Lady Vengeance (US - DVD R1)
Gabe Powers can't seem to find his red eye-shadow, but likes the flick anyway...
At the age of nineteen, Lee Geum-ja goes to prison for the murder and abduction of a child. Although innocent of the crime, she accepts this fate on behalf of her vile accomplice, Mr. Baek, because he is holding her newborn child hostage. While serving her thirteen-year prison sentence, Geum-ja prepares for her revenge by winning the hearts and favours of her fellow inmates. Upon her release from prison, she sets out to seek her revenge with the help of those very same inmates. However, along the way she decides to find her long lost daughter, whose love will change everything.
How do you top a film as unforgettable and defining as Oldboy? Peter Jackson followed his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy with a stunning, Oscar nominated spectacle that paled when compared to his twelve hour magnum opus. David Fincher chased the Nichean grandeur of Fight Club with a modest gimmick thriller, which was met with only minimal critical enthusiasm. Michael Cimino's career was basically over the second The Deer Hunter was released, and James Cameron hasn't made a film since 1997, when Titanic swept the Oscars and pulled in more money than any film in history.
It's not an easy task.
Lady Vengeance is an utterly amazing film. Visually it's one of the most gorgeous in years, but when we compare it to Oldboy its light fades to a glimmer. It's not fair to anyone involved that Park Chan-wook's previous film was so damn good. Watching Geum-ja try to make contact with her lost child while planning violent retribution against her antagonist I almost wished I'd never seen Oh Dea-su punch his knuckles bloody against a hotel room prison cell wall.
Technically this is the most ambitious film Park has ever attempted. His use of the widescreen frame is second to few, and the attention to decorative detail is astonishing (darn, only a few paragraphs in and I'm already running out of synonyms of the word 'stunning'). The film fluctuates between Baroque, hyper-real, impressionistic, and blatantly self-aware (including obvious digital work and characters speaking to the camera). The optical input can actually be, at times, overwhelming, for better or worse.
While watching the film in this, my third time around, I thought a lot of Wes Anderson's small collection of films. His candy-coloured, widescreen compositions must've inspired Park to a certain extent, even if he never mentions it in either of his commentaries. Or perhaps Park's inspiration was the same as Anderson's—Stanley Kubrick.
The entire film hinges on the performance of our ‘Lady Vengeance’, Lee Yeong-ae, the star of Park Chan-wook's popular break through film, JSA: Joint Security Area. Yeong-ae gives a wonderfully layered performance as a younger woman, feigning innocence, and an older woman hell bent on revenge and ravaged by guilt. Though despite all her dark and dangerous intensity, it is her intrinsic and witty sense of humour that most of us will remember her for. Yeong-ae is backed up by a rock-solid supporting cast, peppered with some of Park's favourite character actors, including Oh Dae-su himself, Choi Min-sik, as Geum-ja's mortal enemy and the cause of her imprisonment.
Continuing his ambitious streak, Park opts to deal with the moral and ethical issues presented by bloody, murderous revenge, rather than the aiming of guilt. Choi Min-sik's guilt is never in question, but Lee Yeong-ae's motives may be. These issues were the basis of the first part of his ‘Vengeance Trilogy’, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, where they were dealt with in somewhat heavy-handed, and unmistakably dark manner, which turned off many viewers. Here Park tries to infuse the issues with more humour, not to mention honesty. The hands are still pretty weighted, but they're much more elegant this time around. One might even call it 'lady-like'.
The film's real folly in the shadow of Oldboy is its somewhat inconsequential plot. Lady Vengeance's journey is all about looks and feelings rather than the plot twists and mystery that Oldboy must surmount. Geum-ja and Chan-wook spend the more time on the construction of the murder weapon than the preparation of the murder, and the final act feels as if it's fallen out of an entirely different film.
However, Park makes it abundantly clear on the disc's commentary, as well as in various interviews, that he wanted Lady Vengeance to be a different and original movie. He didn't want to make Oldboy part two anymore than he wanted to make Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance part two. This film is an anomaly in Park Chan-wook's cannon, while still being unmistakably personal. When judged on its own merits this is a wonderful film, and one that I've found something new to love in every time I've watched it.
Tartan may have a double dip up its sleeve, but for now they've opted to release the theatrical version of Lady Vengeance, not the Korean video version, which fades very subtly to black and white, only retaining a few colours through-out (like Spielberg’s Schindler's List, it even includes a coloured candle flame). The idea was a good one, but it really didn't work, mostly because Chan-wook and his DP didn't film the movie in high enough contrast. Basically, the overall image was too dark.
