It took a while, but Park Chan-Wook's trio of VENGEANCE films have finally arrived in what at first glance appears to be the definitive boxset on the series. At a whopping eight discs (unlike the six-disc R2 release), this set looks to be an early contender for one of the best releases of 2010. The question is 'Is it worth it?'. Munch on some live squid while I knock your head with this hammer to prove that it is.
Alrighty, we know that Park Chan-Wook's OLDBOY banged us six ways from Sunday and we loved every minute of it, even though it was the second entry in Chan-Wook's trilogy. That said, it wouldn't be fair to exclude the first and last entries, which are masterpieces in their own right. Since there's so much content to be had in these three films, I'm going to break it down for those who haven't seen the films (for shame!).
In SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) is a deaf-mute factory worker who has been working double shifts to help him get enough money for his sister's desperately-needed kidney transplant. Unable to find a suitable donor, Ryu takes all the money he saved and buys the kidney through a black market organ dealer. Now that he has a kidney to work with, he no longer has enough money for the doctor to perform the operation. So Ryu and his girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Du-na) decide to kidnap his rich boss' daughter and demand a ransom for her safe return. After the father pays off Ryu and his girlfriend, they have every intention to return the daughter safely and sound. That is until a series of tragic events occur that cascade into revenge.
Unlike the film that followed, MR. VENGEANCE is low-key in its approach and isn't in a rush to reveal itself, allowing for the much-appreciated subtlties and character development to shine through. Chan-Wook's sound design early on in the film helps the viewer empathize with Ryu's disability, which really helps solidify sympathy for the character (as if having to go through the rigamarole for his sister wasn't sympathetic enough). There are many other instances of brilliant sound design that leave you creaming in your pants one moment and recoiling in disgust the next, and I loved it all.
The character design and evolution in the film is nothing short of amazing, as well. Be it Shin Ha-kyun's Ryu evolving from a childlike innocent into the polar opposite at the film's climax, or Song Kang-ho's role as the father grieving for his kidnapped daughter, this film is packed with emotion. I'd be stupid to neglect the action, which is as frenetic and visceral as the emotional content. Amidst the beatings, the electrocutions and stomach slicings, the action elevates the story, and really keeps you coming back for more.
In OLDBOY, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) disappears into thin air one night at a payphone, awakening to find out he's being held prisoner. After fifteen years of imprisonment, Dae-su is released into a world he once knew with nothing more than a wallet full of cash and a cellphone. Unable to recover any of his lost memories, Dae-su forms a relationship with a young girl named Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong). A stranger calls Dae-su on his cellphone to inform him that the game isn't over until Dae-su figures out why he was imprisoned for fifteen years, as well as giving Dae-su five days to discover the truth or the stranger will kill Mi-do. What's a dude to do but to kick some ass and slice out your own tongue?
Just when you thought Chan-wook had done it all with SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, along comes OLDBOY to crank it up a couple. Choi Min-sik is put through the ringer in this physically and mentally-demanding role as Dae-su, evolving from a character reeking of arrogance at the start of the film, being broken and then coming full circle at the film's conclusion. I'm not the only one who loves the exploration of someone being placed in an extrordinary situation, having to find out just what the f*ck to do. Bottom line, Min-sik looks and acts like he's been around the block more than once, and it's oh so delicious.
The action is ramped up once again in OLDBOY, with tons of eye candy. Everyone knows the corridor fight scene owns it all, but the scene involving the teeth and hammer is right up there for me. Having that heavy scene unfold while Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" plays is contrast overdrive, with the result being more than enough stimulation for someone to take. The violence serves the story, rather than being done to shock, which is exactly what one could hope for with something like this: a visual feast that pushes the viewer to the limit in its intoxication.
Finally, in SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) is released from prison after serving 13½ years for a murder of a young schoolboy that she did not commit. Lee now seeks vengeance against Mr. Baek, the man responsible for the murder, and who threatened to murder Lee's newborn daughter if she refused to take the fall.
Once again, Park Chan-Wook raises the bar and gives us gold. Like the previous entries in the series, LADY VENGEANCE boasts some great characters. Yeong-ae is a standout as Geum-ja, giving us a beautiful yet deadly protagonist that exudes emotion, while Choi Min-sik returns from his OLDBOY stint as the target of Lee's vengeance and he relishes every moment of it. As well, the music and visuals in the film play a big part in the whole experience, depending on which version you see: The coloured version, or the version that gradually fades to black and white as the film progresses.
About the only weak portion of the film comes in the heavy-handedness of symbolism in the film, as well as the ending that, while suiting the film itself, isn't quite as satisfying as the previous films' endings. Really though, it's a case of this film being put up against its predecessors and falling a bit short. Like Romero and his original LIVING DEAD trilogy, the third entry isn't as loved as the first two, but on its own, LADY VENGEANCE is a damn fine film.
