“Thematic trilogy” can be a too-convenient justification for a director to essentially make the same movie several times (such as the Iñárritu/Arriaga collaborations), but Park Chan-Wook’s three revenge films—Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,
Mr. Vengeance is, technically, the “worst” movie of the trilogy in that Park doesn’t seem to have as much an idea of what he’s after, though it is still the most interesting. The film plays that contemporary neo-Kubrick game of trying to transcend clichés with a pace that’s so tediously deliberate you wish the director would just get on with it. Mr. Vengeance is one of those fashionably under-edited, under-covered films where seemingly every scene is a numbing master shot that’s twice as long as necessary, with blocking that too consciously tips us off to the director’s inventiveness.
For the first half, you don’t register the story, which could’ve been powerful (we’re invited to sympathize with characters who will ultimately, accidentally, commit the most unforgiveable act in the film), just shots: We don’t feel a father’s torment as he’s interrogated by the police following the killing of his daughter, we admire the showy staging, which places the father’s face off-screen to the right while he sits in a van that frames the cops investigating a field through its open door. A deaf character’s sign language is occasionally subtitled against black screens for no other reason than to be “cinematic.” Two characters can’t merely sit in a bed together, there has to be a huge object in the foreground separating them, pummeling a point—their alienation—that we’d already gathered for ourselves. These images are oppressive enough alone, but taken with the sound design (all portentously amplified subterranean noises, it could be taking place in the stomach of a whale), it’s maddening, and familiar.
Mr. Vengeance does eventually come to life 70 or so minutes in, when Park finally gets to the film he actually wants to make (and stops apologizing for it with art-house dodges). The film boils down to what you expect: two parties destroying one another out of a twisted obligation to seek closure and justice, but the folks on both sides—the kidnappers (Shin Ha-Kyun, Bae Doona) and the aggrieved father (the terrific Song Kang-ho)—are somewhat recognizably frail and misguided, and the ultimate payoff is admirably pathetic and gross. Mr. Vengeance is the rare revenge picture that authentically makes the act unappealing, which would be refreshing if weren’t for the insecurities and awful black comedy (there are a number of sick touches that don’t work, most famously the ridiculous moment with the father witnessing his daughter’s autopsy, and a bit with a bunch of kids masturbating to sick wails they mistake for cries of ecstasy).
The most widely known entry of the trilogy, Oldboy, is more aware of its nonsense, and the jokes, such as the octopus, are better. During a long expository dialogue scene, cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon says in the commentary that “we moved the camera to cover up the dullness,” and, Oldboy is, indeed, a faster, even stupider creature, a film that turns the sickening revenge of Mr. Vengeance into an equally appalling cartoon. It’s about a Korean businessman, Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik), hunting the people who inexplicably kidnapped and imprisoned him, and, even less explicably, released him 15 years later.
As with Mr. Vengeance, Park has allowed an extra wrinkle of irony: The kidnapping is a response to the self-centered Oh Dae-Su’s character, and the ordeal, while not “redeeming” him, has at least made him a more focused and better-looking prick. In the second of two scenes that function as the prologue, we are clearly meant to contemptuously view the flabby, embarrassingly drunk Oh Dae-Su as a white-collar joke, with his troubles that follow bringing out “the man” in him. That’s the American influence at least, and that particular rationalization puts Oldboy in Fight Club country, and the resemblance doesn’t end there: The flamboyant shot transitions may not be Fincher 101, but they are certainly 303.
The Eastern influence is in the continued distrust of Oh Dae-Su, who is, like the killers of Mr. Vengeance, largely allowed to remain misguided, overzealous, and kind of…dumb. The final revelation is absurd but of a piece with everything else: incest fitting the theme of strangled, convoluted, buried prejudices. And, as showy as he is, Park has a knack with performers: Min-sik is a great battered, tormented presence, a more honest embodiment of working-man emasculation than any of the deluded twerps of Fight Club.
Lady Vengeance is even slicker than Oldboy. By this point, Park had evolved into an amazing craftsman of thriller tropes, and it’s also the strangest and most ambitious of the Vengeance pictures; it’s clear that Park wanted to end his series on an unsettling note of messy confliction. But nothing adds up to anything: Lady Vengeance is a spiritually schizophrenic genre movie smothered by synthetic technique and design. The first half is a deliberately ironic step toward a more unquestioning American sensibility, and it plays as an Asian film ripping off an American film ripping off an Asian film—a Kill Bill with showier, less coherent narrative gymnastics.
