Review for The Vengeance Trilogy
I’ve been asking myself if I actually like certain movies, specifically movies that I shell out for time and again on different formats, yet wind up reluctant to watch. The Vengeance Trilogy from Park Chan-wook, comprising Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance, is a prime example. I watched them once for review way back in 2006, and really rated them, films that had an impact on me. Yet I never re-watched those DVDs, at least not until 2013, when I popped in the first film to watch again. The next day, I remembered that I had a Blu-ray player, and discovered that Tartan Video had brought out the films in high definition. I placed an order, and the discs went on my to-watch pile, waiting for the next opportunity to watch them. That opportunity didn’t come, but what did come was a re-release from Arrow Video in 2019. I’ve never watched the Tartan Blu-rays, but I placed an order for the upgraded versions, including a 4k restoration for Oldboy. Even still, it’s taken me this long to get around to watching them, and even then, only because I’ve come down to this boxset and the Lord of the Rings Blu-ray trilogy left on my to-watch pile. Which begs the question, do I even like these films in actuality.
This release should also be noted as an exemplar of the ‘old’ Arrow Video, I say old as quite recently the previously independent distributor was bought out by The Hut Group... Zavvi owns Arrow. Back in 2019, the intention was to release the 4k restoration of Oldboy on Blu-ray and UHD as a three-disc set, with a feature length making of documentary on the third disc. Licensing reasons meant that third disc fell through, so Arrow Video delayed the release, and turned the 4k Oldboy release into a Vengeance Trilogy boxset, re-mastering the other two films as well on Blu-ray. The old Arrow would go to the wall to bring value to the customer. But now it seems expediency trumps the customer experience, as the new Dune release has shown, dropping discs and versions to keep its August release date. But that’s a matter for another review.
You get three BD Amaray cases in a thick card slipcase, Oldboy comes on two discs.
Introduction: Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance
Ryu’s sister has kidney failure and is on dialysis. She’s resigned herself to the inevitable, but the deaf and mute Ryu is intent on saving her, having saved up the money required for a transplant. All they’re waiting for now is a compatible donor. But Ryu gets desperate, and turns to the black market organ brokers. In exchange for one of his kidneys, and the money he has saved, they promise to find a compatible kidney. He wakes up naked, with a barely closed wound in his abdomen, and without the money, just when the hospital calls with news of a kidney donor. Now he needs the money fast, his girlfriend suggests kidnapping a child for ransom...
The Disc: Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance
Sympathy For Mr Vengeance comes with a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer and the choice between DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround and PCM 2.0 Stereo Korean with English subtitles. The surround track is definitely the way to go here, with the way that surround sound design is so integral to the storytelling, given Ryu’s silent perspective on the world. Music is rarely used, but the film is still immersive, the drama compelling. The image quality is strong, the film gives good detail, and the colours are rich and consistent. There are one or two moments of softness, and contrast in darker scenes is occasionally lacking, but it’s a dramatic step up from the old DVD.
Extras: Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance
You get one disc in a BD Amaray case with a reversible sleeve. The disc boots to an animated menu. On the disc the following extras are accessible...
Audio Commentary from director Park Chan-wook and filmmaker Ryoo Seung-won
Screaming For Vengeance (15:03)
The Process of Mr Vengeance (20:49)
Actors Interviews (17:24)
Director and Crew Interviews (32:58)
Behind the Scenes Featurette (31:14)
Storyboards Reel (9:58)
Theatrical Trailer (1:48)
On the old Tartan DVDs, there was a featurette with Jonathan Ross looking at the trilogy. Here the new Screaming for Vengeance featurette has Kim Newman looking at the Vengeance trilogy. I know which one I prefer.
Conclusion: Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance
Sympathy For Mr Vengeance is the weakest of the three films, although that is like comparing iron to steel and titanium. The plot is convoluted certainly, and full of unexpected twists and turns, but at times it loses focus and begins to meander. That is intentional of course. We begin the film with protagonist Ryu, the deaf and dumb man who is in desperate straits when it comes to saving his sister. The second protagonist Park Dong-jin isn’t introduced until half an hour into the film, and even at that he seems like a bit player, inconsequential to the plot. As the story unfolds, the emphasis begins to shift between the two, and it’s here that the film seems to pause to take breath, before gathering pace to the unexpected conclusion.
This is no good guys versus bad guys film, and the only characters with mercenary intentions are the organ dealers who act as the fuse to set this explosive tale in motion. Both of the protagonists are likeable; they have the purest of motivations, yet desperation and the desire for revenge sets them on a collision course. The layering of intentions is what makes this story so fascinating. It’s bleak, chilling, a little depressing, and darkly comic. Of the three films this is perhaps the richest in terms of comedy, with bizarre situations and odd moments throughout, and more often than not I was laughing out loud, rather than wincing in sympathetic agony. The chain of events that leads Ryu to his dire straits is the sort of coincidence that is engineered by a capricious god; just when you don’t think that it could get any worse, it does. The film is filled with memorable quirks. I love the way that Ryu narrates the story through captions, and he and his girlfriend have a mirror at the end of the bed for pillow talk. Indeed, sign language during the height of passion would seem utterly logical; you just never expect to see it.
