GEISHA OF GORE Looks at Chan-wook Park’s VENGEANCE TRILOGY
Geisha of Gore: Chan-wook Park’s VENGEANCE TRILOGY
by Colleen Wanglund
Chan-wook Park is a Korean director from Seoul, who was inspired to get into filmmaking after seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO (1958). The film that put him on the map was JSA: JOINT SECURITY AREA (2000), and just last year he released THIRST, his first horror movie. Park has developed a reputation for brutal subject matter…and he isn’t one for happy endings. While not technically horror films, the movies of his “Vengeance Trilogy”—SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (2002), OLDBOY (2003), and LADY VENGEANCE (2005)—are just as bloody and violent as most horror movies I’ve seen. All three deal with people who have fallen to the lowest depths; they are broken and grieving and just trying to deal with the hand fate has dealt them.
First in the trilogy is SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (2002), where we meet Ryu, a deaf-mute who is caring for his sister, who has become ill. Ryu dropped out of school and got a job to take care of her. His sister needs a kidney transplant and they are waiting for a donor. As she gets sicker, Ryu gets desperate and goes to see an illegal organ trafficker. In exchange for one of his kidneys and whatever money he has saved, Ryu’s sister will get a kidney that’s an exact match for her. Well, they ripped him off. Within a few days, Ryu loses his job and is told by the doctor that there is a donor for his sister and he just has to pay for the operation—with money he no longer has. Even more desperate than before, Ryu and his childhood friend/girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi come up with a plan to kidnap Yu-sun, the young daughter of his former boss, Mr. Park. They see it as no big deal. Grab the kid, tell the father no cops, demand a ransom and give the kid back. Unfortunately that kidnapping will set off a chain of events that results in tragedy.
SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE is easily the most brutal of the three films, not so much for violence (although there is plenty) but for the emotion it conveys. It’s simply a raw look into the lives of regular people and the desperation they can feel at the circumstances they find themselves in. Park pulls no punches here, tugging at your heartstrings the whole way through. This is one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen, but it is so worth watching. We are never told Ryu’s sister’s name, but we see the relationship they share. She gave up college so he could go to art school and Ryu quit art school so he could care for his sister. She didn’t know Ryu lost his job, the money he had saved or one of his own kidneys. When Ryu brought Yu-sun, the little girl he kidnapped, to the house, he told his sister they were caring for her as a favor to his boss. She eventually finds out about his job loss by accident, while doing the laundry. He was only trying to protect her, but she now felt like a burden—something she never wanted.
What I found while watching MR. VENGEANCE, is that both Ryu and Mr. Park are very much alike. Mr. Park spent his life working hard and making money to support his family. Even though he is divorced, he loved his daughter and would do anything for her. All of the choices that Ryu makes are for his sister, even though it ends in tragedy for everyone involved. Neither Park nor Ryu want the outcome they receive; they just want the best for their loved ones and, when things went horribly wrong, they want revenge. What contrasts with all of the mayhem to come is a scene in which Ryu and Yu-sun are watching television and end up play-fighting over the remote control. He lets her win and they watch a cartoon together. Unfortunately this playfulness is short-lived. This scene is the most powerful in the whole movie. We don’t see a kidnapper and his victim; what we do see is a little girl and a young man displaying affection for each other. I actually think it’s meant to mirror the affection that Ryu and his sister have for each other. This scene makes everything that comes after it even more tragic.
Based on a Japanese manga by Nobuaki Minegishi (which I have read), the second film in the series, OLDBOY (2003), tells the story of Dae-su Oh, a man who was inexplicably grabbed off the street one night and locked in a room for fifteen years. He spends that time watching television, working out and teaching himself to fight. He has also been thinking about revenge and paying attention to what’s going on around him. After those fifteen years he is just as suddenly and inexplicably released. He awakens on the street dressed in a suit with money and a cell phone in his pockets. One of the first things Dae-su does is get drunk. Then he starts eating dumplings….the very same thing he was fed every day for fifteen years. He meets a young girl who takes pity on him and brings him home with her to get some sleep. He explains to her what happened to him and that he’s eating dumplings at all different places because he remembers the taste; when he finds the right dumplings he’ll be on his way to finding his captors. The girl, Mi-do, continues to let Dae-su stay with her and she eventually falls in love with him—though he insists their arrangement is only temporary. Dae-su finds his dumplings and his captors. After one of the coolest fight sequences I’ve ever seen in a movie—Dae-su takes on twenty guys with just a hammer—he finds out that someone paid to have him “jailed”. Woo-jin Lee, the man with an apparent grudge, knows Dae-su is looking for him, so Woo-jin goes to him. Dae-su would like nothing more than to kill him, but Woo-jin teases him with the reason for the grudge. Woo-jin is ruthless, but he is so blinded by hatred that he can’t see his own role in the perceived wrong that Dae-su did to him.
