Park Chan-wook's 'Vengeance' Sweet on Blu-ray

The new wave of Korean cinema sparked from the craft at several specific auteur’s fingertips. My Sassy Girl exploded on the scene as a huge box-office hit, placing Kwak Jae-young’s quirky little masterwork of opposing attraction cleanly in the spotlight of the evolving face of cinema. Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder helped bolster a more wide-ranging appeal with its dark, potent kidnapping tale, one that showed style and grit in a way that wasn't afraid to match wit with depth and darkness to equal measure. And, on the more poised and bluntly-dramatic side, cinema minister Lee Chang-dong’s work on Peppermint Candy, Oasis and Secret Sunshine boast an array of haunting dramatic tones, while Kim Ki-duk does similar things on a more existential level – speaking primarily of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring. They’re all responsible for stitching together the fabric for the wave’s legitimacy; however, the mainstream attention that they’ve garnered arguably lies with the magnetism stirring within Park Chan-wook.

Joint Security Area, his first high-profile feature, barreled along as a violent-but incisive depiction of tension across the North and South Korean borders, but it’s in his famed Vengeance Trilogy that he evolves into a modern auteur. Though a trilogy, none of the films have any connective threads. No direct recurring characters, no recycled plot devices. All they share in common is a razor-sharp, highly-stylized focus on the fabric of revenge, with child abduction as the primary driver. His trilogy also hinges on the idea of gray-area morality, leaving the viewer purposefully swimming in a sea of second-guessing about motivations and deep-seeded turmoil. These often brutal, immaculately-constructed works leave one both hating and sympathizing for a green-haired mute who works in a bullet factory, while also finding a few glimmers of sympathy for a man that imprisons another for fifteen years. Heroes and villains are clear-cut, but not without tastes of good and bad to counterbalance them.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance:
Runtime: 129 min, Grade: B+

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance offers the most traditionally-toned installment of Park Chan-wook revenge oeuvre , a stern yet harshly poetic depiction of the desperation one undergoes in the midst of health issues. A deaf man(Shin Ha-Kyun, who works on the loud, dangerous assembly line at a munitions plant, comes up with the idea to kidnap his boss’ (Song Kang-ho) child to garner the money required for a surgery his sister desperately needs. His inability to communicate properly gets him into a few jams that tap into a vein of dark humor – a little blundering in their realism, yet still searing enough within Park Chan-wook’s steady visual eye. It’s when the tables turn and the momentum rushes behind the high-powered executive that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance captures its intensity, a complex wasp’s nest of contradicting emotion. The film’s sparseness, with very little direct exposition, exhibits lyrical mastery within the director’s steady hand, showing a level of grit within streamlined construction that makes the labyrinthine developments very memorable. Easily the most alluring thing about it, however, is the dynamic that Park Chan-wook strikes with his audience and their perception of the two main characters. He ends up earning sympathy for a capitalistic businessman, while making an abashed villain out of the lime-topped mute boy who's just trying to help his sister. It makes for a peculiar swirl of murky humor and melodramatic brood at the center, though the follow-through in Song Kang-ho's performance makes it exquisite.

Runtime: 120 min, Grade: A

Yet it’s only a primer. As Park Chan-wook’s most notable work to date, Oldboy – semi-adapted from a manga novel -- takes the themes of morality, repressed emotions, and brutal redemption that he played with in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and slathers them atop an almost Shakespearean or Grecian cascade of chaos. Pumping up the style with more metaphors, amusing tones, and visual styling than you can shake a stick at, this story of a man (Choi Min-sik) imprisoned for fifteen years achieves something truly unique within its furious rush through Oh Dae-su’s story. It flirts with the ideas of learning about life’s necessities through television, how eating a live cephalopod can make one feel in control of nature and his surroundings, and what he’d do if trapped on an elevator with an attractive woman. On a more serious slant, it also illustrates the psychological torment of even minuscule grudges, dangerous if held onto over the course of many, many years. There a surprise around every corner of Oldboy, from off-hand dental work to one of the best one-take fight sequences of the past few decades, yet all of it serves some further purpose to the film's ripe thematic core. Visceral, bloody, humorous, lyrically stunning, and gut-churning upon the big reveal at the close of the film, there’s absolutely no question as to why it earned the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004.

