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In the past few years the South Korean film industry has gone from strength to strength, spurred on by the International recognition of films such as Shiri, My Sassy Girl, Taegukgi and A Bittersweet Life (among many others). However, it has been the films of Park Chan-wook that have attracted the most overseas attention, specifically his so-called ‘Vengeance Trilogy’: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance.

Tartan Video has previously released each of these films in a variety of forms, the quality of which varied wildly. Now, the entire trilogy has been re-mastered as part of an all-new ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ boxed set, incorporating never-before-seen supplemental material from the original Korean DVD releases. So, does this set improve upon Tartan’s past efforts, or will UK consumers once again meet with disappointment?

The Vengeance Trilogy

Feature


In lieu of full-length reviews for the films in the ‘Vengeance Trilogy’, I’m going to include a brief summary of each. This is because I want to concentrate on the technical merits of this new boxed set, rather than covering old ground. Those of you unfamiliar with Park’s work might like to check out the full reviews linked at the bottom of this page to bring yourselves up to speed, but for everyone else here’s a brief recap of each film.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Deaf mute Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) spends most of his time caring for his terminally ill sister, who is in dire need of a kidney transplant. As Ryu himself is incompatible he decides to turn to the black market for help, but he is double-crossed and stripped of his life savings. Things go from bad to worse when the hospital informs him that a compatible donor has been found and that all he needs is ten million won to pay for the operation. In desperation, Ryu turns to his activist girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Du-na) who devises a plan to kidnap the daughter of wealthy industrialist Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-Ho). Things run smoothly until Ryu’s sister uncovers the plot, at which point a series of events are set into motion that lead to tragedy on all sides.

The Vengeance Trilogy
Oldboy

One evening, a seemingly average man by the name of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is abducted and imprisoned without explanation. Fed a diet of fried dumplings and denied any kind of human contact, his only link to the outside world is a television set on which he learns of the murder of his wife and the disappearance of his young daughter. As the years pass, Dae-su is driven to the brink of insanity and begins to hone his body into a weapon of vengeance against those responsible for his confinement. After fifteen years of captivity, Dae-su is suddenly released without warning and given just five days to solve the mystery of his incarceration. Along the way he meets a young sushi chef named Mido (Kang Hye-jeong), who helps him to track down the person responsible for his years of torment, but as he gets closer to his goal Dae-su begins to realise that he might not be as innocent as he first thought.

Lady Vengeance

At the age of nineteen, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) is sentenced to thirteen years imprisonment for the abduction and murder of a five-year-old boy. Although innocent of the heinous crime, she has no choice but to accept this fate on behalf of the real murderer, the vile Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik), who is holding her newborn child hostage. While serving her sentence Geum-ja wins the hearts of her fellow inmates with her unprecedented acts of kindness, and upon her release from prison she enlists their help in carrying out her carefully planned campaign of vengeance against Baek. However, the revelation that her own daughter, Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), is alive and well and living with adoptive parents in Australia changes everything.

The Vengeance Trilogy

Video



Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Hooray! A native film-to-PAL transfer at last! Well, that would certainly seem to be the case, as I was unable to detect any discernible combing artefacts when checking the title with various utilities. What we get is a nice, anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 (or thereabouts) aspect ratio transfer that is progressively encoded to boot. The transfer appears to be sourced from the same print as the recent region one release, which means some subtle framing and colouration differences when compared to the original Korean release, along with a bit of edge enhancement and some minor print damage. Colour rendition is good, blacks are solid and detail levels are reasonable throughout, ensuring that this transfer is a considerable improvement over the previous UK discs.

Oldboy

Tartan’s previous release of the film was a progressively encoded film-to-PAL transfer, and thankfully that’s still the case for this edition. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16:9 displays, Oldboy is fairly pleasing to the eye. Although it differs significantly from the original theatrical palette and composition (as featured on the Korean Special Edition), colour rendition is as good as any version I’ve personally seen. Light grain is present throughout, and there are a number of instances where blacks aren’t quite as deep as they could be, but this isn’t really a technical fault with the transfer. There is a moderate amount of edge enhancement, which on a 32” display is only really noticeable during high contrast scenes (such as dark suits against daylight), but I did find the frequent posterisation slightly distracting (although this was also present in the Korean Final Edition).

