Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray release of Oldboy has had a strange and surprising journey to our stores and homes. Initially, it was announced as a limited edition 3-disc Blu-ray release loaded with special features (alongside 1 disc DVD and Blu-ray packages). However, a short while after the announcement, Arrow had contractual issues with some of the extras so had to lose them. Being generous souls though, rather than just cut the set down to a 2-disc package, Arrow decided to throw in the other two films from Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, complete with their own substantial sets of extras. This surprising news was thrilling to me, as I believe each entry to the trilogy is as good as Oldboy, though this belief also made me confused as to why they didn’t just release it as a trilogy to begin with and why they kept the set titled as Oldboy. A final twist in this tale came more recently when Arrow announced they’d be releasing the Vengeance Trilogy in December. Other than the name and packaging, it appears to be exactly the same set as the Oldboy 4-disc edition, so you can take my following write-up as a review of both sets.
Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (a.k.a. Boksuneun naui geot)
Director: Chan-wook Park
Screenplay: Mu-yeong Lee, Chan-wook Park, Jae-sun Lee, Jong-yong Lee
Based on a Manga by: Park Myeong-Chan
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ha-kyun Shin, Doona Bae, Ji-Eun Lim
Country: South Korea
Running Time: 121 min
The first film in the Vengeance Trilogy (a saga Park didn’t originally intend to make – the idea of creating a trilogy came after making Oldboy) opens with the unfortunate story of Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin). He’s a deaf and mute factory worker who’s saving money to pay for a kidney transplant for his sick sister (Ji-Eun Lim). After he gets laid off and learns his blood type doesn’t match his sister’s for a donation, he resorts to desperate measures and approaches an illegal organ trading organisation who screw him over, taking his kidney and disappearing with his money too.
A suitable donor arrives at the hospital shortly afterwards but Ryu now doesn’t have the money to pay for it. Ryu’s girlfriend Yeong-mi Cha (Doona Bae) talks him into the quick-fix option of kidnapping Dong-jin Park’s (Kang-ho Song) daughter Yu-sun (Bo-bae Han) and demanding a ransom. Yeong-mi convinces Ryu it’ll be easy and they can treat You-sun nicely like babysitters rather than kidnappers. They do this, but a series of misfortunes end in the death of the young girl as well as Ryu’s sister, who commits suicide after learning of the kidnapping plot.
We then shift focus to Dong-jin, who is devastated by the meaningless death of his only child. All he can think of now is vengeance, so begins to track down Ryu so he can kill him.
I used to think this was the best of the trilogy, but on rewatch I find it hard to place them in order of preference. I have very minor grievances with all of them, but on the whole, each film is superb. What Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance does very well, in my opinion, is described in the title. We don’t simply follow one ‘hero’s’ quest for revenge against an evil villain, as you would in a classic tale of revenge. Instead, we are shown both sides of the story and feel for both the one seeking revenge and the person they are out to enact it on. Also muddying the waters is the fact Ryu seeks his own revenge on the illegal organ dealers, though this aspect of the story is dealt with in a much more straightforward fashion. Similar moral dilemmas are dealt with in various ways throughout the trilogy, but I feel it does so most effectively here.
Also impressive is Chan-wook’s cinematic craftsmanship. Shot in the Super 35 format, the director and DOP Byeong-il Kim make great use of the ultra-wide frame. Important action occasionally happens in the background/sides of frame and an often deep focus in shots highlights details in the production design. This is important in the contrast Chan-wook wanted to make between the social standings of the characters. Ryu is clearly poor and Dong-jin middle-class, a distinction that gives a political slant to the film.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance also has an unusual mix of tones that I love, but those unfamiliar with Asian cinema (which does this a lot) might struggle with the blend of black comedy, tragic drama and brief flashes of shocking violence. The unusual nature of the film keeps the audience slightly detached from the emotional aspects but that’s for the best in my opinion as it would be too bleak to get through, had a straight-forward, serious tone been maintained.
One small gripe I had was with the inclusion of a disabled character in a couple of key scenes. The (able-bodied) actor portraying him overplays it a bit so it feels a little distasteful and almost comic. However, there is a twist that shows his ailment, that many take as mental illness, is only a physical one and he provides some key information to Dong-jin. Also, in an interview on the special features, Chan-wook described how he originally intended to cast an actor who actually had cerebral palsy for the role, but felt the work would be too dangerous as it entailed a lot of acting in deep water. So, I feel calling the director out for not casting a disabled actor would be unjustified.
