ASIA EXTREME: Park Chan-wook’s Evolution of Vengeance

Vengeance as a core theme is no stranger to Asian cinema, and it’s been employed by directors working in genre cinema (Shunya Ito’s FEMALE PRISONER #701: SCORPION) as well as those catering to the arthouse crowd (Akira Kurosawa’s THE BAD SLEEP WELL). Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL films were an amalgam of Asian revenge films; everything from Hong Kong Kung-Fu flicks of the 70s to Toshiya Fujita’s LADY SNOWBLOOD series.

Though there’s been no shortage of revenge-themed titles in recent years, none have received the level of international attention (or have caused as much controversy) as Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy: SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (2002), OLDBOY (2003), and LADY VENGEANCE (2005). Speaking of KILL BILL, much of the Western world might not have been exposed to these films if it wasn’t for Tarantino, who, as president of the jury at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, awarded OLDBOY the Grand Prix de Jury.

The first and bleakest of the series, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, is a gritty disturbing tale that begins with a young man illegally selling his kidney in order to obtain one for his sister who is dying. When the deal goes sour, he hatches a plan with his girlfriend to kidnap the daughter of a wealthy businessman. That too goes disastrously awry, setting in motion a series of escalating and disturbing events that emphasizes the barbaric nature of vengeful actions.

The far more polished OLDBOY does away with the quasi-realism of the first film in favor of a more aesthetically stylized approach, and contains an elaborate vengeance scheme that is purely cinematic; it’s a fantastical antithesis to SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE’s plausibility. Ordinary businessman Oh Dae-su is kidnapped one night and imprisoned by an unknown captor. Fifteen years later he is released, and given five days to figure it all out. It’s a journey that will take him into the forgotten recesses of his mind, dredging up a past that includes guilt, incest, and suicide. The film’s flash and originality have resulted in it becoming a worldwide cult hit, rumored to be remade as a multi-million dollar vehicle for Steven Spielberg and Will Smith.

Though not as popular as its predecessor, the final film of the trilogy, LADY VENGEANCE, is Park’s masterpiece. The gravitas of SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE in increased tenfold, while at the same time the style is more nuanced and artful than OLDBOY; it’s the most beautiful looking film ever made about an ugly, disturbing topic. As the title indicates, the vengeance seeker this time around is a woman, Geum-ja, who has been released from prison after a thirteen year sentence for the kidnapping and killing a child – a crime she did not commit. A mother who made the ultimate sacrifice in order to save her infant daughter, Geum-ja sets out to exact revenge on the man responsible for her loss and suffering, but learns far more about him (and herself) than she imagined. As the culmination of Park’s exploration into the nature of revenge, LADY VENGEANCE poses the most complex moral situations, while at the same time issuing forth his most explicit thoughts on the subject.

In some ways, Park’s trilogy is tracing an evolution of vengeance – both in terms of motivation and planning, as well as emotional and moral complexity. The characters in SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE are almost always acting on instinct, responding to a snag in a plan that initially began as a selfless gesture. There’s nothing personal at play, and each vengeful act is more circumstantial than anything else. OLDBOY is revenge in a more classic vein, applying the “a dish best served cold” adage. Oh Dae-su’s tormentor patiently waits decades to carry out his plan, thereby increasing the satisfaction of his vengeance. The level of personal involvement and the instigating act that triggers the desire for revenge reaches a pinnacle in LADY VENGEANCE, as Park adds an additional layer of complexity by tackling group mentality in vengeful acts. It’s also the one film that explicitly addresses redemption, and its futility in such matters.

The success and praise of the trilogy, particularly from critics, is unmatched by any other Asian film dealing with the subject. Though hardly populist films, their appeal has been quite broad, with everyone from fanboys to cineastes dissecting and analyzing the trilogy. The reason for this level of acceptance might have to do with Park’s approach, which differs tremendously from typical revenge films. All three follow convention in that they trace the path of the avenged and/or the avenger, and include the execution of the vengeful act(s) – obviously a necessity in such tales. Yet at the same time Park maintains a critical distance, which allows him (and the audience) to question, without heavy-handed lessons in morality, the nature and origin of vengeance, particularly in modern times. In a civilized society, the open expression of emotions such as hate and rage are discouraged, and as a result people suppress these feelings. Yet that doesn’t eradicate them; an outlet is still required. (In a 2004 interview in Cannes, Park claimed that art exists as a tool of expression for such emotions.) What all three films address even more than vengeance itself is the guilt that arises, and the weight such acts take on an individual’s conscience.

Where the films in the trilogy differ from standard vengeance tales is that there’s no sense of satisfaction exhibited, or felt, when the “act” is complete. And though all three, particularly LADY VENGEANCE, present scenarios that might appear to justify revenge (in this case, a brutal child murderer) Park isn’t interested in having us address our own moral rectitude, but rather maintains his perspective on the individual seeking revenge. There’s no joy to be found here, only the sheer tragedy of characters for whom violence becomes the only answer. Redemption is not a possibility – a point all three films strongly emphasize.