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Sympathy for Lady Vengeance – Hong Kong R3 (Panorama Distributions) vs Korean Special Edition R3 (CJ Entertainment)
14th February 2006

Panorama Distributions Hong Kong Region 3
Rating/Certificate: Hong Kong III
Region: 3
DVD Release Date: 22nd December 2005
Run Time: 115 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Anamorphic: Yes
Colour: Yes
Video Signal: NTSC
Disc Type: Single Sided, Dual Layer
Genre: Drama
Soundtrack: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Korean, DTS 6.1 ES Korean, Dolby Digital 2.0 Cantonese
Subtitles: English, Chinese
Extra Features: Behind-the-Scenes Featurette, Theatrical Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Lee Yeong-ae, Choi Min-sik
Related Movies: Oldboy


CJ Entertainment Korean Region 3
Rating/Certificate: Korean III
Region: 3
DVD Release Date: 29th December 2005
Run Time: 115 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Anamorphic: Yes
Colour: Yes
Video Signal: NTSC
Disc Type: Single Sided, Dual Layer
Genre: Drama
Soundtrack: Dolby Digital 5.1 Korean, DTS 5.1 Korean
Subtitles: English, Korean
Extra Features: Disc One: Audio Commentary by director Park Chan-wook, Audio Commentary by Director, Cinematographer and Art Director, Making of Documentary, Character Profiles, Venice 2005 Footage, Theatrical Trailer, Teaser, TV Spots, Posters; Disc Two: Audio Commentary with Korean Film Critic, Deleted Scenes with Optional Director's Commentary, The Style of Lady Vengeance Production Featurette (Visualization, Production Design, Costume & Make Up, Special Art and CG Effects)
Easter Egg: No
Director:  Park Chan-wook
Starring: Lee Yeong-ae, Choi Min-sik
Related Movies: Oldboy


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Korean filmmakers are fast becoming the ‘golden boys’ of the cinematic world, at least if the Internet buzz is to be believed. Having long since moved out of the shadow of Hong Kong cinema, Korean features have enjoyed a great deal of success on the international circuit, and in my experience most of the recent Asian films that have generated a lot of excitement have originated from Korea. For example, movies such as Shiri, Musa, Save the Green Planet and A Bittersweet Life are frequently seen on the ‘top ten’ lists of many of my Internet peers.

Park Chan-wook, the director behind such films as JSA: Joint Security Area, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy has enjoyed more success than most. It can be argued that Oldboy is perhaps the most famous Korean movie of all time outside of its native territory (again, in my experience), enjoying rave reviews from pretty much everyone who’s seen it. Rumour has it that this, the third film in his ‘revenge trilogy, was inspired by certain comments he received about Oldboy following a similar theme to his previous feature ( Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). I don’t know how much truth there is to that, but I’m glad Park Chan-wook made the film either way.

For this comparison review I’m going to dispense with a lengthy discussion of the feature itself, partly because I want to concentrate on the technical differences between the two releases, but also because it seems logical that anyone looking at a comparison review would already have some prior knowledge of the material. With that said, I will briefly summarise the events of the film for the benefit of the uninitiated.

Hong Kong Panorama Distributions
Hong Kong Panorama Distributions


Korean CJ Entertainment
Korean CJ Entertainment


Feature


The third instalment of Park Chan-wook’s ‘vengeance trilogy’, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan Geumjassi—literally ‘kind-hearted Geum-ja') stars Lee Yeong-ae ( JSA: Joint Security Area) as Lee Geum-ja, recently released from prison after serving a thirteen year sentence for the murder of a five-year-old boy. Nicknamed ‘kind-hearted Guem-ja’, as much for her stunning looks at the time of her arrest as for her good deeds towards her fellow inmates, Geum-ja has made many friends on the inside. Chief among these are Kim Yang-hee (Seo Young-ju), a prostitute who is in love with Guem-ja, Woo So-young (Kim Bu-seon), a terminally ill bank robber whom Geum-ja saved by donating a kidney, Oh Su-hee (Ra Mi-ran), an adulteress forced into sexual slavery by a violent, predatory inmate, and Park Yi-jeong (Lee Seung-shin).