Overall then, it’s a dark, grim and twisted yet occasionally blackly humorous examination of vengeance. Its off-beat tone and style prevent it from being as emotionally powerful as you might expect from such material but also keep it from being unwatchable. A stunning start to the trilogy.
Oldboy (a.k.a. Oldeuboi)
Director: Chan-wook Park
Screenplay: Garon Tsuchiya (story), Chan-wook Park, Joon-hyung Lim, Jo-yun Hwang
Based on a Manga by: Nobuaki Minegishi
Starring: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang, Byeong-ok Kim, Seung-shin Lee, Dal-su Oh
Country: South Korea
Running Time: 120 min
Oldboy is the film that put Chan-wook Park’s name on the worldwide cinematic map. His third film, 2000’s Joint Security Area, was a big hit in South Korea but didn’t make much an impact elsewhere. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, though fairly well regarded now, received mixed reviews on release and flopped in its home country. Oldboy however, was both a critical and commercial success worldwide. Chan-wook even won the Grand Prix award at Cannes. The film’s popularity helped bring South Korean cinema to the rest of the world too, so it’s an important film for the country as much as for the director.
The film sees Min-sik Choi play Dae-su Oh, a slovenly businessman who we first meet (following a brief flash-forward) drunk in a police station. After leaving there, he is abducted and wakes up in a cell made out like a low-rent hotel. He is imprisoned there, with nothing but a TV for company for 15 years, before getting unexpectedly released one day. Once out, he becomes determined to find out who incarcerated him and exact revenge.
After a short while, this mystery figure reveals himself as Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu), who seems to take pleasure in Dae-su’s quest for vengeance. Dae-su could kill him when they first meet, but Woo-jin convinces him that finding out ‘why’ he was imprisoned is more important than who did it, so sends him away to figure it out before they can face each other in a final showdown.
Meanwhile, Dae-su meets sushi-chef Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), and the two are strangely drawn to one another, forming a close relationship. Mi-do and Dae-su’s old friend Joo-hwan (Dae-han Ji) help Dae-su unravel the mystery, leading to devastating revelations.
Like all films in the trilogy, Oldboy is meticulously crafted. It looks fantastic and, probably more than the other two films, uses a variety of interesting visual techniques to tell its story. The hammer fight sequence is one of the most memorable sequences, where Dae-su fends off a horde of bad guys single-handedly. All done in a single shot (which took many takes to get right), it’s a tour-de-force sequence that plays out like a cross between a video game and a renaissance painting. The cinematography in general is superb, as is the production design, both of which make great use of an unusual colour palette. The main characters have their own colour schemes, with Dae-su often matched with greens, Mi-do with reds and Woo-jin with purples.
Being based on a manga, it might be tempting to say the style is like that of a comic book, but in fact, as stylised as the film is, the look is still based in reality to give weight to the drama. I haven’t read the source material, but by all accounts, Chan-wook didn’t stick very closely to it anyway. He set out to tell a vaguely similar story to the manga rather than translate it directly to the screen.
I’ve heard the film being called out for being all style and no substance, but I’d disagree. As with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, there are a number of thought-provoking moral dilemmas to mull over. The lives of Dae-su and Woo-jin, for instance, are compared and contrasted to show how they’re both imprisoned by their vengeance. Chan-wook never glorifies revenge in any of the films either, despite the stylistic flourishes. The character’s quests are generally doomed to end in death or punishment for all involved. Though the ‘vengeance film’ is thought of as trashy genre staple, Chan-wook does all he can to subvert your expectations from such material and make you think about the situations and circumstances the characters are in rather than sitting back and enjoying a fun exploitation flick.
Some small elements have dated a little, such as the techno music in the rooftop sequence (though the rest of the score is beautiful) and some of the CGI (projected on a big screen, the digital knife in Dae-su’s back during the hammer fight looks poor), but overall the film still holds up very well.
Beautifully and carefully designed and crafted, it’s a cinematic treat from start to finish. It can be quite disturbing at times (though not as graphically as you might expect), but an enthralling mystery and finely crafted story, as well as some well-placed black comedy, keep you hooked. Simply put, like all the films in the set, it’s a near-masterpiece.
Lady Vengeance (a.k.a. Chinjeolhan geumjassi)
Director: Chan-wook Park
Screenplay: Seo-kyeong Jeong, Chan-wook Park
Based on a Manga by: Park Myeong-Chan
Starring: Yeong-ae Lee, Min-sik Choi, Shi-hoo Kim, Yea-young Kwon
Country: South Korea
Running Time: 115 min
So we come to the final chapter in the trilogy. Lady Vengeance changes tact a little by centring around a female protagonist seeking revenge. Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee) is released from prison after 13 years for the kidnapping and murder of a young boy. However, we soon learn that she didn’t actually do it (the murder at least). Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi) coerced Geum-ja into assisting with the kidnapping and, after he killed the child, took Geum-ja’s baby daughter and threatened to kill her too if Geum-ja didn’t take the rap for the murder.
