Park Chanwook’s Trifecta of Korean Revenge Movies
Korean pop culture has amassed quite a large following these past two decades since the inception of the Hallyu wave. From Korean drama series to movies to variety shows to music and food, they have slowly but surely been establishing themselves as a worldwide cultural phenomena.
Korean films have particularly been noteworthy and impressive. There have been very popular Korean movies released within the decade—the international box-office success zombie movie, Train to Busan; the Cannes Film Palme d’Or nominee, The Handmaiden; the action-packed and women-empowered film, The Villainess, and 2017’s Memoir of a Murderer among many interesting others.
However, it is of particular interest that two decades ago, these three award winning Korean films were brought to life. Park Chan Wook cemented his reputation as a critically acclaimed director through three of his most, arguably, notable works—Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), OldBoy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005). All of his films prior to and after these films are worthy of mention, including the most recent, the previously mentioned The Handmaiden. But for this particular article, we focus on the groundbreaking and galvanizing “Vengeance Trilogy.”
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Released in 2002, this is the first of the three films under the Vengeance Trilogy. It failed to be a box-office success and is the least commercially appealing of the three, but it has since been catapulted to cult classic status along with the other two succeeding films.
Violent and brutal, the film is about a poor deaf man’s quest for revenge and retribution that spiraled into a dark labyrinth, full of death and despair. It is about a series of bad and impulsive decisions motivated by poverty and desperation.
The story follows Ryu’s, a deaf man’s, life in the slums. He’s a factory worker who was laid off from work and is in dire need of money for his sister’s kidney operation. His circumstances, along with his girlfriend’s prodding, leads him to plan to kidnap his former boss’s daughter for revenge and ransom—except he doesn’t kidnap his boss’s daughter, but instead the boss’ executive friend’s daughter. The situation is almost comical and hilarious, but the consequences are nothing but. His actions put into motion a series of murderous events that involve both the innocent and the sinful.
Park Chanwook’s first revenge movie of the trilogy conveys an image that is quite familiar with most independent films – raw, artistic and thought-provoking. It dissects human nature and emotions, and uses them as the pivotal factor in the transition of events in the film. The movie has SYMPATHY written all over it. As you watch the film, you cannot help but feel sympathetic towards the characters, whether they deserve it or not. There was no definite antagonist or protagonist – everyone had their misgivings. It may sound like a cliché, but in this film, the circumstance is the real evil, much like in real life.
However, I can understand how this film did not attract viewers upon its initial release. It can be classified as a violent film with a hint of black comedy, but the slightly ridiculous parts that can be considered comedic are not enough to tone down the very heavy raw feeling it evokes. There is no sense of reprieve for the characters and the viewers in the film, from start to end. It leaves a hopeless and depressing feeling that lingers, uninvitingly, even after watching the movie. It, however, caters not to the commercial market but to a certain niche. Just like many other brilliant things that were born from art, it receives its well-deserved acknowledgment only years after, as more people discover it through the other two films.
Of the three films, OldBoy is the most critically acclaimed and the biggest box-office hit. It was released a year after the first film and it has since then continued on to become one of the most iconic Korean films ever produced.
Based on a Japanese manga of the same name, this second installment of the vengeance trilogy focuses on a main protagonist, Oh Dae Su. His story begins in 1988, when he is kidnapped and kept prisoner in a “hotel room” for unknown reasons, with only the television as his access to the outside world. While he is held captive, he is framed for the murder of his wife, leaving his young daughter an ‘orphan’. After 15 long years, he is suddenly freed from imprisonment and instructed by his mysterious captor to find out for himself the reasons for his captivity. What follows is an action and thriller packed film that will keep you at the edge of your seat throughout.
Unlike the first film, OldBoy has a more cohesive plot and a clear protagonist. It also has a very striking premise, with the first ten minutes of the film enough to keep your eyes glued to the screen until the unraveling at the end. The mind-bending twist of this film’s ending makes OldBoy a cult classic, much like how Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t have been as iconic or popular, debatably, if not for its unconventional ending then.
Released during the era of MTV and Quentin Tarantino, some of the scenes, specifically the fight scenes, exude a similar vibe. In the film, there is an iconic “hallway fight scene” where the main character fights his way through a slew of men, leaving behind him a lot of deaths and him coming out alive. He would definitely give Chuck Norris a run for his money.
While both films are about revenge, the first film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, focused on poverty, crime and death, and the second installment of the vengeance trilogy also touched on crime. Oddly, kidnapping also triggers the movement of the story, but its focus is on a more controversial theme, incest. Park Chanwook’s brilliant direction of the film presents this taboo theme, as repulsive as it is and should be but also with a touch of melancholy which keeps the audience repulsed but at the same time sympathetic to the characters and thus, entranced by the film. It is no surprise that this film catapulted both Park Chanwook and Choi Min Sik, the lead actor, to critical acclaim and stardom. The brilliant acting and directorial job are both flawless. The film also went on to win the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and it eventually bore an American remake by Spike Lee in 2013.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
In 2005, Park Chan Wook released the third film that completes the vengeance trilogy. It also brings back Choi Min Sik, not as the protagonist, but this time as the antagonist and the receiving end of revenge plotted by the enigmatic and beautiful Lee Young Ae, portraying the female protagonist.
The third film, Lady Vengeance, puts women at the front and center of the story. It focuses on Lee Geum Ja, a single mother who was wrongly imprisoned for being convicted of the murder of a child, a crime that she did not commit. This is the story of how she plots revenge against the man who betrayed and framed her. The tone of the film is mysterious and melancholic and at the same time, the splash of red in the film which can signify anger, revenge and even fierce love, gives it a tone of determined hope. The shock factor in this film is upped a notch by the mere fact that the gruesome and morbid scenes are committed by women, greatly underestimated both in cinema and in real life. In this film, women perceived as weak and helpless regain their self-worth and confidence despite social inequality and injustice.
It discusses the real life struggle of single mothers in Korean society and of the plight of women in general. It touches on the harsh outlook of society on single mothers and about adoption as an option to alleviate their depressing circumstances. There is also a focus on the power struggle that exists between the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, men and women, people in authority and the common man.
Of the three films, Lady Vengeance wraps its story with a tidier bow. There is a better sense of completion as the film comes full circle with reputation, revenge and retribution.