Lady Vengeance:
Runtime: 112 min, Grade: A-

Lady Vengeance, the close to Park Chan-wook Vengeance Trilogy, filters all of the visual lyricism and thematic depth from his previous films into a ravishing climax, one that seeps further into the mindset of inner redemption and the futility of vengeance for past transgressions. The ideas sound slightly familiar – a woman, named Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae), has been wrongfully imprisoned for thirteen years. Upon her release, amid adoring people who have developed respect for her because of her spiritual awakening, she instantly sets a ploy for revenge into motion. The external components aren't the central draw to Lady Vengeance, as the framework built around Lee Geum-ja's pursuit mostly clicks along in standard fashion -- driven by a powerhouse performance from Lee Yeong-ae. Instead, it's the internal turmoil that's stirring in this one that's thoroughly gripping, tapping into a vein of unsettling exasperation revolving around the death of children that's far more potent than anything Park Chan-wook had concocted before. Matched with the beautiful oddness of its bizarre visual metaphors (including a bad-ass pistol and one horribly unusual rocking horse), the beauty achieved in its mix of brutality and tempered reflection reveals a deft eye for the balance between style and substance. A tour de force of the highest accord, arguably as good as Oldboy.

On Blu-ray:

Palisades-Tartan pulled out the big guns by releasing this massive, extensive boxset for Park Chan-wook’s films on Blu-ray, billed as the “ultimate” and “most comprehensive” Vengeance Trilogy collection out there. Each film arrives in a standard semi-clear Blu-ray case, with Lady Vengeance being a two-disc set, all encapsulated in a somewhat flimsy cardboard slipcase that features iconic stock shots of the primary characters from each film. The somewhat soft outer cardboard box, a plain and flimsy affair with no embossed lettering or added design gris-gris, apparently can be damaged pretty easily in shipment, as the edition received here has multiple corners flattened. This marks a re-packaging of the set; first released in a limited edition tin at Best Buy, this set contains all the same materials – including the multi-page Booklet with essays and photographs – as the earlier incarnation.

Visual: A
Presented in an array of 2.35:1 1080p high-definition transfers (all high-bit AVC encodes), each of the films takes a massive leap visual forward from the original Tartan DVDs released five or so years ago. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance sees the biggest boost, rendering the film’s lower-budget cinematography with pleasing results in both interior and exterior shots. Skin tones are greatly improved, clarity of textures are fine and pronounced, and the harshness of the dimensionality in the exterior shots has been controlled to an admirable degree. Oldboy, a rough-and-tumble visual experience, looks largely similar to the Tartan release from a few years back, sporting heavy grain and some wonky contrast that preserves the director’s intent. Lady Vengeance sees the most unique of improvements; both the theatrical full-color version and the “Fade to Black” color shifting have been presented in the double-disc Blu-ray set, both offering robust and cleanly-detailed high-definition scans that only differ in the gradual color shifting in the latter version – actually the first time it’s been available in this way in the United States. Based on the visuals alone, this high-definition set’s a knockout.

Aural: B
Unfortunately, it’s here that the Vengeance Trilogy receives one very disappointing shot in the leg that diminishes the “ultimate” prestige trumpeted on the box. Let’s get the good out of the way first: both Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance sound stellar in their DTS HD Master Audio tracks, offering well-balanced, contained sound scans that slip along distortion-free throughout both films. The splashing of water, scuffling of feet on grainy surfaces, and the iconic music that normally accompanies Park Chan-wook’s films (naturally more sparse in Mr. Vengeance) all hit the right buttons. They’re notable step-ups from the already-impressive DTS tracks on the DVDs, seeing a boost in bass control, verbal clarity, and surround ambience that trounces its predecessors. Oldboy, however, sees a downgrade; instead of the DTS HD Master Audio track from the two-disc Blu-ray Tartan originally released, or even the DTS track from the previous DVD, only a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 sound option has been made available. As much as the boosts are noticeable for the other two films in the box, so is the downgrade here – rendering only mediocre voices, less-punchy music, and middling ambience for what’s arguably the most sensory-dynamic picture of the bunch.