Desperation such as that which motivates Ryu needs a cause, and in Sympathy, it serves as a backdrop to the film. The social malaise and discontent of a recession permeates the film, and motivates the protagonists. His inability to afford the treatment for his sister spurs Ryu on his outlandish schemes, while Dong-jin is a businessman who is resented by those who are less well off. Ryu’s girlfriend fancies herself as a radical, dead set against capitalism and uses her leftist arguments to convince Ryu that the kidnapping will be a good idea. But while this tone of the film does advance into the forefront on occasion, it remains a constant character in the background of the film, and adds to the uneasiness of the piece.
Oh Dae-su was a family man, an office worker, a man who liked the occasional drink, until the night when staggering home, he got snatched off the street and locked away. He had no idea who his captors were, had no way out of his ‘cell’, no communication, just a hatch in a door through which his meals came, and a television to stay connected to the outside world. It was on that television that he learned that his wife had been murdered, and he had been framed for the crime.
Fifteen years later, he’s released with nothing but vengeance in his heart, a burning desire to find and get back at the person responsible for his predicament. But that’s nothing compared for the calculated revenge that his tormentor is still exacting upon him.
The Disc: Oldboy
Oldboy’s 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer comes from a new 4k restoration, and quite understandably it’s the best looking movie of the three in this collection, begging the question why Sympathy and Lady Vengeance couldn’t have got the same treatment. You also have the choice between DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo Korean, as well as the English dub in DTS 5.1 Surround form. You have the choice between translated subtitles and a hard of hearing English subtitle track, although they are locked to the appropriate languages. The image is excellent, with exceptional detail, rich and consistent colours, and a palpable level of film grain. Contrast is good, and skin tones are spot on. The audio makes full use of the surround, immersing the viewer in the action, and emphasising the great music. The subtitles are accurately timed and are free of typos.
There are two discs in a BD Amaray, with one on a centrally hinged panel, and the sleeve is reversible. The discs boot to animated menus.
The movie gets an isolated music and effects track in DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo form.
There are four commentaries for the film. The three Korean ones were on the old Tartan DVD. The English language commentary is new for this release.
Commentary with Park Chan-wook
Commentary with Park Chan-wook, and cinematographer Jung Jung-hoon
Commentary with Park Chan-wook, Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-Tae, and Kang Hye-jung
Commentary with Jasper Sharp and Simon Ward
Out of the Past is an appreciation of the film by Tony Rayns (34:44)
Deleted Scenes with optional commentary (24:29)
In Behind the Scenes you’ll find the following featurettes...
The Cast and Crew Remembers (10:57)
Production Design (13:13)
The Music Score (16:49)
Le Grand Prix at Cannes (8:50)
There are twelve interviews to watch
Park Chan-wook and Mark Salisbury (22:13)
Park Chan-wook (7:03)
Tsuchiya Garon (2:20)
Choi Min-sik (6:17)
Yoo Ji-tae (3:57)
Kang Hye-jung (4:02)
Yoon Jin-seo (3:39)
Chi Dae-han (3:20)
Kim Byeong-ok (2:37)
Oh Dal-su (2:40)
Oh Kwang-rok (3:01)
Lee Seung-shin (2:45)
“Bring My Love” Music Video by Starsailor (2:43)
Finally there is an Image Gallery, three Trailers, one Teaser, and one TV Spot.
Old Days is a feature documentary on Old Boy made in 2016 (111:11)
Autobiography of Oldboy again was on the old Tartan DVD release. This making of Video Diary lasts 209:35, almost three and a half hours.
Oldboy takes the idea of two opposing revenges and turns the proverbial dials up to eleven. From the first frame the intensity and energy of the piece is tangible, and the tension keeps on building as the story progresses. It’s no surprise that the imagery of this film is so striking and memorable. Unlike the earlier film, the characters aren’t likeable, their situations not as affecting to an audience, and the last thing they deserve is sympathy. However the film is just as suffused with unexpected twists and turns, and once again we have two characters that dominate the narrative. We aren’t expected to choose between them though.
We begin with Oh Dae-su, who after a drunken night out is abducted and held prisoner for fifteen years, fifteen years in which his world and family are destroyed, where he is kept from the outside world, not knowing who his tormentor is or why he is made to suffer, and not even allowed to end his own misery. After these fifteen years, he’s turned into a veritable force of nature, not far removed from a beast, burning with the desire to avenge himself. This burning intensity is apparent from the first frame, a heat akin to the surface of the sun. When he is released we are totally justified in expecting him to tear everything apart in his quest to find who did this to him.