The second half is a bid for some sort of headier religious meaning, with sin binding a number of grieving characters together toward a path of forgiveness and salvation. But Park hasn’t earned what he’s after, and the climax stoops to that most desperate of revenge devices: the on-screen torture of children, with characters staged in poses that recall, among other things, The Last Supper. You certainly can’t accuse Park of phoning this movie in, but you can’t accuse of him exhibiting the slightest shred of sanity or taste either. Lady Vengeance would be offensive if it weren’t ridiculous and, somehow, ultimately boring.
It also features Park’s least interesting hero, Le Geum-ja (Le Young Ae), a woman unjustly imprisoned to protect her son from a madman (Min-sik, stealing the movie). Park dresses up a conventional B-movie lesbo/woman-empowerment prison/revenge film with flashbacks and flash-forwards, with long tracking shots, with (admittedly stunning) bursts of color and fashion design and gunfire, and unfunny jokes such as Min-sik essentially raping his wife on the kitchen table. Park has enough of a following by now that a Lady Vengeance can get him by, but the film is a coffee-table book of pretty misery that represents the evolution of the contemptible aspects of Mr. Vengeance, and the extinguishing of what was mostly admirable or promising. Park is undeniably talented, so even a misstep like Lady Vengeance has moments that linger, such as Min-Sik lovingly patting his wife’s side after screwing her, or a boy nervously fiddling with Geum-ja’s high heels before bedding her, or Geum-ja’s hair glowing from a lamp as she lights a post-coital cigarette, but that’s all the film is: occasional moments.
A presentation of the Vengeance trilogy would be nothing without a strong audio/visual mix, and this set does justice to Park Chan-wook technical virtuosity. The films, particularly Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, explode with the primal-pop comic-book colors (Fincheresque greens and blues, the whites of martial-arts movies) that Park intended, and the sound, particularly Park's astutely selected soundtracks, are immersive and gorgeous.
One would be hard-pressed to imagine even a die-hard fan wanting more from a Park set than is offered in this immaculately detailed, eight-disc box edition. Every film has two to three commentaries, a half-dozen making-of featurettes, and various reactions from critics and producers. While Park has a tendency to state the obvious (during the opening of Oldboy he tells us that this is the scene before the titles that will establish the story), he eventually emerges as a director refreshingly uninterested in fanning admirers' sometimes reaching interpretations of his films (to once again use Oldboy as an example, Park concedes that the ant hallucinations have no larger meaning apart from the fact that he found them eerie). The filmmaker is also generous to his various co-commentators, and he's, not surprisingly, particularly fruitful when paired with his cinematographers, allowing him to discuss the movies, paintings, songs, etc. that have inspired his specific choices, while the actors are somewhat touchingly in awe of the director. Critic Richard Peña's commentary on Lady Vengeance is reaching (he thinks it's a masterpiece, and gives Park every potential benefit of the doubt) but appealing. Boxed sets aren't known to encourage debate, they are greatest hits sets, and it's a testament to everyone involved here that Park, especially by his own account, isn't puffed up too much; even the puff pieces have strands of concrete, nuts/bolts information.
"Fade to White" is an alternate version of Lady Vengeance that represents Park's original intention with the cinematography, with the bright vitality of the first act eventually draining to black and white as the heroine approaches the purity represented by the white tofu in the beginning, and the cake at the end. It's another neat visual gimmick on top of a picture that already had five-too-many neat visual gimmicks, and it makes the last act even dumber than it already was; it plays as if the Ingmar Bergman of the austere Winter Light decided to do the prequel to Nightmare on Elm Street. Park needs people who'll tell him to subtract devices from his pictures, not add.
On the other hand, "The Autobiography of Old Boy" is a fantastic, three-hour documentary that, without any distancing frills such as narration, plops you right on the set from the first day of shooting until the last. "Autobiography" is one of those ideal extras for aspiring filmmakers, as it removes the pomp and circumstance from filmmaking, and shows you the pursuit as work above all else. We get to see an internationally adored filmmaker struggling with banalities such as crowds looking toward the camera, and shots that don't quite geographically make sense. Park's pictures can be overbearing and obvious, but the extras mostly take the opposite tack in winning you over; you grow to respect the filmmaker's confidence and inner containment. Is it still hype? Of course, but these supplementals at least have the good manners to be interesting hype.
The Vengeance Trilogy is a wonderfully detailed presentation of an interesting, troubling, schizophrenic, more than occasionally stupid series.