Korean cinema has been experiencing a wonderful tide of resurgence in recent years, and the brigade is being effectively led by an exceptionally talented director called Park Chan-Wook. His Joint Security Area (JSA), released in 2002, became the then most successful movie in Korean cinema history. However literally no one was prepared for what Park decided to serve next. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2004) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), together comprising what is now popularly known as the Vengeance Trilogy...
Korean cinema has been experiencing a wonderful tide of resurgence in recent years, and the brigade is being effectively led by an exceptionally talented director called Park Chan-Wook. His Joint Security Area (JSA), released in 2002, became the then most successful movie in Korean cinema history. However literally no one was prepared for what Park decided to serve next.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2004) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), together comprising what is now popularly known as the Vengeance Trilogy, were quirky, visceral, stylized and kinetic pieces on the theme of revenge and its inherent futility. They also elevated Park to the pedestal of one of the most visionary and idiosyncratic directors of our times, sharing the stage with the likes of Quentin Tarantino and the Fargo Brothers.
The trilogy is given a fabulous kick-start by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. A tale of multiple revenges, the movie follows the violent and self-destructive paths followed by two individuals from two disparate strata of the society. Ryu is a mute blue-collar guy, living in a rundown apartment, and in desperate need of a kidney to save his ailing sister. He approaches the black market, but in the process gets robbed off his money as well as a kidney of his. To relieve him of his desperate situation, his anarchist girlfriend convinces him to kidnap his boss’ daughter. Unfortunately, as was bound to happen, things go horribly wrong, and what ensues is quintessential Park Chan-Wook. Lazy at times, and detached at others, the movie can be extremely misleading for the uninitiated. The final act of the movie, however, quenches any doubt as regarding the intent of the film. It also acts as a great introductory lesson for what was about to follow this violent yet meditative effort.
Oldboy (Oldeuboi), the second chapter in the trilogy, is undoubtedly one of the great masterpieces of recent times. If the first movie was an essay on violence, the second film is complete novel. Oldboy tells the mind-boggling, refreshingly unique and remarkably offbeat tale of Oh Dae-Su, a family man and a buffoon, who, for no apparent reason, is put into solitary confinement for 15 long years with just a television as his companion. And then suddenly, when he was almost done with digging his escape route, he is released and given 5 days by his mysterious captor to uncover the truth behind ‘em all. A nerve-wracking and thoroughly disorienting tale of punishment and a bizarre morality play on revenge sought by the two terrific protagonists, Oldboy is shock therapy at its surreal best. The final dénouement is so disturbing and so difficult to anticipate, that even those fed on a daily diet of thrillers and plot twists would be left reeling from its stunning impact.
Speaking of Oldboy, a few things ought to be mentioned. Once watched, two of its sequences would remain utterly unforgettable. The first one – the ‘octopus eating scene’ – was apparently achieved without any CGI. The actor had to consume four live octopuses for it. When asked whether he felt pity for the actor, the director replied with his deadpan humour that he felt even more pity for the poor octopuses! The second one concerns the near operatic action sequence where Oh De-Sue single-handedly takes care of a horde of enemies with just a hammer at his disposal. Apparently it took 17 takes and 3 days to get it right. The movie was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Though it eventually lost out to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 for the coveted Palm d’Or, it nonetheless managed to win the Grand Prix award there, thanks in large parts to jury director Quentin Tarantino’s enthusiasm.
The trilogy gets the perfect finale thanks to the darkly funny and irresistible Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chin-jeol-han Geum-ja-ssi). Where the two previous movies were not shy insofar as graphic depiction of blood and violence were concerned, the final chapter is nearly devoid of things red, apart from of course the mascara worn by the protagonist. And where the previous two were male-dominated and comprised of multiple, parallel tales of revenge, this one – a fairly straightforward plot – gets a beautiful lady as its protagonist pursuing her dark agenda. And continuing with my previous analogy, this is poetry in motion. A young girl is forced to get herself incarcerated for the brutal murder of a young boy. 13 years later she is ready to give the bad guys her specially cooked dose of vengeance. After all, whoever said “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” was absolutely right. The movie is laced with an evocative score and is deliciously gift-wrapped in a package that is more interested in the stylistic approach and less with the actual content.
Even though the three movies are connected by a common string of vengeance and contain a brilliant concoction of violence, black humour and surreal beauty, each has the ability to stand on its own. They are all exceptionally well enacted. The pacing for the trilogy is also extremely well maintained with the movies simulating a literary equivalent of bell-curve with Oldboy at the peak and the other two forming its well-deserving arms. Perhaps in some ways they represent the episodes of a ballet with all its crescendos and diminuendos. And Park’s unique ability to punctuate moments of almost mediatory silence and languid observations with wicked humour and unbridled violence is stuff that legends are made of.
There’s a famous Christian saying that goes something like “Vengeance is Mine, so sayeth the Lord”. The maverick Korean auteur, in his quintessential style and his inimitable stroke of genius, kicked out the second half of the statement – and in what spectacular fashion!