Upon her release Geum-ja takes a job at a bakery run by Mr. Chang (Oh Dal-su), who fell in love with her amazing pastry skills while teaching classes at her prison. There she also meets his nineteen year old assistant, Geun-shik (Kim Shi-hoo), who takes a very special interest in the attractive new arrival. With her allies in place, Geum-ja puts her vengeful plan into action. Just who is the target? Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik— Oldboy), Geum-ja’s old teacher and the person she feels is responsible for the death of the young boy and her subsequent incarceration. However, matters are complicated by the revelation that Geum-ja’s own daughter, Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), is alive and well and living with adoptive parents in Australia.

Upon its release in theatres, director Park Chan-wook originally wanted the colour to drain from the film as time passed (a cinematic style similar to Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City). This is something he apparently planned for his first revenge-themed movie, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but the technology was too cost-prohibitive at the time. While Park failed to have the effect completed in time for the theatrical release, he has since gone on to supervise a ‘fade to black and white’ version of the film for the Korean DVD release. Both of the releases in this comparison piece include the theatrical cut, but only the Korean Special Edition includes Park’s original vision for the film.

Hong Kong Panorama Distributions
Hong Kong Panorama Distributions


Korean CJ Entertainment
Korean CJ Entertainment


Video


The Panorama disc is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic frame, but as with their releases of Danny the Dog and Sin City the distributor has chosen to deliver an interlaced transfer, rather than a progressive one. Anyone who saw their release of Sin City will know just how bad interlaced transfers can look. This particular artefact is one of the most heinous to affect film-sourced NTSC material, with the resulting ‘ghosting’ all-but ruining the viewing experience (at least for me). The ghosting is particularly apparent during fast-moving action scenes, so your average blockbuster is generally going to look worse than a sedate, predominantly dialogue-driven movie, but it affects all movement just the same. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance suffers very badly, although it looks worse when viewed on a progressive display. There really is no excuse for interlaced transfers of film-sourced material, so it puts the Panorama release at a major disadvantage from the off.

The interlaced transfer isn’t the only problem affecting the Hong Kong release of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Although colour rendition is actually quite pleasing, it’s also quite variable, with a number of scenes looking oversaturated. If you examine the second set of images you will see that the Santa suits are a little too red and the flesh tones look slightly off. It’s slightly more obvious when watching on a television screen than from looking at the screen captures. You may also note that the purity of the white—something that is quite an important theme in the film—is compromised in the same image (just look at the fake beards). Black levels are also a problem, and low level noise is present in a number of scenes. Grain is also fairly prevalent during many scenes.

Contrast is also an issue on occasion, with the image looking quite murky in places. In the screen captures above it is most evident when looking at the sky, which along with the lighter coloured buildings looking very gloomy in comparison to the brightly coloured foreground. It’s not because it’s an overcast day, as the contrast fluctuates considerably within the scene. A moderate amount of edge enhancement has also been applied to the image, although it’s tough to make out from such small screen caps. Those of you with very keen eyes might just be able to make out halos around Geum-ja’s fingers as she grips the gun in the fourth set of images. On the pus side, detail levels are quite high when looking at facial close-ups etc., but the interlacing issues are still very hard to overlook. All-in-all the visual transfer of this release is pretty disappointing.

Hong Kong Panorama Distributions
Hong Kong Panorama Distributions


Korean CJ Entertainment
Korean CJ Entertainment


Both versions of the film included in CJ Entertainment’s release are progressive, as is the case with most Korean DVD releases. Both are also presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 frame, which actually contains slightly more pictorial information than the Panorama effort. Colour rendition in the theatrical version of the film appears to be more consistent than the Panorama release, but the palette is extremely muted by comparison. As this transfer was supervised by Park Chan-wook himself, one can surmise that this is the intended look of the film. However, there are plenty of instances where the image just looks too dull for my liking. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it had I not seen the Hong Kong disc, but the fifth set of screen captures illustrate my point about the desaturation of the image. Contrast also seems to have been bumped up a notch or two on the CJ Entertainment release, with the murky, dull looking skies in the second set of screen caps fairing much better than on the Panorama release. However, in some scenes this has led to a loss of detail, which is evident when looking at the first set of screen caps. Notice how the area to the bottom right of the frame is much brighter in the CJ Entertainment capture, obscuring detail that is plainly visible in the Panorama shot? This release also features a similar amount of edge enhancement to the Panorama disc. However, black levels are much better, and grain is less of an issue.

The second version of the film is almost identical to the fist, save for one key feature. Around sixty or so minutes into the film the colour gradually begins to drain from the picture. This is quite subtle at first, but as time passes it becomes very obvious. By the end of the film the image completely desaturated, save for a few symbolic elements that remain coloured (in much the same way certain elements of Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City stood out against the monochrome backdrops).