It's hard to say whether this release looks better or worse than the Korean two-disc release. The colour palette is different, to be sure, and though Park Chan-wook seems satisfied with the image he's watching on the disc's commentaries, I can't be sure this is the print he's been watching. I prefer these brighter colours, but the Tartan disc seems to suffer slightly in darker areas, like the alleyway kidnapping attempt and the schoolhouse finale.
Hong Kong R3
While dealing with the contrast issue Tartan seems to have created a little problem with combing and edge enhancement on brighter colours that are moving. All signs seem to point to a progressive transfer, and the combing is an anomaly in these areas. Park seems to blame himself for the heavy grain and eclipsed image during these dark scenes due to the fact that he used the bleach bypass process even though he didn't really want pitch-black images.
Other than these dark issues, the only problems with the transfer are compression issues, specifically low-level noise in gradated backgrounds (see the red background in my final screen cap). This was a problem with the Korean disc as well, as was a hair of colour bleeding, the biggest culprit being bright reds against lighter shades.
Instead of the smooth electronica that made Oldboy special, Park opts this time for a very Vivaldi-esque Baroque score, but uses it in the same self-aware and slightly ironic way Wes Anderson used Mark Mothersbaugh's pseudo-classical score in Rushmore. The score is beautiful (it can be downloaded in its entirety from Tartan UK's Lady Vengeance website), and the DTS and Dolby Digital tracks on this disc are gorgeous.
Besides the score, and a couple of stray gunshots, the soundtrack is pretty subtle. There's some cool, state of the art stuff to be sure, but not much to give your home system a real workout. On the flip side, there's nothing here I can possible complain about. Dialogue is clear and clean, and I didn't notice a single fizz or pop anywhere. For the music alone this track is worth a higher than average score.
In the wake of the recent press release for Tartan USA's ultimate edition, three disc set for Oldboy, I can't help but be a little sceptical about the finality of this release of Lady Vengeance. The special features on this single disc set practically begin and end with its three commentary tracks. The tracks include a director/actress track, a director/DP/art director track, and a track with some film critic named Richard Pena.
I didn't get my review screener until Saturday (September 23rd) afternoon, and in an effort to get this review live before (or at least at) the disc's release date I've not sat through any of these tracks in their entirety. My sampling did help me draw a few important conclusions however.
Park Chan-wook's track with his DP and art director is not surprisingly very technical. The track was a bit of help in my grading of the video quality, but viewers un-interested in technical jargon may be disappointed in the tracks lack of 'meaningful' discussion. There is some brief talk about the vague political meaning behind some of the film's images, but it's all rather broad, and Park admits that he only offers this as one possible view. The track is surprisingly self-deprecating at points.
Park’s track with Lee Yeong-ae is slightly less cold, and, again, unsurprisingly focuses more on the film's acting and actors. This track has the most dead air, but Yeong-ae is very warm and easy to listen to (or I suppose read, if one doesn't speak Korean). The last track answers some of the pressing content based questions I'd wished Park would've addressed, but in the end, Richard Pena comes across as little more than a fan-boy with a massive man-crush on Park Chan-wook (but who can blame him, right?).
The ‘Making of’ documentary is only about ten minutes long, and reminded me very much of Wes Anderson's brother's elongated EPK, which can be found on Criterion's Rushmore disc. The featurette is a sales piece, but as filmed by Lady Vengeance's assistant director, is more movie-like. Though not very informative, there is a sense of awkward love in the finished product, and it's very easy to watch.
Park Chan-wook's interview answers more questions yet, but the director looks pretty uncomfortable. Come to think of it, Chan-wook always looks uncomfortable. The questions are good ones, and the inclusion welcome. A few Tartan Asia Extreme trailers finish off the disc.
One of the best films of last year, Lady Vengeance (or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) only pales when compared to its predecessor. Fans of Park Chan-wook's work will definitely want to see it, as may some who haven't yet delved into the director's work. There's no reason to think that the ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ needs to be seen in release order, unless one wants to notice the many cameos in this production. Readers who own the Korean release, which includes the 'fade to black and white' version, will probably want to hold onto it, but might want to double dip for the subtitled commentary tracks and a slightly different (and I think better) video transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 26th September 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: DTS 5.1 Korean, Dolby Digital 5.1 Korean
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, Director/Actress Commentary, Richard Pena Commentary, Making of, Director Interview, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Lee Yeong-ae, Choi Min-sik
Genre: Drama and Thriller
Length: 112 minutes
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