ike so many others, I was happy to see Bong Joon Ho’s excellent film Parasite become such a widely seen worldwide hit and best picture Oscar winner. It’s a well-deserved honor, and it’s nice to see more people in the West exposed to other approaches to cinema from around the world.
Though Parasite’s achievements are primarily a testament to Bong’s unique vision, they also feel like the culmination of a building wave of international appreciation for South Korean cinema that arguably began when a Cannes jury led by Quentin Tarantino (and including Tilda Swinton, Kathleen Turner, and Tsui Hark) awarded the Grand Prix to Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy (2003). That’s why REBELLER editor-in-chief Sonny Bunch suggested Park’s so-called “Vengeance Trilogy” for a Profile in Bad-Ass.
The trilogy — not officially connected, but sharing many themes — began with 2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, followed by Oldboy the next year and Lady Vengeance in 2005. Though the incredible long-take hammer fight in Oldboy is the trilogy’s most famous scene, these are not what I would consider action movies, and they don’t exactly fit the same usage of “bad-ass” that my previous column subjects have. But they’re an unflinching and fiercely original exploration of one of exploitation’s most time-honored staples: revenge. Each contains some appalling acts of violence and potently capture the world’s ugliness, but they’re in no way confined by realism. They use absurdity and dry, perverse humor to drive the nail in.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance begins as the story of Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf and mute young man trying to find a new kidney for his sister (Im Ji-eun). In desperation, he takes all his money to black-market organ dealers who promptly rip him off, so he can’t pay when a legitimate donor materializes. His anarchist girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Doona, who you may have seen in the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending, and Sense8) convinces him to kidnap the daughter of the rich executive who recently laid him off from his factory job.
In one of Park’s most caustic twists, the couple backs away from the abduction because another ex-employee is already there to confront the ex-boss and slice himself open in protest. They decide it’s safer to steal the daughter of the boss’s friend, Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho, who was so great as the patriarch of the Kim family in Parasite). Honestly trying to not be bad people, they convince the little girl You-sun (Han Bo-bae) that they’re family friends and have Ryu’s unwitting sister “babysit” her. But tragedy befalls both the sister and the abductee, and we end up with two misters seeking vengeance: Ryu hunting down the organ dealers who ruined his chances at a transplant, and Park Dong-jin going after Ryu for taking his daughter.
Like most of the South Korean cinema that has found purchase on our soil, Mr. Vengeance pushes screen violence beyond what we ever see in American films, in potency if not volume. The well-meaning deaf kid’s brutal raid on the organ traders’ lair may have a little bit of a cathartic thrill to it, but it would be hard to argue the same of the grieving father’s electrical torture of Yeong-mi. If one of these two is in the right, it must be him, but he doesn’t even seem convinced of that himself.
Of all the horrors on display, the most unsettling is kind of a throwaway joke: a shot of four young roommates in a small apartment furiously jerking off to the sounds they hear from next door. The camera moves through the wall to show that they are not in fact sex sounds, but moans of agony from Ryu’s sister, doubled over in pain. All these people crammed into close proximity, completely oblivious to their neighbors’ misery. For example, Ryu doesn’t know that the investigator on his trail (Lee Dae-yeon, who appears in all three of these films) needs the same amount of money for his son’s surgery that he does for his sister’s.
(Ironic post-script: South Korea switched to single-payer healthcare in 2004. Maybe that would have helped.)
Oldboy is also a strange tale of two-way avengement. Drunken lout businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik, also in Kim Jee-woon’s 2010 outstanding vengeance-themed I Saw the Devil ) is kidnapped and wakes up imprisoned in a weird hotel room. He learns from television that his wife has been murdered and he’s been blamed for it. For years, he survives in this room, food delivered to him through a hole, occasionally being gassed and waking up after, say, a haircut. He tries to figure out who did this to him, how to get them back, how to escape. And after 15 years of suffering and planning, when he’s about to tunnel his way to freedom, they just let him out. The final insult, you might think, except his torment isn’t over yet.
Dae-su’s vengeance is more cathartic for us than Mr. Vengeance’s was. We can get behind him, because we were there with him. He uses detective work, locating the hotel-prison by finding the source of the distinct Chinese dumplings that were served to him and following a delivery. Park fuels our glee for the aforementioned hammer rampage with a cartoonish visual: Dae-su walks into the office of the man overseeing the prison/hotel and raises his hammer. The frame freezes, and a dotted line is drawn from the claw end of the hammer to the man’s head.
Based on a manga, Oldboy is more ludicrous and over-the-top than the other two in the trilogy. The final stretch involves hypnotism, incest, dismembered hands and tongues, and a baroquely perverse final stage of revenge for some shit that happened way back in high school. Though Dae-su expresses regret for the decades-old incident, it’s something that’s hard to fault him for.
If I had to choose a favorite of the trilogy, I think it would be Lady Vengeance, the story of Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) as she’s released from prison (real prison, not hotel prison) after a 13-year bid for the abduction and murder of a 5-year-old boy. The juxtaposition of the grisly crime and her innocent appearance made her a media darling, and her reportedly angelic reformation a cause célèbre for local Christians.
She takes on a Plissken-esque anti-hero swagger as soon as she walks out, tells her biggest supporter to “go screw yourself,” and begins donning red eye shadow so that people won’t think she looks “kind-hearted” anymore. Through a series of alternately harrowing and comical flashbacks, we meet her friends and enemies in the prison, learn who really murdered the little boy, and see her enact her plan for revenge, one that’s admirably elaborate, if not quite on the level of Oldboy’s villain.
In their original Korean titles, Mr. and Lady Vengeance are not connected — they translate to Vengeance Is Mine and Kind-Hearted Geum Ja. But one sign that Park intended them to be compared to each other is in the justification for their ultimately botched kidnappings. In both films, the instigator argues that the child will be returned safely and the ordeal will even have the positive effect of bringing the family closer together.
We see that the opposite is true when Geum-ja captures the real killer, proves his guilt to the families of his victims, and allows them to take part in his torture and execution. Their lives have been torn apart by the loss of their children, but being handed rain coats and weapons in this P.T.A. meeting from Hell does not seem likely to heal them. In the long tradition of graphic eye-for-an-eye-leaves-everyone-blind illustrations, this is an all-timer.
Lady Vengeance takes the style, humor and sadness even further than the other two films. Geum-ja, a master pastry chef who excels at fanciful floral decoration, designs her own pistol that’s not ideally functional, but “it has to be pretty. Everything should be pretty.”
And that sort of describes The Vengeance Trilogy itself. For such a frequently explored theme, there’s not much to say about violent revenge. It can be very appealing, it’s immoral, it’s not necessarily satisfying, and it’s a never-ending mess. Duh. But Park riffing on these dark truths with contradictory brutality, quirk, and poetic surrealism makes an age-old lesson feel like a fresh and vital message. By ripping out mankind’s dark heart and making it look pretty, Park Chan-Wook gives us new ways to look our enemy, and ourselves, in the eye.