Three films from director Chan-wook Park (JOINT SECURITY AREA) that, over the last five years, have brought Korean cinema closer to the mainstream than any other movie.
The whole thing kicked off in 2002 with the release of the low budget SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE (a.k.a. BOKSUNEUN NAUI GEOT) which looks rather rough around the edges now in comparison to it's successors OLDBOY and LADY VENGEANCE.
But, for all it's budgetary limitations, MR VENGEANCE is often beautiful to behold - and wickedly inventive on frequent occasions. It concerns the trials of deaf Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin, SAVE THE GREEN PLANET!) who kidnaps his boss' daughter after he's laid off, in a bid to raise money for his ailing sister's much-needed kidney transplant. But all does not go according to plan, and events soon descend into bloody violence ...
Solid, almost candid performances and frequent pauses for moments of quiet contemplation make this film arguably the most intimate in the trilogy (the three films being connected by the theme of revenge only, of course). Ji-Eun Lim (FAMILY) in particular takes her role, which should have been a thankless task, and brings a great balance of mystery, sympathy and edginess to it. A trick which is more difficult than some give credit for, and one that adds enormously to the flashy dynamics of Park's image-obsessed cinema.
As for violence, MR VENGEANCE doesn't hold back. In fact, the violence is more jarring here than in the other two movies becomes it seems grittier - and it's used more sparingly (sudden bursts a'la early Takeshi Kitano films) so when it does surface it really hits home. Hard. Bloody gun battles, brutal one-on-one fights and an alarming tattoo removal ensure MR VENGEANCE won't soon be forgotten.
What's interesting with this first film is that Park is still in the early stages of developing his surrealist imagery - so those who dislike his later movies' excursions into fantasy/CGI may well prefer this chapter (aside form the odd dreamlike visual, such as characters fading from photographs). The film relies more on its atmosphere of loneliness and, for all its beauty, comes across as despondent. It's a mature piece, surprisingly so when you consider the more overtly comic-book stylistics of Park's later efforts.
OLDBOY is, of course, the film that made everyone sit up and pay attention (apart from the smug few that were in on the exquisite mix of style and excess Park is renowned for from day one). OLDBOY's impossible not to like, largely due to its unrelenting pace and the irrepressible charm of it's anti-hero lead character, Oh Dae-Su (Min-sik Choi, THE QUIET FAMILY; BROTHERHOOD).
He gets abducted one night while drunk and wakes in a room without windows: all he has is a TV (which advises him his wife has been killed, his daughter abducted, and he's the prime suspect) and a cat flap through which his captors feed him. Fifteen years later, during which time our hero has trained himself to be rock hard, he's released ... but who kidnapped him, and why? With the help of pretty young Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang, THREE ... EXTREMES), Dae-su has five days to find out.
Simplicity is the key with OLDBOY. All these ignorant slobs who moan about not being able to sit through subtitled movies have no excuse here - the wafer thin premise is a basic springboard that allows Park et al to leap from one amazing action set-piece to the next. It's a technical tour-de-force, a brilliant slice of pure adrenaline-fuelled cinema imbued with an unusual amount (for it's genre) of style, brains and passion.
Whereas OLDBOY is the visceral punch that xenophobic film buffs will most warm to, and MR VENGEANCE is a more contemplative, almost arthouse affair, LADY VENGEANCE (a.k.a. CHINJEOLHAN GEUMJASSI) is situated somewhere between the two.
It tells the tale of Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee, JOINT SECURITY AREA), a demure young woman who endures a lengthy stint in jail for the love of her man (echoes of the seminal FEMALE PRISONER series here). Once out, Geum-ja has toughened up and wants her revenge - much to the alarm of former friends who are disturbed to see her once sweet nature has all but gone.
I say "all but", because our heroine does still show a modicum of moral code (witness her sacrificing her own fingers to one startled couple), and still cares dearly for the teenaged daughter she hasn't seen since infancy. And it's this relationship as the pair are reunited that, later in the film, elevates LADY from being a visually audacious yet vacuous affair into an altogether more engaging and agreeable yarn.
As with it's predecessors, LADY boasts uniformly strong performances and staggering visuals. The storytelling here is less conventional even than the previous two instalments, with flashbacks aplenty and occasional gimmicks such as freeze-frames and onscreen titles when instrumental characters are introduced.
The comedy doesn't work so well in LADY - it's too broad, especially in the early prison scenes. But the imagery onscreen cannot be faulted. Beautiful widescreen compositions are at times literally breathtaking - the snow-clad landscapes near the finale are as pretty as anything you'll have ever seen in such a violent, exploitative movie.
Flawed in it's ill-advised comedic moments and lacking that extra "crunch" that OLDBOY delivered, LADY ultimately reveals a maturing in style from Park, and the ending suggests a far bigger heart behind it than it's predecessors.
All in all, if this is to be called a trilogy, it is surely one of the finest, most consistently astounding trilogies ever made. Amazing stuff.
This 6-disc boxset is heftily priced, but for fans it's an ideal gift. Not only do we get all three films fully uncut in pin-sharp anamorphic widescreen transfers, but multiple audio options (Korean 2.0, 5.1 and DTS mixes in each case) plus typo-free optional English subtitles. The video and audio quality of each film cannot be faulted. But that's old news for people who bought the previous Tartan UK releases.
So, what is new?
A plethora of extras, that's what - including feature-length commentary tracks for each film from the likeable and chatty Park (in Korean with English subtitles). Of course, the director's commentary for OLDBOY has been made previously available in the UK but you'll pleased to hear that Tartan have included it here - in additional to the commentary tracks from the actors and cinematographer - for completion.
Citing influences while taking the credit for the plentiful scenes of creative wonder in each film, Park offers informative and flab-free chats that flow devoid of pregnant pauses or awkward silences.
The bonus discs (one per film) proffer a silly amount of extra material, with cast interviews providing not only the usual drek about character motivations, but also showing the enthusiasm and camaraderie that comes from working with Park (most of the casts have worked with him on numerous productions).
Making Of documentaries are present for each instalment, with the OLDBOY footage in particular offering a wealth of behind-the-scenes enlightenment on the use of CGI and the many incredible stunts performed throughout the film.
Trailers, deleted scenes, teasers, awards ceremony featurettes, new reflective interviews ... it's all here, and then some. All extra features are equipped with English subtitles.
In short, everyone should know what these films bring to the table by now. The question is, will the extra features be tempting enough to entice you to part with around £40 of your hard-earned cash?
The films look as beautiful as ever (the transfers really are excellent, as they should be - they're all presented on DVD9 discs). The extras are phenomenal - there's around 7 hours of bonus video material, and commentaries on top of that. And although people are no doubt more than happy with the 2-disc SE of OLDBOY they own (or even the Korean 4-disc UE!), the SE's of the other two films are genuinely substantial upgrades.
Then there's the packaging. The film can be bought in a regular digipak box, or in a special "gift" box with a replica OLDBOY hammer/bottle opener and souvenir postcards inside. Classy.
Three essential films, an excellent package and extras to sell a kidney for. Whether or not people will part with the cash though remains to be seen, but Tartan must be commended for the effort. A sterling release.
Review by Stu Willis
|Released by Tartan Asia Extreme|
|Region All PAL|
|Extras : see main review|