Is this trilogy all action and no talk?

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is definitely a good film, but not a great one. Stylistically it can compete with the other efforts in director Park Chan-Wook’s beloved Vengeance Trilogy, but all things considered, it is clearly the weakest of the three. Where it misfires for me is its reliance on its sumptuous mise-en-scene and stylised gore, as opposed to being a story with a thrilling and riveting narrative and likeable and relatable characters.

The story is about a deaf-mute worker, Ryu. He is laid off by his rich boss, Park Dong-jin, and can’t afford the kidney transplant his sister needs. He kidnaps his bosses daughter in order to get both revenge for his sacking and ransom money, but when she unintentionally dies whilst kidnapped, Dong-jin seeks his revenge. It’s an interesting story, with communist and classist undertones, also exploring the national pandemic of organ thievery. It is rich with possibilities, but director Park Chan-Wook’s stubborn insistence on hammering in his singular visual style hugely detracts from the narrative and is the film’s major problem. It’s undeniably stunning aesthetically, but without a focussed plot and fleshed out, relatable characters, it’s impossible to care about the outcome of the story, to fully immerse oneself in this, or to keep your attention span. It is full of needless plot-twists and contrivances, and it’s frustrating that a story with so much potential goes largely unexplored. This is a blatant example of style over substance.

The film for its aestheticism alone is worth a watch and this may potentially be enough for some viewers to see beyond the thin plot. It is unique visually and establishes Chan-Wook’s auteurist style. It’s a noble effort and is by no means a disastrous start to the trilogy. However, it luckily goes up from here, and Chan-Wook realises his potential as not just a man with an eye for an image, but as a storyteller with real craft, ingenuity and depth.

★★★

Oldboy (2003)

Oldboy is sublime, and easily the standout film for me in the Vengeance trilogy. This brilliance is reflected in its widespread popularity. Winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, this film is by far bigger than Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. It fully deserves its popularity. Chan-Wook here made a masterpiece, with a dark and intriguing story, complex characters, and nightmarish yet breathtaking visuals. It fulfils the potential on display in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.

The film is mysterious and immersive from the start. Oh Dae-su, a drunk businessman and a bad father – who misses his daughters 4th birthday party -, is imprisoned by an anonymous figure. He remains incarcerated for 15 years, meanwhile building himself physically and plotting his revenge. The disturbing imagery and intensity of this scene set us up perfectly for what follows. Suddenly, after 15 years, he is released, and from then on this becomes a film full of twists. Oh Dae-su, a man sexually deprived and therefore tortured by fetishised female figures on his TV – a comment on the oversexualistion of females in the media -, meets the young, kind, and welcoming Mi-do. She is struck by his suffering, and wants to help him. Through their time together they start a romantic and eventually intimate relationship. He discovers that an old schoolmate, Lee Woo-jin, has been behind his imprisonment all along, exacting his own revenge. Oh Dae-su medalled in Woo-jin’s incestuous relationship with his sister, the revealing of which led to her suicide. We then receive one of the most shocking plot twists ever. Mi-do, who we see having intense and passionate sex with Oh Dae-su, is really his daughter. Woo-jin has manipulated their lives all along, a parallel of the media Oh Dae-su was manipulated by during his imprisonment. Woo-jin gets his revenge, which is enhanced by the grovelling Dae-su chopping out his tongue in a symbolic gesture whilst begging Woo-jin to keep Mi-do in the dark. This plot-twist, though arguably perverse and contrived, is treated with such delicacy and subtlety. In Star Wars, Darth Vader is obviously Luke’s father, but here we have no idea which way this film is going, and when we find out it is gut-wrenching. Chan-Wook’s poetic and lyrical style hypnotises us and whisks us along, disarming our critical faculties. It is a genius and unpredictable twist, playing on our support for Dae-su’s and Mi-do’s partnership. It can only really work because of Chan-Wook’s success in developing fully fleshed-out, complicated, and likeable characters, enhanced by their strong performances. It’s still exquisitely shot, but there is much more than just style to this film. Where Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance fails is in its attempts to make us care about the story, but Oldboy succeeds with aplomb. Our acceptance to dive in, and go on a dizzying ride with Oh Dae-su, is essential.

Though for some too emotionally manipulative, overly gory, and shock value oriented, if you are able to let yourself become absorbed in this film then it is incredibly rewarding. Chan-Wook’s mature handling of the plot means that we are never alienated by the subversive plot and its sickening twists. It proves that he can make narratively sound cinema, without having to compromise his bold aestheticism. Although some would use its subject matter to dismiss this film from the outset, if you can stomach cinema with intense sex and violence, or broken taboos, then this unusual slice of brilliance is a must-see. It represents the height of Chan-Wook’s artistry and is the pinnacle of quality in this trilogy. Despite Hollywood’s best efforts, a film this unique could never be reproduced.

★★★★½

Lady Vengeance (2005)

Whilst this film doesn’t quite scale the same heights as Oldboy, it does have its own uncompromising style, and is a fitting end to a solid trilogy. It is a definite improvement on Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, with a whole host of likeable and well-crafted characters, an action-packed and engaging plot with a great feminist twist, along with Chan-Wook’s signature lush visuals.

The film plays out at a blistering pace. Lee Geum-ja has spent 13 years in prison – continuing Oldboy‘s theme of incarceration, with Choi Min-Sik even appearing in this film – for a crime she did not commit. Her plan to get revenge is to play an angelic figure in her prison life, using her famous good looks and kindness – which earnt her the title ‘Kind-Hearted Geum-Ja’ -, as well as her ingenuity to get out of prison early. Once out, she then aims to exact her revenge on Mr. Baek, played by Min-Sik, who prayed on her childish vulnerability to make her confess to a murder he committed. The film is sleek and suave, with style and finesse to spare. Importantly, it treats its characters with respect, showing montages displaying the allies Geum-ja made in prison, along with their unique character traits and personalities. It goes for a less serious, bleak tone, instead opting for playfulness, at least until the finale. At last, we get a film in this trilogy with levity! The humour may still be dark, but this is in a more Tarantino-esque manner.

My only real issue with this film is the ending. Mr. Baek kidnapped children for ransom and then killed them, and their parents are brought together by Lee Geum-ja, as she wants to be morally cleansed after failing to stop the crimes of Baek. They decide to all torture and eventually murder Baek, who they now ironically have hostage – this continual shifting of power recurs throughout the trilogy -, instead of turning him over to a justice system that they see as being too lenient on such an evil man. This should be an incredibly fast-paced, erratic and cathartic scene, one which allows the parents to let out their pent up emotions. This would have been more in keeping with the film’s pacing and playfulness. However, instead we get a slow and tense sequence. This is effective in its own way, as it feels real and visceral. However, it isn’t quite in keeping with the film’s tone or a satisfying enough revenge, as Baek was such a cruel, heartless character. It isn’t the ending this film needed or deserved, and left me feeling slightly disappointed and frustrated.

This film is entertaining, funny, tense, and sad all at once, and is wholly original. The use of girl power also makes a nice change in a trilogy where men had previously been the dominant figures. It doesn’t evoke quite the same levels of raw emotion as Oldboy, but does not taint Chan-Wook’s overall vision. It is a worthy end to a trilogy which whilst good, is not overall quite the cinematic landmark it’s made out to be. It is however, still well worth a watch. Chan-Wook is a talent who will be around for a while, and there’s still something worthwhile in his lesser efforts.

★★★½

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