So there you have it. Three great films by a director with an eye for the genre. It's hard to choose which one is the best out of the bunch, but you'd have similar problems with any other series of films. Park Chan-wook crafts brilliant visuals in all three, blending in superb characters and wonderful sound. If you haven't seen these films, you really do owe it to yourself to catch them.
Video: All three films come in at 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and look absolutely gorgeous. Details are sharp, colours are nicely saturated, with very natural-looking grain.
Audio: All three films sport Dolby Digital Korean 5.1 Surround, Dolby Digital Korean 2.0 Stereo, Dolby Digital English 5.1 Surround and Dolby Digital English 2.0 Stereo tracks. Like the video, the audio is superb. The soundtracks are immersive and really do add to the experience. For those purists out there, you can watch the Korean tracks with either English or Spanish subtitles.
Oh man. If you ever wanted a more complete examination of a series of films, you don't have to look much farther than this. True, a lot of the supplements from the original releases of the films are here, but for those who never got around to snagging them, here's your chance.
First up are the audio commentaries. For SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, there's an audio commentary with director Park Chan-Wook and actor Ryoo Seong-wan. A detailed discussion for a commentary track, this one is plenty entertaining and insightful. For OLDBOY, we have three audio commentaries. The first audio commentary features Park Chan-Wook by himself, in which he does an in-depth discussion of the film. Not as lively as the other two, but is still full of insight. The second audio commentary features Park Chan-wook and the film's Cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hun. The most technical of the three, it deals primarily with the aspects of making the film. In the third, Park Chan-Wook is joined by members of the cast. One of those good time commentaries, this one at times turns into discussions that border on mundane, but it's still a good one.
Finally, LADY VENGEANCE has three commentaries as well. The first audio commentary features Park Chan-Wook, cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and art director Choi Hyeon-seok, and focuses more on the technical aspects of the film. The second audio commentary has Park Chan-Wook joined by actress Lee Young-ae, and is a laid back track with a few interesting moments to it. The third audio commentary features Professor Richard Pena from Columbia University that takes an analytical look at the film. Apart from the Richard Pena track, all the commentaries are in Korean with English subtitles.
After the commentaries, you still get more. For MR. VENGEANCE, there's a storyboard gallery that features music from the film playing in the background, the film's Korean trailer, two interview segments entitled Cast and Crew interviews and My Boksu Story Retrospective, Jonathan Ross on Park Chan-Wook in which Ross talks at length about the VENGEANCE trilogy, and behind the scenes documentary entitled The Process of Mr. Vengeance.
OLDBOY starts off with 10 deleted scenes with optional commentary with Park Chan-Wook, a segment titled Le Grand Pix at Cannes, Cast and Crew interviews, five behind the scenes documentaries CGI Documentary, Flashback, Making of the Film – The Cast Remembers, The Music Score and Production Design. The third disc for OLDBOY has the lengthy behind the scenes documentary titled The Autobiography of Oldboy, which clocks in at over three hours. Lastly, you get the film's Korean trailer.
For LADY VENGEANCE, you get the Fade to White version with an introduction by Chan-Wook on a disc by itself. In addition, on the second disc devoted to the film, you get T.V. spots, a teaser trailer, the film's American trailer, a poster gallery with music from the film playing in the background, deleted scenes with commentary from Park Chan-Wook and Yeong-ae Lee, a segment titled Lady Vengeance in Venice, Get Together in which Park Chan-Wook discusses the actors who appear throughout the trilogy, Cast & Crew interviews involving Lee Guem-Ja , Professor Baek, Prisoners and Families, and two documentaries, the first entitled Style of Lady Vengeance which is broken down into four separate sections (Visualization, Production Design, Costume & Make-up and Special Art Computer Graphics) and Making of Lady Vengeance, which is broken down into two sections (Making of Lady Vengeance and Lady Vengeance EPK).
All extras include Korean audio tracks with English subtitles, with the discs being housed in book-leaf cases for each film.
Finally, there's a 32-page booklet with liner notes about Park Chan-Wook and the VENGEANCE trilogy, as well as a brief interview with Park Chan-Wook.
A truly amazing set of discs for an amazing trilogy of films, the VENGEANCE Trilogy Boxset is really one of the must-haves of the year. Collecting all of the supplements from previous releases (both UK and North American) and cramming them into a set like this is nothing short of awesome. Those who want to spring for the Blu-Ray release will either have to track down a copy at Best Buy or wait for the wider release on June 15 (click here to pre-order). Either way, it truly is money well spent.