While none of the transfers are perfect, the CJ Entertainment release trumps the Panorama effort in several key areas. Most notable of these is the progressive encoding, which eliminates the terrible interlacing artefacts that plague the Hong Kong disc. This alone is enough to give the Korean set the edge, but the more consistent levels and ‘director approved’ transfers also went some way towards securing the victory.

Hong Kong Panorama Distributions
Hong Kong Panorama Distributions


Korean CJ Entertainment
Korean CJ Entertainment


Audio


Panorama’s disc offers the viewer a choice between Dolby Digital 5.1 (384kbps) and DT ES 6.1 (768kbps) Korean soundtracks (with an optional Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo at 192kbps). Unfortunately the first pressings of the disc appear to have suffered from an encoding error that sees the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack disappear completely after just sixty one minutes! It’s a big mistake, but it doesn’t surprise me considering the quality of some of the distributor’s previous releases. Newer pressings are unaffected, so I’ve taken this into account when awarding points for the audio.

For once, the DTS track is noticeably superior to the Dolby track, possibly due to the latter’s lower than normal bitrate. I also felt that the DTS track had a little more ‘oomph’ at the low end, although this is not a movie filled with many opportunities for the LFE to do its thing. Either track provides an enveloping aural experience, with excellent positioning of even the most subtle of effects. One of the most satisfying moments occurs near the beginning of the film, when Geum-ja walks through a train station and the hustle and bustle of the crowd can be heard all around the listening position. As the crowd walks off-screen, the sound follows them, while the voice of the station announcer is heard in the rears. It’s a great example of how the little things can make a huge difference. Things continue in this vein throughout, be it the muffled voices and footsteps outside of Geum-ja’s apartment, or the thunderstorm that occurs during her fantasy dream sequence (you’ll be peeking through the curtains for signs of rain). The score is fairly understated, but it perfectly complements the predominantly dialogue-driven proceedings. The Vivaldi-inspired main theme is a particular highlight, but the original music created by Jo Yeong-wook, Choi Seung-hyeon and Na Seok-joo is no less impressive. I’ve practically fallen in love with ‘Jenny's Lullaby’, which really is a hauntingly beautiful piece of music. The aforementioned dialogue is perfectly clear throughout.

CJ Entertainment’s package offers Korean Dolby Digital 5.1 (384kbps) for the theatrical release, while the ‘fade to black and white’ version includes a DTS 5.1 (768kbps) soundtrack. It’s somewhat regrettable that the director’s preferred version of the film only has a DTS track, as it will surely prevent some people from enjoying it (not everyone has a DTS decoder). This minor quibble aside, there’s very little that I can add to the comments made about the Panorama disc. Everything is nice and clear, with the same excellent score and sound effects. By rights the Panorama disc should just edge this release out because of its ES encoding, the additional Stereo track and the presence of both Dolby and DTS 5.1 on the same disc. However, it’s more of a convenience thing than anything else, and probably only worth half a point. We don’t do half points here at DVDActive, so the audio remains tied.
 
Hong Kong Panorama Distributions
Hong Kong Panorama Distributions


Korean CJ Entertainment
Korean CJ Entertainment


The subtitles on both releases are almost identical. They are grammatically correct, spelling is good, and there are very few slip-ups. Obviously some liberties have been taken with the translations, but overall the subs do a good job of conveying the feeling behind the words. The only difference between the two releases is the film’s English dialogue, which is subtitled on the Korean set, but not the Hong Kong disc. From an English-speaking point of view it was actually quite annoying having subs on the only bits I understood, but I guess it will enable the hard of hearing to enjoy the whole of the film. The translations for these sections are also very ‘loose’ when compared to the actual dialogue being spoken, but they still manage to get the point across.

Extras


When it comes to presentation, the Panorama disc is slightly more adventurous than your average Hong Kong release. The keep case comes housed in a dual-sided slipcase that features two of the film’s theatrical posters—a nice touch. The CJ Entertainment set goes one better with it’s lovely glossy Digipak, featuring a close-up shot of Geum-ja’s blood-red eyes on the outside, and a negative image of the same shot on the inside. When you open the Digipak you are greeted by stylised images from the film and a four page booklet. The prize for best menus must also go to the Korean release, which features fully animated transitions set to music such as ‘Jenny’s Lullaby’ (in stark contrast to the static screens found on the Hong Kong disc).