OLDBOY is a sentimental favorite of mine because it was actually the first movie I watched from the trilogy. What I enjoy about OLDBOY is it has the most involved plot of the three movies. There’s a lot going on with Dae-su’s single-minded drive to get his vengeance, the mob that runs the private prison and why Woo-jin felt the need to go as far as he did. Just as in SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, both of the main characters are a lot alike. They each have something precious taken from them and they each think only of getting revenge. For both men, their need for vengeance is selfishly motivated. The difference here, though, is that Woo-jin is partly responsible for his loss, but he refuses to see that. While working to destroy another man’s life, Woo-jin has destroyed his own.
LADY VENGEANCE (2005), the final film in the trilogy, begins with Geum-ja Lee’s release from prison after serving thirteen years for the kidnap and murder of a six-year-old boy. She is mobbed by the media, her supporters and protesters who think she should rot in prison for the rest of her life. What they don’t know is that she is innocent. At sixteen, Geum-ja Lee became pregnant by her English teacher Mr. Baek (played brilliantly by Min-sik Choi who played Dae-su Oh in OLDBOY), who is also the actual murderer. Baek talks her into taking responsibility for the crime by telling her that she’ll get to keep her baby and they’ll go easy on her because she’s young and female. However, her daughter is immediately put up for adoption and her prison experience is a difficult one. Upon her release, Geum-ja gets a job in a bakery and begins her plans for revenge; she reestablishes contact with former inmates who have agreed to help her. She also goes to Australia to visit her daughter Jenny, who insists that Geum-ja take her back to Korea with her for a visit. It is while Jenny is in Korea that, with the help of a former inmate, Geum-ja is able to subdue Baek and take him to an abandoned school. Geum-ja is all set to kill Baek to get her revenge when Jenny interrupts her and asks why? Why does she want revenge like this and why did she give Jenny up? Jenny forces Geum-ja to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Maybe there’s another way for Geum-ja to get what she wants?
LADY VENGEANCE is another great film. You can’t help but sympathize with Geum-ja. She spent all of her adult life in prison and it was hell. She was abused on an almost daily basis. I think what finally makes Geum-ja realize she is a strong person is when it is believed that she killed a female prisoner who had been abusing her and several of the others. That act also garnered her respect among the other inmates. It wasn’t long after this incident, when she began formulating a plan for revenge. What I like about LADY VENGEANCE is its minimal use of dialogue. Park is able to get his actors to convey the feelings behind the words through their actions and tone of voice.
LADY VENGEANCE has a different feel compared to the other two films in the trilogy. For one thing, unlike in the first two movies, the protagonist is a strong female character. Secondly, there is no mirror character of Geum-ja; no Ryu to her Park or Woo-jin to her Dae-su. This is also the only movie in which there may be any satisfaction felt by any of Park’s characters. The object of revenge in LADY VENGEANCE is a child murderer who probably deserves what Geum-ja wants to do to him. I don’t think Woo-jin received any satisfaction for what he did to Dae-su because there seemed to be no end to his hatred; and I definitely believe there was no satisfaction felt by either Ryu or Park.
These are all fantastic movies full of cruel, hardcore tragedy; there are no happy endings and a lot of blood is spilled. They have plenty of twists and turns, so you can never tell where Park is going with his stories. One thing that always makes a good movie is an unexpected ending, and I can guarantee you’ll get that with the Vengeance Trilogy. If you ever get the chance, see these movies—all three of them. Better yet, buy the Vengeance Trilogy on DVD, because I think you will love these movies as much as I do.
© Copyright 2010 by Colleen Wanglund