[15 June 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Revenge isn’t always about righting wrongs. Sometimes, it’s about wrongly feeling right. It could also stem from the right to be wrong, and of course, there’s the rare instance where how you were wronged was right all along. In fact, if you boil the spirit of vengeance down into its two main components, the inherent sense of motivational entitlement (right) is almost irretrievably linked to acts or actions viewed either objectively or subjectively as unjust, unfair, or in direct conflict with another’s sense of privilege (wrong). As part of his brilliant dissection of all things payback, Korean director Park Chan-wook created three amazing movies - Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) - that, today, stand as the last word on retribution. But even more than that, the filmmaker flushes out all aspects of reckoning, discovering the various permutation and possibilities that come when someone feels slighted and demands recompense.
Unlike the characteristic American take on the thriller, which typically sets up very clear heroes and villains, Park’s Vengeance Trilogy (now available in beautiful Blu-ray editions from Tartan Video), paints its character portraits in facets of ambiguity and complication. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a deaf man named Ryu kidnaps a young girl, hoping to use the ransom money to pay for his sister’s operation When the victim dies accidentally, her father Dong-jin goes after the people responsible. With Oldboy, a seemingly innocuous man named Dae-su is locked up in a dingy hotel room like prison for 15 years. When finally released, he plots against the man who put him there. Finally, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance has Lee Geum-ja taking the wrap for the real murderer in a high profile case. The resulting jail term, and national notoriety, lead the lady to return to society with one goal in mind - destroy the man who destroyed her life.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about these three films, other that their manipulative narratives straight out of classic Hollywood screenwriting, is their notion of pointlessness. In all cases, the payback sought won’t cure the harms already committed, not literally, metaphysically, or ethereally. As if fueled by the pure rage randomness of the emotion itself, revenge becomes a basic biological need, a desire to attempt, no matter how futile, to undo the damage already done. But Park’s genius move within all three stories is showing how (a) there is no possible way to cure the past, (b) that the new crimes committed in the name of vengeance are often worse than the ones being avenged and (c) that once unleashed, retribution is almost impossible to bottle up. Dong-jin’s drive is matched by the intense burn of Dae-su’s desire for answers. Both are equally matched by the flame to the fuse focus of Lee Geum-ja.
But there is more to these movies than intricate plotting, potboiler revelations, and last minute revisions of the facts and participants. For Park, the Vengeance Trilogy is an attempt to measure the limits of human condition, the lengths to which people will go to feel vindicated and made whole. Unlike the legal system, which centers on old world ideals of good and evil, a film like Oldboy walks a very fine line, one delineated by the past, the particulars of the premise, and the play out between the protagonists. It’s interesting to look at these films and decipher a moral high ground. Ryu wants to save his sister. Dong-jin wants his child’s killers to pay. Dae-su doesn’t understand his lengthy stint in forced isolation. His captor - Woo-jin, a rich industrialist - has his own seething bone of contention. Even Lee Geum-ja has a Kill Bill like motivation, sparked by issues both maternal and material to her case.
That the mechanism of physical violence because the means to these particular ends turns the Vengeance Trilogy into something wholly unique and yet clearly constructed out of traditional and history. By creating individual scenarios that simply scream out for retaliation, Park produces a sick sensation in the viewer. On the one hand, we want to see Dong-jin avenge his child. On the other, the man he is perusing has his own cruel cross to bear. Similarly, when Dae-su goes on a hammer wielding beatdown with a hallway full of criminals, his blood-soaked path to redemption seems stained at best. All throughout these films, Park plays with the notion of salvation, or what will release the participants from their particular anguish. In all cases, the solution is almost as awful as the symptom, a brutal and frequently fatal measure of endurance and the blind rage of inequity.
Of course, within each individual movie are moments that continually redefine Park as a filmmaker. The stories often center around dreadful subject matter - incest, snuff films, child abuse, torture, dismemberment - but he offers such disease in ways which feel organic to the outsized emotions being explored. Similarly, the pure conventions of cinema are pushed to produce memorable moments such as the Mr. Vengeance denouement, the corridor clash in Oldboy, or Lee Geum-ja’s dreams of murder. At his core, Park appears to be a hopeless romantic, but in a more dire definition of the terms. He views everything through cynical, subversive eyes that walks a fine line between being simplistic and stylized. Never afraid to point out the bleak odds against his character, Park produces a sort of pointless suspense. On the one hand, we anticipate everything that’s happening with an edge of your seat kind of thrill. We also recognize, however, that said payoff may be more than we ever needed, or wanted.
In many ways, Park’s films mark the beginning of a new era of genre convention, a way of combining what used to work in the days of Hitchcock and noir with the needs of a far more familiar and uncompromising modern audience. Arterial spray and gratuitous gore are one thing, and it is clear that we are dealing with a director who learned more than a couple of lessons under the influence of Hong Kong action epics. But with the Vengeance Trilogy, Park does what someone like Quentin Tarantino has made his entire career upon - filtering through a myriad of motion picture references, a generation (or two) of film geekdom, and a sound set of personal idiosyncrasies to create a brilliant amalgamation of homage and synergistic genius. There are times throughout Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance when we feel like we’ve traversed this sort of territory before. By the end of each, we recognize the references and appreciate the aesthetic stepping stones as we broached something new and novel.
As for the new Blu-ray releases themselves, all three films look fantastic in the new format. Tartan has taken the time to give each movie its own unique and signature style. Thus, Mr. Vengeance resonates with real energy, while Oldboy offers a more gritty, grainy experience. Lady Vengeance is perhaps the most unusual experience of them all, two differing versions being offered (the most notable is the “Fade to White” presentation, where Park purposefully drained the color out of the image over the course of the film, moving from full color to monochrome by the end). As for added content, this set doesn’t skimp on the extras. There are commentaries on each film, an exhaustive set of Making-of featurettes (including an amazing, over three hour take on Oldboy), deleted scenes, trailers, mini-documentaries, marketing materials and interviews. While it some ways this may seem like overkill, the truth is that a series like the Vengeance Trilogy lends itself to such scrutiny. The movies themselves are simply layered with lingering meaning.
In the end, it’s hard to tell who is vindicated here. Most of the individuals we meet in Park’s process end up dead or dying psychologically. None have truly achieved the payback they so desperately needed. A few have found momentary peace while still scarred from the experiences both past and present, and there is happiness in a goal achieved, but little joy overall. Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, the way in which wrongs are rights, rights are wronged, and all the permutations in between are approached makes the Vengeance Trilogy a classic of its own design. Whether it’s served icy cold or as a raging inferno, revenge is a dish few should indulge in. For the reasons why, just ask the characters here. They will explain to you how they gagged on such a tainted treat - that is, if they can still respond at all.