Panorama Distributions’ release of the film includes only a short (ten minute) behind-the-scenes featurette and a couple of theatrical trailers. Thankfully for linguistically impaired people like me, the featurette is subtitled in English. The same cannot be said of the trailers, although bizarrely you can select an English subtitle stream. The featurette is fine for what it is, but it’s not going to live long in the memory.

CJ Entertainment’s Special Edition release fares much better when it comes to bonus material, but as is usual for Korean releases none of the supplements are subtitled in English. It’s a pity, but hardly the fault of the distributor. I mean, how often are UK DVD releases subtitled in Korean?

Disc one includes two commentaries: one by director Park Chan-wook, and another with the director, cinematographer and art director. They were all Korean to me. It’s a pity, as I would have liked to hear the director’s thoughts on this, the final instalment in his trilogy.

Hong Kong Panorama Distributions
Hong Kong Panorama Distributions


Korean CJ Entertainment
Korean CJ Entertainment


A ten minute ‘Making of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance’ featurette is next on the agenda. This is entirely different to the one found on the Panorama disc, so there’s even more reason to be hacked off that you can’t understand Korean. The featurette is followed by a series of character profiles, which run anywhere between five and eight minutes long. We hear from Lee Yeong-ae, Choi Mik-sik, Seo Young-ju and some of the actors who portray the family members of the murdered children.

A ‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance in Venezia’ feature is next on the menu, and runs for a little over eight minutes. The piece details the film’s outing at the Venice Film Festival and includes interview footage with Park Chan-wook and Lee Yeong-ae among others. Slightly better from a Westerner’s point of view is the ‘Promotion’ section, which includes trailers, TV spots and a poster gallery. Again, none of this material is subtitled, but once you’ve seen the film that’s not too much of a problem. For once I was particularly interested in the still gallery, as some of the poster artwork used to publicise the film is simply gorgeous.

Disc two includes yet another commentary, this time by a Korean film critic. Once again, I haven’t got the first clue about what he thought of the film. The five-part production feature entitled ‘The Style of Lady Vengeance’ would no doubt have been a fascinating look at the making of the film, but once again the lack of English subtitles limited the amount of enjoyment I got from it. For those who wish to know, the featurette concentrates on visualization, production design, costume and make-up, special art and CG effects. Around fourteen minutes of alternate scenes with optional commentary are also included, but again without English subtitles they are little more than a series of pretty pictures (and that’s a damn shame).

Obviously the CJ Entertainment release is light years ahead of the Panorama disc in terms of quality and quantity of supplemental material—for one thing it includes a second version of the main feature—but the absence of English subtitles prevented me from experiencing everything on offer. As mentioned earlier, this is not the fault of the distributor, so it seems unfair to punish the release just because I don’t speak Korean. However, as I’m reviewing for a primarily English-speaking audience and from a subjective point of view, I have no real choice other than to reflect the lack of subtitles in my overall score. It is for this reason that I deducted a point in this particular category. I’m sure this Special Edition will soon make its way to the US and UK in one form or another (in much the same way as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy did), so those of you who buy your DVDs as much for the supplements as the main feature might want to consider holding off for a while.

Hong Kong Panorama Distributions
Hong Kong Panorama Distributions


Korean CJ Entertainment
Korean CJ Entertainment


Overall


Technically the Korean release from CJ Entertainment wipes the floor with the Hong Kong disc from Panorama. The minor improvement offered by the ES encoding and the convenience of having both Dolby and DTS soundtracks available on one disc just isn’t a significant advantage in the audio stakes, but the interlaced transfer and woeful amount of extras on the Hong Kong disc are the real killers in my opinion. While CJ Entertainment’s package may lack English subtitles on the bonus material, the presence of director Park Chan-wook’s ‘fade to black and white’ version of the film is a major plus point (even if I do prefer the full-colour version).

Personally I would chose the Korean set over the Hong Kong disc any day of the week, but for those without DTS capability the added cost of importing this limited edition title might be a little hard to justify. The Hong Kong disc is readily available, costs very little, and if you aren’t worried about things like interlaced transfers it might make for a more attractive purchase. Just make sure that you get your hands on one of the discs with a working Dolby 5.1 track! Of course I can’t make the choice for you, but hopefully this comparison contains enough information for you to at least make an informed decision. Whichever release you go for, you can be assured of another fine piece of cinema from Park Chan-wook.

Hong Kong Region 3
Korean Region 3
Film:88
Video:68
Audio:88
Extras:37
Overall:58


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