During her time in prison, Geum-ja appears to have found Christianity and we learn how incredibly good she was to her fellow inmates. As time moves on, however, we realise this was all part of her calculated plan to exact revenge on Baek, which she puts into action without any of the warm purity she displayed in jail.
Along the way, she tracks down her now teenage daughter Jenny (Yea-young Kwon), who is living in Australia with foster parents. Geum-ja thinks she’s incapable of loving any more and only has her mindset on revenge, so rejects her daughter’s request to go back to Korea with her. Jenny is determined though, so forces her way back into Geum-ja’s life and the pair very slowly grow closer as the film goes on and Geum-ja moves towards getting her vengeance. A sudden realisation puts an added twist on this quest though.
I used to rank this as the weakest entry in the trilogy, but this rewatch has put it as a possible contender for my favourite. On the surface it’s a much simpler tale of revenge, with Baek a reprehensible character (though we don’t see much of him before the second half), making Geum-ja’s vengeance less questionable. However, on top of some interesting twists along the way, the film shifts focus towards how a revenge-seeking character might find salvation or redemption after devoting their lives to a generally destructive purpose. This gives the film more heart and soul than the other entries to the series, though this doesn’t become apparent until later on. It makes it the perfect close to the trilogy, aided by a powerful and poignant final sequence. Also helping tie them together is the fact that pretty much every key player from the previous films features in Lady Vengeance, ranging from cameo appearances to major roles (Min-sik Choi being the latter of course).
The first third of the film is quite disorientating, with a lot of characters being introduced and regular jumps back and forward in time. However, all becomes clear as it moves on and the storytelling becomes more focussed once Geum-ja’s plan comes to a head.
Once again we get a mix of dark comedy and drama, as well as several surreal touches. We even get a bizarre dream sequence featuring a dog with Baek’s head. The visual style is a little different though. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance had a fairly naturalistic look, with sharp focus and often bright settings, and Oldboy had a dark, dingy, often neon-lit look. Lady Vengeance instead plays with the contrast of Geum-ja’s pure beauty and the darkness of her surroundings in the ‘present day’, whilst displaying a surprisingly warm palette in the flashbacks to prison, which reflect her angelic character during this time. Shots are held longer than they were in the previous film too, with less camera movement (in the first half at least). I found the style, particularly when matched with the grand orchestral score, had an operatic quality to it.
Lady Vengeance is beautifully made, as expected, with great style and very disturbing elements, but with enough of a soul to keep from feeling shallow. It’s got the simplest presentation of revenge perhaps, in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters, but there are still moral questions to be asked and extra avenues explored. So it’s a striking and highly effective end to a consistently excellent trilogy.
Oldboy is out on 4K Digital Download now and DVD, Blu-ray & Limited Edition 4-disc Blu-ray 7th October, all released by Arrow Video. The set is also due to be later repackaged as The Vengeance Trilogy on 9th December, with exactly the same content. The films all look fantastic, with rich colours, incredible detail and a beautifully natural look. There are multiple audio options and the ones I listened to (5.1 Korean) sounded pristine.
