When it was announced several years ago that Park Chan-wook‘s classic revenge thriller Oldboy was getting the American remake treatment, the number one question on the lips of Asian cinema fans was, “Why?” However as it languished in development hell as directors and actors came and went, it seemed – thankfully – that director Park’s film would remain untouched.
That is until Spike Lee came on board to helm the remake, with Josh Brolin in the role so wonderfully inhabited by Choi Min-sik in the original. The collective sighs and repeated, “Not again,” where almost audible over the internet, while the uninspired poster (see right) did little to assuage fan anxiety.
However, with the release of the red band trailer – which features plenty of violence, gore, and sexual nudity – the film doesn’t appear to be the terrible mess most feared. While it obviously lacks originality and Park Chan-wook’s incredible stylisation, Spike Lee’s version appears to be a well-made and solid effort, with certain sequences appearing more of an homage than as a direct rip-off. Check out the trailer below to see for yourself, and if you have an opinion sound off in the comments section below.
And just for good measure, here’s the trailer for the 2003 original.
Vengeance and violence are a seemingly masculine arena cinematically, with narratives propelled by testosterone-fueled actions by those who have suffered injustices. Such passionate reactionary violence is often ascribed to traditional patriarchal roles of ‘the father’ and ‘the lover’, identities which become destabilized through loss and demand retribution. Yet women, who have just as equal a stake in such gendered roles, are often marginalized.
With Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨) auteur Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) finishes his celebrated Vengeance trilogy in incredible style, featuring a woman as the central protagonist to create an altogether different approach to the concept of revenge. The result is a fascinating and riveting film that depicts a more calculating and intelligent form of vengeance than displayed by Dong-jin in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) or Dae-su in Old Boy (올드보이), constructing a unique and magnificent character in the form of Lady Vengeance herself Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae (이영애).
20 year old Lee Geum-ja is arrested and sentenced for the kidnap and murder of a young boy, shocking the nation due to her tender age as well as for her unparalleled beauty. Yet unknown to the public is that while Geum-ja was an accomplice in the kidnapping, she was forced to take the blame for the murder otherwise her own daughter would be killed by the real criminal – Baek Han-sang (Choi Min-sik (최민식). During her 13 year jail term Geum-ja plots her revenge, forging connections with other prisoners and garnering a reputation for her unbelievable kindness achieved through acts of underhanded treachery. Finally released, Geum-ja begins her preparations in earnest and, joined by her estranged daughter Jenny (Kwon Ye-yeong (권예영), tracks down the man responsible for their separation in order to exact their vengeance.
Geum-ja has become cold and calculating during her incarceration
Park Chan-wook displays a more artistic and surreal depiction of revenge in his third installment, producing stunning imagery of Geum-ja’s quest that emphasizes her beautiful image in conjunction with her lethal internal motivations. Crucially the director never shies away from employing such cinematic playfulness with feminist discourses, overtly conveying Geum-ja’s intelligence in regards to patriarchy and image. Once released from prison Geum-ja purposely applies red eyeshadow and dons dark and seductive clothing, consciously aware that her natural image promotes innocence and purity, features she does not want nor feels she deserves. As such she challenges cultural stereotypes of attraction, subverting patriarchal notions of ‘virginal beauty’ as Geum-ja’s intelligence and violent desires are foregrounded. She is an expert at manipulation in this regard earning the trust and respect of men and women through her subversion of image, allies whom she acknowledges with indifference once they are indebted as her single-minded lust for vengeance is absolute. In achieving revenge Geum-ja is keenly aware of the power necessary, and her methods lead to acquiring a ‘pretty double-phallus’ in the shape of an incredible firearm that is two guns merged into one handle. Park Chan-wook’s wonderful visual style continually yet subtly conveys his lead protagonist as a powerful, intelligent, and highly efficient woman making Geum-ja an acutely compelling character.
That is not to say Geum-ja is lacking in emotion – far from it. She is constantly aware of her role in the murder of a young boy, willing to do anything for forgiveness that can never come. The burden of guilt portrays Geum-ja is a tragically flawed character as she seeks to dehumanize herself and reject intimacy due to her self-hatred. The brilliantly comical reappearance of Geum-ja’s estranged daughter Jenny forms a wonderful partnership in which to explore their neuroses of guilt and abandonment, and the roles of parent and child.
The pieces of Geum-ja’s plan assemble with incredible imagery
The responsibilities of a parent toward their child are intriguingly explored throughout Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, as Park Chan-wook poses a supremely difficult question – what actions would a parent take if they confronted their child’s murderer? The director expertly conveys the poignant moral conundrum that brilliantly evolves Geum-ja’s personal desire for justice into a communal one, a desire for vengeance that is consciously wrong legally and morally, yet desired all the same. As has become a feature of his, Park Chan-wook depicts such incredibly serious subject matter with a sharply dark-humoured edge that makes the events that unfold all the more captivating, and thrilling, to experience. Despite simultaneously conveying the evolution of revenge as well as narratively veering in an alternate direction, the director never loses focus of Geum-ja’s role as strong methodical woman desperate for retribution and forgiveness, attributes she alone – despite (rejected) offers from patriarchy and religion – must achieve. As such, Geum-ja is one of the most enthralling and compelling representations of women to appear on celluloid.