Supplemental: A-
Where the set might’ve hit a mild misstep in the audio department, it makes up for it in the sheer number of special features contained in the set. Each film comes with at least one audio commentary with Park Chan-wook recycled from the previous DVDs, with Oldboy and Lady Vengeance both lugging a total of three (yes, all featuring the director) that stem from the previous editions. Most of the special features appearing on this set,however, have appeared in other region previously (mostly the CJ Entertainment sets), all of which have been cobbled in their original form – some of which come with English subtitles, others which don’t. The big, notable inclusion here is the three-hour Autobiography of Oldboy feature, which Tartan’s previous Blu-ray omitted. Behind-the-scenes documentaries, some in-depth interviews, and a few fluff “reception” pieces also find their way onto the discs, as well as a theatrical trailer adorning each of the films. Note that none of the special features are in high-definition, all full-frame and with burnt-in subtitles where applicable, and that the special features disc for Lady Vengeance is actually a DVD, not a Blu-ray.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance:

- Commentary w/ Park Chan-wook and Ryoo Seong-wan
- Process of Mr. Vengeance (32:05, 4x3)
- My Boksu Story Retrospective (17:21, 4x3)
- Crew Interviews (40:03, 4x3)
- Storyboards (9:57, 4x3)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (1:46, 4x3)
- Jonathan Ross on Park Chan-wook (16:58, 16x9)
- Soundtrack and Photos


- Three Commentaries with Park Chan-wook, + Cinematographer, + Cast
- Deleted Scenes With Optional Commentary (24:29, 4x3)
- CGI Documentary (7:05, 4x3)
- Flashback (23:34, 4x3)
- Making the Film (10:55, 4x3)
- The Music Score (16:48, 4x3)
- Production Design (13:12, 4x3)
- Cast/Crew Interviews (49:50, 4x3)
- Le Grand Prix at Cannes (8:49)
- The Autobiography of Oldboy (3:29:37, 4x3)
- Original Trailer (1:30, 4x3)

Lady Vengeance:
- Two Commentaries with Park Chan-wook, + DoP & Art Director
- Commentary with critic Richard Pena
- Making of Lady Vengeance (10:44, 4x3)
- Lady Vengance EPK (28:08, 4x3)
- Visualization (6:25, 4x3)
- Production Design (8:20)
- Costume and Make-Up (8:07, 4x3)
- Special Art (7:14, 4x3)
- Computer Graphics (7:01, 4x3)
- Interview with Park Chan-wook (42:07, 4x3)
- Park Chan-wook, Mr. Vengeance (17:20)
- Photography (9:41, 4x3)
- Character Interviews (25:30, 4x3)
- Lady Vengeance in Venice (8:23), 4x3)
- Deleted Scenes (14:07, 4x3)
- Trailers and TV Spots (4x3)
- Poster Gallery

Parting Words:
You're not likely to find too many thematic trilogies that are as consistent in quality as Korean director Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy, a collage of emotionally-draining, visually-striking features that says a lot about the pointless pursuit of redemption through a mix of visual imagery and cerebral veracity. They're all very different in tone and construction, all having a unique perspective to offer around a similar concept. For the price, it's worth picking up the set just to have Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance -- both the "Fade-to-White" and theatrical color versions -- in high-definition; it'd be worth the time to hunt down Tartan's previous release of Oldboy as well, however, since this set drops the DTS HD Master Audio in lieu of a more comprehensive slate of extras crammed onto one disc.

Overall Grade: A-


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