But his lust for vengeance is as ephemeral as a candle flame compared to that which motivates his tormentor, the man who engineered his confinement, and who now has released him in order to play out his carefully orchestrated plan. A moment so brief that Oh Dae-su barely remembers it has set into motion an epic revenge, years in the planning and utterly Machiavellian in its execution. Oh Dae-su’s fire is engulfed in this cold calculation of a man who has no purpose in his life other than to exact his revenge.
Oldboy is an enervating spectacle that grabs you by the vitals and doesn’t let you go until the climax, leaving you breathless in its wake.
Introduction: Lady Vengeance
Lee Geum-ja has just been released from prison after 13 years. Convicted for a heinous crime, she has spent the time on rehabilitation, and has become known for being kind-hearted and gentle. Actually, she’s spent the thirteen years making connections, and plotting an elaborate revenge. For she was framed for a crime that she didn’t commit, forced to accept the guilt because her baby daughter was held hostage against her.
It doesn’t take long for her to lose the saintly persona, but she has to re-evaluate her thirst for revenge when she has the chance to reunite with her daughter, who in the intervening time has been adopted abroad, and has grown up imagining revenge against the mother that abandoned her.
This disc has both the theatrical version of the film, and the Fade to White version (Fade to White on the disc, Fade to Black and White in the blurb text).
The Disc: Lady Vengeance
Lady Vengeance gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer with the choice between DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo Korean with English subtitles. The transfer is really quite good on this disc; probably as good as you can get without the full 4k restoration treatment. The image is clear and sharp, detail levels are good, and colours are strong and consistent, making the most of the film’s production design. The audio is nice and clear, the surround makes things immersive, and the film’s music comes across well. The subtitles are accurately timed and are free of typos. There are no English subtitles for the English dialogue, but there are Korean subtitles burnt into the print at these points if you are watching the Fade to White version.
Extras: Lady Vengeance
All of the extras from the Tartan DVD release are here, and a few more as well. The disc is presented in a BD Amaray case with a reversible sleeve. The disc boots to an animated menu.
The three commentaries are here:-
Commentary with director Park Chan-wook, the Director of Photography and the Art Director
Commentary with Park Chan-wook and actress Lee Yeong-ae
Commentary with Professor Richard Peña
The video extras are as follows...
Introduction by Park Chan-wook (1:23)
Interview with Director Park Chan-wook (42:04)
The Making of Lady Vengeance (10:48)
The Style of Lady Vengeance (x5 feaurettes) (37:00)
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance in Venizia (8:26)
Park Chan-wook: Mr Vengeance (17:24)
Park Chan-wook’s On Set Photography (9:50)
Get Together (9:26)
Park Chan-wook Recommends The Freaking Family (3:09)
Alternate Scenes with Commentary (14:11)
The Characters Interviews x4 (26:19)
Conclusion: Lady Vengeance
The last film of the trilogy, Lady Vengeance brings the cycle to its inevitable conclusion, re-examining aspects of the first two films, but with a reflective and melancholic air, and more of a focus on what the act of vengeance really does to a person. More than the vengeance itself, this is really a film about expiation of guilt, and the seeking of redemption, and as such is the perfect film to end the trilogy with.
Unlike the first two films, this is really about the desire for vengeance of just one person, Lee Geum-ja, who thirteen years previously was arrested and imprisoned for kidnapping and infanticide, and has spent the intervening years reforming and becoming the model inmate. It’s all a front though, as is revealed through flashback. There is much more to the crime she was imprisoned for than meets the eye, and her time inside has been spent planning a suitable revenge for the true criminal of the piece, as well as fostering the friendships that will help her achieve it.
It’s when she learns that the child that was taken from her thirteen years previously, was put up for adoption that her outlook changes. She seeks the child out, ostensibly for some sense of closure, but instead finds a daughter who needs a mother, if only to blame for her abandonment. From that point on, the desire for retribution becomes more a need for redemption, a rebirth or awakening of a person that is capable of loving a child. And with that, the desire for revenge becomes something more akin to a need for justice, and events become a whole lot more complicated.
Lady Vengeance is a slower paced, more considered film, but is easily the strongest character study of the three. This release has both versions of the film to choose from. I was mightily impressed with the Fade to White version when I watched it on DVD, so this time I took the chance to watch the theatrical version. I have to say given how stylised the film is, how much of a fairy tale feel the story has, that the Fade to White version feels definitive.
The Vengeance Trilogy is certainly great, and with this Blu-ray presentation from Arrow Video, you get the best possible presentation of the films in boxset form. I just feel that the subject matter is such, the stories such heavy going, that watching these films on a once in a decade basis is about right for me. Given that the pace of technological advance is such that home video formats advance at the same rate, maybe buying the trilogy on home video isn’t the smartest idea. It’s a shame that renting physical media is no longer a thing. If you watch these films more frequently, definitely consider this release. Oldboy is still the cream of the crop, but both Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Lady Vengeance are no mere pack-ins.