Lee Young-ae is absolutely superb as Geum-ja, inhabiting the role so completely it is impossible to imagine another actress in her place. The extremely broad range of emotions that are required are wonderfully performed, from moments of quiet manipulation and rage-fueled violence, to tender moments of reconciliation and forgiveness, and fully deserves the various awards for Best Actress bestowed upon her. Choi Min-sik is given a marginal role as the malicious Baek Han-sang, yet during his short screen-time he conveys the depravity, and the sheer terror, required. Other supporting performances are generally fleeting, however it is highly enjoyable when cameo roles featuring actors from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Old Boy appear.
Geum-ja prepares to take her revenge
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is an incredible final installment to the Vengeance trilogy, presenting an entirely different notion of revenge through one of the most compelling female protagonists in cinematic history. Park Chan-wook’s beautifully creative vision, as well as Lee Young-ae’s captivating performance, make Sympathy for Lady Vengeance an enthralling exploration of vengeance and feminism that demands repeated viewing.
Old Boy (올드보이) has the double-edged distinction of being most international audience’s first introduction to Korean cinema, and ironically, their only frame of reference. Thus any film viewed after such an inauguration is compared with Park Chan-wook’s (박찬욱) seminal work regardless of genre, which is clearly an injustice to all involved. And yet, it is difficult to completely judge those who make the comparison, as Old Boy is simply phenomenal.
As the extremely drunk Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik (최민식) is arrested one night in 1988, he little realises that his every action is being watched. Released from the police station and apologising for missing his daughter’s birthday, Dae-su is suddenly snatched from the street and wakes up in an apartment – where he will spend the next fifteen years in captivity. Without warning, Dae-su is released from his incarceration and must discover who imprisoned him, and more importantly, why. He is joined on his quest for revenge by Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong (강혜정), a sushi waitress who takes pity on his plight. In following the trail of clues Dae-su finds his tormentor Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae (유지태) but the burning desire for answers stays his hand. As the mystery unravels, Dae-su is confronted by an awful truth, that will lead to a shocking final confrontation with his nemesis.
Dae-su is incarcerated for 15 years
The centerpiece of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy (preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨), Old Boy stands out as one of the most innovative and technically proficient thrillers of all time. If it was ever in doubt before, Old Boy cemented Park Chan-wook’s status as an auteur due to his incredible vision and flair for violent and macabre subject matter. His technical prowess appears effortless. Initially the hand-held documentary-esque drunken antics in a police station add realism as well as Dae-su’s appalling character traits. Yet this is seamlessly sutured with conventions ascribed to fantasy, thriller and action as Dae-su evolves during the course of the film. Shots, such as Dae-su emerging from a suitcase in a field – later revealed as a roof – continually astonish and excite. Tracking shots of action sequences are equally enthralling as Dae-su takes on an entire gang in the narrow confines of a corridor. The level of creative confidence also extends into the mise-en-scene, particularly in regards to colour and patterns. The striking reds hint at the danger to come, while the eerie purples (accompanied by the maze-like pattern formed of triangles) are the calling cards of the mastermind behind the events.
The dischevelled Dae-su is joined by Mi-do on his quest for revenge
Praise must also be generously given to the narrative, co-written by Park Chan-wook and Hwang Jo-yoon. The central concept is reminiscent of The Prisoner (1967-68), yet from there the ideas generated are original, shocking and downright bizarre. Yet fundamentally, the emotional core of each protagonist is placed front and center giving exceptional substance to the stylised visuals. Each character is incredibly compelling, neither good nor bad but an amalgamation of a variety of neuroses. In presenting such complex character studies to the screen, all the actors deserve recognition. Chief among them is Choi Min-sik who gives a towering performance as Dae-su. His physical transformation is startling, not only in terms of his musculature but also his tired and dishevelled face that conveys the seriousness of his situation without uttering a word. His erratic behaviour is entrancing and performed with real conviction, from his television style speech patterns, his difficulty in entering the modern world and the frustration of unlocking memories within himself. Similarly Yoo Ji-tae is wonderfully sadistic as the antagonist of the film. Woo-jin’s arrogance and sheer audacity radiates with every movement, yet amazingly is far from villainous due to the incredible depth of character. His own torment, and the unbelievable lengths he goes to in displacing them, are profound and convincing despite the extremities that occur.
