwide success and become so well-liked that it resulted in an English-language remake, but I digress. When you write about a film as internationally renowned as this one, it becomes damn near impossible to say anything no one has noted beforehand, so that is a fool’s game. Instead, I want to tell you why I think this film is amazing.

Oldboy tells the story of Oh Dae-su (played by Choi Min-sik), a drunken father and businessman, who, in 1988, is taken against his will and imprisoned secretly for fifteen years. From his sealed room, he learns that he has been framed for the murder of his wife, and he gradually starts to lose it. Then, suddenly, he is freed. Now he has only one thing that keeps him going: He must have his revenge.

This is probably the third time I’ve watched the film, so its secrets are not new to me. But having watched it again now after seeing the other films in the vengeance trilogy (though it is the second film in the trilogy, I watched this last, since I had seen it before), there are some new things I want to note. Namely, I think it is interesting that all three of these films in some way, shape, or form revolve around freedom being taken away but also the loss of a family member. These types of incidents are the catalysts for the developments in all three films to a certain extent, which I find rather interesting.

To me, Oldboy is easily Park Chan-wook’s best film in this trilogy, which says a lot since all three are great. Unlike the two ‘sympathy’ films, I think the film feels so propulsive. Although there are numerous flashbacks in this film, it never feels like the film tracks back unnecessarily. It is a perfectly paced mystery and a revenge film that is so well-plotted and precisely constructed. Park has you in the palm of his hand from minute one with its opening that immediately gets your heart pumping, and he never lets you go, as the ultimate ambiguity of the film’s ending will stick with you. It also helps that the film’s reveal — the payoff to the central mystery — is so shocking. It is an unforgettable film for its perfectly designed greek tragedy-like narrative (and the unfolding thereof), but also because of the masterful filmmaking that is built around the narrative.

Like Lady Vengeance, Oldboy is much showier than Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. This really is Park Chan-wook playing with all of the techniques at his disposal, and it is so exciting to watch. The action is outstanding. This film is known for its incredible hammer/hand-to-hand long-take combat scene, which is just jaw-dropping in the precision of the choreography and the satisfaction of the camera movements. The attention to detail in each and every shot is just astounding. There is a perfectly framed shot, for example, where we look down at Dae-su through a vent in the ceiling, and it genuinely looks like he is behind prison bars (even though he isn’t technically). There are several inventive and satisfying (and perfectly done) match and jump cuts. And there are some really good scenes that use digital manipulation to execute a transition. It is all so playful and so perfectly put together. The only thing that doesn’t really hold up is the visual effects used to create the scenes where Dae-su imagines ants are on him. 

Put simply, Oldboy is Park Chan-wook fully unleashed. It is a showy and perfectly paced action-revenge mystery with an amazing payoff and masterful and precise shot compositions. Choi Min-sik is also just incredible in the primary role. 

10 out of 10

Lady Vengeance (2005)

Lee Young-ae in LADY VENGEANCE — PHOTO:: CJ Entertainment.

Directed by Park Chan-wook — Screenplay by Park Chan-wook and Jeong Seo-kyeong.

Released in 2005, Lady Vengeance, also known as Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, is the third and final film in the vengeance trilogy. At this point in time, Park Chan-wook had enjoyed great international success with Oldboy, which had gone on to win the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix award. Now Park yet again returned to his theme of vengeance and closed out not just a great thematic trilogy but also a significant chapter of his own career. These films didn’t just put Park Chan-wook on the map internationally, they also helped to attract major international attention to South Korean films in the mid-2000s. This was certainly an important point in time for South Korean films, as Bong Joon-ho (one of my favorite directors) — another wildly talented and hugely important figure in the renaissance of South Korean cinema — was also making excellent films in these years, such as Memories of Murder and The Host.

Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance follows Lee Geum-ja (played by Lee Young-ae) who has just been released from prison. Thirteen years earlier, she was falsely convicted of kidnapping and murdering a six-year-old boy named Won-mo. Now free, Geum-ja is intent on having her revenge on the real murderer who forced her into giving a false confession 13 years earlier.

Here at the end of the vengeance trilogy, I think it is really interesting to look at how Park Chan-wook has evolved as a filmmaker over the course of these films. I think that this, like Oldboy, is definitely a much showier film than Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which, to me, is the obvious comparison because of the similar titles. Lady Vengeance feels much more confidently made to me but also visually inventive. I think the entire structure of the film feels more ambitious with the way it cuts back and forth between the present and the past inside the prison. This could all feel rather tiresome and slow, but I actually think Park gives a nice energy to these prison scenes. I like the way he introduces her ‘cell mates’ with on-screen text and sometimes with images of how they got there. I also think it should be said that this is a great example of the fact that Park Chan-wook isn’t about violence for the sake of violence. He builds to it with patience, character work, and outstanding filmmaking.

As for the visuals, I think his evolution as a filmmaker is obvious. It is seen in the excellent framing, purposeful camera movements, purposeful cuts, and digital inventiveness. I immediately think of things like inserting a shot from the next scene into a previous scene, and the way the film will cut from one element falling and then cut to another falling element hitting the ground (this is really heartbreaking and horrifying during the scene in which we see the parents’ reactions). Then, of course, there is the best shot in the entire film, which starts as an exterior shot of a street (seen from above), and then the camera moves backward through a window and into an office where the scene really begins. It’s all made to appear as one shot and it was such a wow moment for me that it almost took me out of the film.

If that first film was a tragedy of errors kind of film, then Lady Vengeance feels like a more mature and thoughtful revenge-fueled film. The first film was about seeing red and rather straightforward, whereas this one is about scrubbing your face clean of all your sins and trying to become as pure and white as snow — or tofu — in spite of what is bubbling up inside of you. The central theme and the title aren’t the only obvious links to the first film. There is also the whole thing about these two films being about a kidnapping. In fact, unless I’m very much mistaken, I believe the argument that is used by one of the characters in defense of the kidnapping is the exact same explanation that was given in the first film.

This was actually the first time that I saw the film, so I didn’t know that there exist two versions of the film. One, the standard version, is supposedly all in color, and then there is the one that I have seen. This is referred to as the fade-to-black-and-white version, in which the colors in the film start to become muted and gradually fade away entirely (with only select items retaining color). I was watching an interview with Park in which it became clear that he was really conflicted about which version he prefers. What I can say is that I really like how the fade-to-black-white version adds to themes such as purification and redemption. I also think it is quite fitting that as the vengeance trilogy comes to a close and the mission for revenge ends, we stop seeing red (i.e. color in the film). I think that is a really nice touch.

I was hugely impressed by Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance, or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. It is much showier than Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance especially and is a great example of Park’s visual slickness and inventiveness. It also features an excellent performance from Lee Young-ae. I’ll add that, the fade-to-black-and-white version makes it feel even more like a purposeful, meaningful, and natural ending to the vengeance trilogy.

8.7 out of 10

– Reviews Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

2 thoughts on “Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy (2002-2005) | Retro Review

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