There’s an incredible amount of special features included in the set too. Here’s the list:
OLDBOY 4-DISC LIMITED EDITION:
– Four-disc edition featuring Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance and the feature-length documentary Old Days - Limited edition packaging featuring newly commissioned artwork by Matt Ryan Tobin - Limited edition 100-page hardbound book featuring new writing by Simon Abrams, Kat Ellinger, and archival articles - Double-sided fold-out poster
DISC ONE – OLDBOY
– Brand new 4K restoration from the original camera negative supervised by director Park Chan-wook - High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation - Original 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 stereo - Original Korean and English soundtracks - Music and effects track - Newly translated, optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack - Newly translated English subtitles for the Korean soundtrack - Audio commentary with director Park Chan-wook - Audio commentary with Park Chan-wook and cinematographer Jung Jung-hoon - Audio commentary with Park Chan-wook, and actors Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jung - New audio commentary with critic Jasper Sharp and writer Simon Ward - Out of the Past, new video appreciation by Asian film expert Tony Rayns - Deleted scenes with optional director commentary - Behind the scenes featurettes - Extensive cast and crew interviews - “Bring My Love” music video by Starsailor, using clips of the film - Trailers and teasers - Image gallery
DISC TWO – OLD DAYS
– Old Days: An Oldboy Story (110 mins), acclaimed feature-length 2016 documentary about Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece - Autobiography of Oldboy, a three-and-a-half-hour video diary of the making of Oldboy
DISC THREE – SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation - Original 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 stereo - Newly translated English subtitles - Audio commentary by director Park Chan-wook and filmmaker Ryoo Seung-wan - Screaming for Vengeance, Kim Newman on the Vengeance Trilogy and the tradition of revenge films - Extensive archival making-of featurettes, behind the scenes featurettes and cast and crew interviews - Trailers - Image gallery
DISC FOUR – LADY VENGEANCE
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of two versions of the film, the original theatrical version and the fade to black and white version - Original 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 stereo - Newly translated English subtitles - Audio commentary by director Park Chan-wook, director of photography Jung Jung-hoon and art director Joh Hwa-seong - Audio commentary by director Park Chan-wook and actress Lee Yeong-ae - Audio commentary by academic Richard Peña - Extensive archival making-of featurettes, behind the scenes featurettes, cast and crew interviews and deleted scenes - Trailers - Image gallery
OLDBOY 2-DISC LIMITED EDITION:
– Two-disc edition featuring a new restoration of Oldboy, and Old Days the acclaimed making-of documentary – both discs as Discs One and Two listed above. - Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by Justin Erickson - Fully Illustrated booklet featuring new writing by Simon Abrams and archival articles
– Brand new restoration from the original camera negative supervised by director Park Chan-wook - Standard Definition presentation - Original 5.1 surround sound and 2.0 stereo - Original Korean and English soundtracks - Newly translated, optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack - Newly translated English subtitles for the Korean soundtrack - Audio commentary with director Park Chan-wook - Audio commentary with Park Chan-wook and cinematographer Jung Jung-hoon - Audio commentary with Park Chan-wook, and actors Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jung - New audio commentary with critic Jasper Sharp and writer Simon Ward - Out of the Past, new video appreciation by Asian film expert Tony Rayns - Behind the scenes featurettes - Extensive cast and crew interviews - Trailers - Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Justin Erickson
Wow. It took me days to get through all this material (and I won’t lie, I skimmed through one or two features – there’s only so much time I can dedicate to one review). You might say there’s too much here, but there isn’t quite as much crossover as you might expect and the films are fascinating and technically dazzling enough to warrant in-depth exploration into their construction and analysis of the end products.
As you might expect, it’s the Oldboy discs that are most impressive. Old Days, which was made 10 years after the film, is the best feature. Nicely shot and classily produced, it offers an in-depth and honest feature-length look back at the film’s production and reception. The epic Autobiography of Oldboy piece provides an incredibly detailed look at the production process too. Practically every day of the shoot seems to be covered and you get a first-hand look at all the issues that the crew came across and hard work put in by all involved. It’s very long though and roughly presented, so it’s not easy to sit through in one go.
There are a huge number of commentaries across the four discs. Jasper Sharp and Simon Ward’s track on Oldboy is engaging and informative. Park’s commentaries, depending on who he’s with, are a mixed bag. His tracks with his technical team on Oldboy and Lady Vengeance are very technical and a bit too repetitive in describing the colours and lenses used. I liked his solo one on Oldboy though, as it discusses his overall intentions throughout much of the film, as well as providing a few anecdotes. The ones he does with the actors are more conversational and loose too, so are quite fun, and his Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance commentary with Ryoo Seung-wan is a great all-rounder. Richard Peña’s track on Lady Vengeance is very thoughtful too.
Tony Rayns’ piece gives a potted history of Chan-wook’s career as well as his thoughts on the film. It’s refreshingly honest, describing Park’s career as chequered for instance rather than praise him as some sort of genius. Kim Newman’s interview is also a worthy addition, with the critic discussing the trilogy as a whole and its place in the history of vengeance films.
There are tonnes of cast and crew interviews spread across the discs too, which are all fairly interesting, though the edited documentaries are much more effective and watchable, as you’d imagine. The interviews with Chan-wook are all very informative though.
I didn’t receive a copy of the book for review so I can’t comment on that, though at 100 pages it’s sure to be detailed and worth your time.
Overall then, it’s a superb set. Between this, Of Flesh and Blood and the Apocalypse Now: Final Cut set, it’s going to be very difficult to pick a Blu-ray of the year for 2019.