Reconsidering Park Chan-wook’s ‘Vengeance’ trilogy on the 20th anniversary of a classic
Starting this Wednesday, August 16, Neon is re-releasing Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy in a newly restored and remastered version to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its original South Korean release. Among other things, the re-release allows us to take stock of Park’s career since that first major international success. Recent films like The Handmaiden and Decision to Leave may seem “classier” on the surface, but just because those films feature less onscreen gore doesn’t mean they’re lacking in passion. Park’s ability to find inventive ways to visualize familiar scenarios while also tying them to character remains second to none.
The re-release also allows us an opportunity to revisit the film itself, which has also not lessened in potency after 20 years. Some of its more infamous images and set pieces—its protagonist, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), eating a live octopus; Oh mowing down a handful of henchmen armed with only a hammer in a single take—still carry a shocking charge to them. Beyond those isolated moments, however, Oldboy remains one of the more annihilating visions of the futility of revenge, the way vengeance corrupts the souls of just about everyone who partakes in it, however in the right each party feels.
I said “one of the more annihilating.” For those who may be fairly new to Park’s oeuvre, Oldboy is part of a thematic trilogy of films about revenge, with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance preceding it in 2002 and Lady Vengeance following it in 2005. It’s easy to see why Oldboy gets the lion’s share of attention among the three films: One can readily appreciate its extravagant visual style and operatic sensibility, whatever you may think of its boundary-pushing content. But to single Oldboy out would do a disservice to the other two films, both of which are arguably superior achievements in their own distinct ways.
They’re certainly distinct from Oldboy stylistically. Whereas Oldboy is fully immersed in Oh’s twisted world, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is God-like in its detachment. The plot, for all its ensuing complications, could not be simpler, in which a kidnapping to raise money for a life-saving kidney transplant goes horribly awry, leading to a series of violent recriminations.
But the details are what matter here: particularly, the ways each of the characters involved justify their own actions without seeing the larger picture. Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) only has her frail sister’s (Im Ji-eun) well-being in mind when he allows his girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Doona) to persuade him to kidnap the daughter of Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho, a veteran of South Korean cinema who many Westerners will now recognize from the Oscar-winning Parasite), the president of the manufacturing company from that recently laid off Ryu. Cha herself is a Marxist radical who sees Park as nothing more than a capitalist totem, thus her ease in suggesting the kidnapping.
As for Park himself, when his daughter accidentally dies while still Ryu’s hostage, grief consumes him so thoroughly that he resigns from his company and commits to revenge full-time once he starts putting the pieces together. And that’s not even mentioning the black-market organ donors that ripped Ryu off, thus kicking off this escalating series of bloody events.
Unlike in Oldboy, Park doesn’t try to ameliorate the brutality of the plot with hyped-up style. Instead, he lays out all the motivations and consequences with the clinical precision of a scientist observing human nature at its most ruthless and self-interested. The result may be much more difficult to warm to than Oldboy, but it’s also ultimately more devastating in impact. There’s no swirling waltz music here to send us out of the theater—only a subdued electronic rumble to allow us to sit in stunned silence as we contemplate the carnage we have just witnessed and the pointlessness of it all.
Lady Vengeance may, on the surface, seem more in the superheated Oldboy vein than the coldly omniscient Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance style. But the third film in Park’s “vengeance” trilogy may be most fascinating of the three. Granted, a barebones plot summary—a woman seeks revenge on a man after being wrongfully imprisoned for 13 years and having her child taken away from her—makes it sound like little more than a Korean variation on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, the second part of which had come out just a year before. But whereas Tarantino primarily imagined the main character of his two-part revenge saga in terms of all the genre films to which he was paying tribute, Park, who cowrote the screenplay with Chung Seo-kyung, has imagined a fully-fleshed-out, emotionally and morally complex antiheroine in Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae), who may be even more damaged than Tarantino’s Bride ever was.
The film’s opening scene establishes, with brutal black comedy, Lee’s essentially manipulative nature. Though both the small church choir that greets Lee when she gets out of prison and the many prisoners she has befriended see her as some kind of angel, she is in fact merely using them all for her complicated revenge scheme against Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik again, playing the villain here after essaying the tragic hero in Oldboy). Park doesn’t shy away from Lee’s sociopathic aspects; many of her friends comment, with marked disappointment, on how she’s “changed” now that she’s out of prison. And whereas one may accuse Park of occasionally taking his flashy technique too far in Oldboy, Park uses his formidable technical prowess much more responsibly in Lady Vengeance, to fully dig into his character’s troubled psyche.
What elevates Lady Vengeance above its predecessors is its spiritual dimension. Is redemption possible for someone like Lee, for whom revenge has so consumed life and soul? Park doesn’t offer any easy answers here. Lee’s quest for vengeance goes into a much different direction—one that you could almost describe as charitable, in a perverse sense—when she discovers something about Mr. Baek that affects more than just her but many other parents who lost children. But even as she has managed to help both others and herself, what remains for her after she accomplishes her long-time-coming bloody mission?
Not even the presence of her forgiving daughter—reunited with her mother after an upbringing by two Australian parents—in the film’s final wintry moments lessens the chill of a heroine contemplating a future with nothing to live for. It’s an unexpectedly moving note of grace to cap off a trilogy of films that audience had know, at that point, mostly for its brutality and black humor.