DVD Cult Pick of the Week: Vengeance Trilogy

South Korean director Park Chan-Wook may have first attracted attention with J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (2000), a thriller set on border of North and South Korea in all senses of the term, but it was with Oldboy that he really rocked the international film scene. It’s the centerpiece of his Vengeance Trilogy (Palisades Tartan) and all three films (all previously available on DVD) are now collected in a lavish eight-disc set that has more supplements than even the South Korean special edition (or so they say; I didn’t compare them myself).

Choi Min-sik raises his hammer high

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), the debut film of the trilogy, is laced with deadpan humor around the edges, but there is nothing ironic in the title. Except for the fact that there are two vengeance-fueled protagonists—the desperate deaf-mute (Shin Ha-kyun) who resorts to kidnapping only after he’s robbed by black market organ pirates and the corporate CEO (Park Dong-jin) whose kidnapped daughter dies in his care—whose blood-soaked odysseys finally converge. Park is neither glib nor pedantic as he charts the vicious circle that leaves victims in their wake, both unintentional and premeditated, and takes its dehumanizing toll on his increasingly brutal heroes. Park’s deliberate direction is full of serene scenes and lovely images for a film so full of violence and death, and his sympathy for both men is sincere. Which may be the only real irony of the film. The disc features commentary by director by Park Chan-Wook and actor Ryoo Seung-wan and there’s a bonus disc filled with interviews and featurettes, most of them in Korean, plus an English language profile/celebration of Park Chan-wook made for British TV by Jonathan Ross (a man who loves his cult cinema and visceral filmmaking).

Oldboy (2003) continues in the direction he took with Sympathy but moves up from a tale of everyday folks driven to revenge by loss, betrayal, and helpless rage into a revenge thriller set in a cinematic neverland one zip-code away from Seven and Saw. Choi Min-sik plays the white-collar drunk snatched off the streets and dropped into solitary confinement, a deprivation experiment concocted by a quirky mad scientist, but his 15 years of surreal incarceration is the first step in an obsessive, unrelenting campaign of torment that could only exist in the movies. The battering assault of lovingly crafted brutality is directed with operatic intensity—teeth are extracted with the claw end of a hammer, a squirming octopus is eaten alive, the insane object of torment wades through gangs of punks for an unrelenting beat-down with a club and a satisfied smile on his face. “Now I’ve become a monster. When my vengeance is over, can I ever go back to being Dae-su?” The answer gets lost in the battering assault of lovingly crafted brutality. The film won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and has been embraced by critics and fans the world over (it placed on a lot of Top Ten of the Decade lists). And while I enjoy the film and revel in the high style and delirious set pieces, the tough compassion and hard understanding of emotional impulses that start the dominoes tumbling get lost in the revenge opera overkill, and any intended irony is beaten into submission. The set features the supplements of the previous special edition release: three commentary tracks (all featuring director Park with different collaborators), five documentary featurettes, interviews, deleted scenes and the epic The Autobiography of Oldboy, a 212-minute video diary that covers each of the 69 shooting days.

Lady Vengeance (2005), the final film in the trilogy (the Korean title roughly translates to Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) leaves the comic book supervillain melodrama and cinematic dementia of Old Boy for an equally dazzling but more human story of righteous vengeance at any cost. Lee Yeong-ae is the embittered ex-con with the face of an angel and heart blackened by a drive for revenge and Choi Min-sik (the victim of Old Boy) plays the child-murdering monster she targets. She’s after a gruesome justice of a distinctly personal nature (the grisliest moments are left off-screen but the brutality is unforgiving and harsh). That she shares her vengeance with other damaged victims only adds more shades to the conflicted issues. The film combines the ambiguity and tortured self-destruction (and, yes, the sympathy) of the original Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance with the dazzling direction of Old Boy and a guilt that implicates the audience in the retribution. Faced with evil in the flesh, do we cheer on the grisly justice or question whether turning suffering victim into blood-spattered torturer and executioner brings any peace to the soul? The film features three commentary tracks (two by Park and others, one by film critic Richard Pena in English), a disc of interviews, featurettes and deleted scenes, and a third disc featuring an alternate “Fade to White” version of the film that Park introduces as his preferred version, more accurate to his intentions. He slowly leeches the color from the film as it unfolds until it’s a stark, beautiful black and white in the final scenes.

Each film is collected, along with its accompanying supplemental discs, in a separate bookleaf case in a box set, along with a 32-page booklet with shorts essays and stills. A Blu-ray edition is also due out, at this time available exclusively through Best Buy but due for a wide release in June.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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