Woo-jin torments Dae-su with sadistic delight
Old Boy is a monumental achievement not only for Korean cinema, but also in terms of international recognition. It’s little wonder why audiences use it as the frame of reference in comparing other films from Korea despite the unfairness of such comparisons. The innovative narrative and technical prowess, as well as the exemplary performances, serve to make Old Boy a timeless classic and an absolute must-see.
Anyone even remotely aware of Korean cinema understands that the theme of revenge is commonplace. There are, of course, a great number of socio-cultural reasons as to why vengeance is prevalent. Historically, Japan has brutally colonised Korea several times over the past few centuries. Following the Second World War, the then-military government oppressed the people until an uprising forced change. Then, after a democratic capitalist government took power, the race to catch up with ‘Western’ countries divided the rich and poor to an even greater degree, with traditional values altered and livelihoods destroyed in order to create infrastructure. The theme of revenge is dominant as it undoubtedly provides catharsis for a nation of people whose identity has been in a constant state of instability due to external factors beyond their control.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is concerned not only with revenge but the very basis and cyclical nature which it evolves into. Ryu (Sin Ha-gyoon (신하균) is deaf and mute, and lives a meager existence working in a factory. His sister (Lim Ji-eun 임지은) suffers from kidney disease and is in urgent need of a transplant. Fired from his job and distressed that his sister may die, Ryu turns to the black market and strikes a deal – he will give all his money and donate his own kidney, and in exchange he will receive a healthy kidney for his sister. Yet, when Ryu wakes up after the operation, he finds his kidney, and his money, have been stolen. Worse still, thanks to a miraculous donation a kidney is now available at the hospital, but without his savings the operation cannot commence.
Ryu wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen
Desperate, Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Doona (배두나) scheme to kidnap the daughter of his former boss Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho (송강호) for ransom. With the transplant money secure, the duo plan to release the girl and restore the equilibrium; yet when Ryu’s sister discovers the plot she cannot take the shame and burden, and commits suicide. Ryu and the boss’s daughter bury her body by a riverbank, but the youngster falls into the water and drowns. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance then evolves into two separate narratives of revenge; Ryu’s quest to hunt down the black market organ dealers, and Dong-jin’s desire for vengeance over his dead daughter. Each man has lost someone special, someone who helped to define their identity and give them purpose and subsequently, as each man follows his agenda, their humanity becomes lost amid their barbarous acts of vengeance. Both Ryu and Dong-jin are good men, but are transformed into murderers due to external economic and medical forces, adding sympathy and poignancy as they lose their identity with each act of violence. The evolution of the protagonists are superbly conveyed by Sin Ha-gyoon and Song Kang-ho (송강호), the latter in particular giving a towering performance transforming from emotional businessman to hardened killer. Neither man understands the futility of their vengeance nor that the escalation of violence produces more victims that demand justice.
Dong-jin transforms from father to murderer
The evolution of the protagonists is masterfully constructed by director Park Chan-wook, who expertly composes each shot to reinforce the sympathy, and the insanity, of their actions. The cinematography is incredible in places, particularly in the recurrence of aerial shots that emphasize the loneliness of the men and the fragility of their humanity. Additionally, the utilisation of space and depth of field highlights their terrible position, both literally and figuratively, in horrific environments and circumstances. Ryu’s world is conveyed effectively and dramatically due to his inability to hear, as alternating POV shots establish how silent and disadvantaged his world is compared to those around him adding yet another layer of compassion to his predicament. Park Chan-wook’s presentation of violence is thoughtful and initially restrained, gradually building tension in order for graphic scenes to have the utmost impact.
Director Park Chan-wook’s recurrent use of aerial shots emphasize loneliness and futility
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a fascinating exploration into the nature of revenge and violence, highlighting how two seemingly ‘good’ men can evolve into psychotic killers when they are bereaved. However, further exploration of the socio-economic problems that created the black market organ trade and the lay-offs at the factory, could have enhanced the poignancy of their predicaments further, as would have additional characterization before the crises developed. Yet despite this, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a riveting and emotionally charged debate on the escalation and futility of vengeance, and how the loss of a loved one can become poison when the path of revenge is taken.
As reported by Korean Film Biz and Korea Joongang Daily, the incredibly popular star will play both the King of Joseon as well as a pauper who, after discovering they look alike, exchange places. This will be Lee Byeong-heon’s first foray into a period drama, and marks a departure from his usual action role as exemplified with A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생) and I Saw the Devil (악마를 보았다). It will be some time before production begins however, as Lee Byeong-heon is currently filming G.I. Joe 2: Retaliation in America before embarking on a tour of Japan.
In another testament to the star’s influence, 10 Asia has reported (here) that Lee Byeon-heon is set to receive a presidential citation for his role in the development and expansion of Korean cinema. The accolade marks the recognition of the actor’s contributions, as he has starred in some of the most prominent films that have emerged from Korea during the past 10 years and has also appeared in Hollywood action films.