The Vengeance Trilogy
Lady Vengeance

Okay, here’s my first real moan: why is the original theatrical edition of Lady Vengeance not included in this set? Of course the answer is most likely because it was only recently released by Tartan in the UK, and they want to ‘encourage’ people to go out and buy that release in addition to this boxed set, but it’s a bit cheeky. The Korean Special Edition—which is otherwise identical to the version of Lady Vengeance found in this set—included both editions of the film (albeit with inaccurate colours on the theatrical version), so there’s no real reason why Tartan couldn’t do the same.

Anyway, what we get is the so-called’ fade to black-and-white’ version of the film, which subtly shifts from full colour to black and white over the course of the film, retaining only a few brief splashes of colour for effect ( think Sin City or Schindler's List). The progressively encoded 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer has undoubtedly been taken from the same source as the Korean Special Edition, as the same muted colours are present throughout (even before the film makes the transition to black and white). As with that transfer, black levels are consistent and detail levels are acceptable, although fine detail is occasionally obscured by the boosted contrast and there is noticeable grain throughout. There is also a moderate amount of edge enhancement present in the image, but it wasn’t particularly noticeable or distracting on a 32” display.

The Vengeance Trilogy

Audio



Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

We’re treated to the original Korean soundtrack in both Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and 5.1, along with a DTS 5.1 track for those with the necessary hardware. I chose to listen to the DTS track for reviewing purposes, but there didn’t appear to be huge differences between it and the Dolby track from the sampling I made. The mix is extremely active for such a dialogue-heavy piece, especially when you consider the relative lack of music. Rather than score the film in a traditional manner, Park has chosen to use ambient effects to create atmosphere, be it the hustle and bustle of busy city streets, the sound of rainfall, or the gentle breeze whispering through the trees. Many of the more memorable scenes deal with Ryu’s disability, transporting the listener into his silent world at key moments and intensifying the already strong sense of isolation.

Oldboy

As per the previous Tartan release of the film, Oldboy arrives with Korean Dolby Digital tracks in 2.0 Stereo and 5.1 EX, plus DTS ES 6.1. In addition to the Korean tracks, this new release offers English dubs in Dolby 2.0 Stereo and vanilla 5.1, but I'm not sure why they bothered. The quality of the voice acting in the dub is abysmal, with frequent mispronunciations ('Oh Die Su' instead of 'Oh Day So') and totally passionless delivery. Do yourself a favour and leave the dub well alone.

The Vengeance Trilogy
I chose the Korean DTS 6.1 ES track for the purpose of this review, primarily because I’ve already listened to the film in Dolby 5.1 with my Korean Final Edition release. The track is surprisingly lively from the start, with inventive use of the surrounds during the opening sequence in which the rain pours down as Dae-su telephones his daughter. Dialogue is clear and consistent throughout, and bass is extremely ferocious for a feature of this nature, particularly during the opening music number ‘Look Who’s Talking’. The score is a perfect accompaniment to the action, incorporating everything from electronic to classical music (in the form of Vivaldi). I’ve had ‘The Last Waltz’ as my ring-tone for months!

Lady Vengeance

The third film in the series includes Korean soundtracks in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Either surround track provides a solid aural experience, although don’t expect the kind of aggressive mix found on most modern-day blockbusters. Both tracks are subtle affairs, with excellent positioning of even the most delicate of effects. For example, perhaps my favourite moment occurs relatively early-on, as Geum-ja walks through a train station. The hustle and bustle of the station can be heard all around you, until the sound follows the rush-hour crowd off-screen leaving only the voice of the station announcer in the rears. It’s a great example of how the little things can make a huge difference to the viewing experience. Dialogue also remains perfectly clear throughout, and I can’t say I noticed the sync issues that some people have mentioned.

The Vengeance Trilogy
The ornate score is may not be to everyone’s taste, but personally I adore it. I’m very fond of the film’s main theme, which incorporates Vivaldi’s ‘Ah ch'infelice sempre’, but the original music by composers Jo Yeong-wook, Choi Seung-hyeon and Na Seok-joo is also impressive. I’ve practically fallen in love with ‘Jenny's Lullaby’, which really is a hauntingly beautiful piece of music.

Subtitles for all three titles are easy to read and free of grammatical errors, although the translations seem to be a little looser than those found on the original Korean discs. There are also one or two moments where they flash by so quickly it’s hard to digest them. Another nitpick relates to the inability to change audio and subtitle tracks on the fly, which makes it very hard to accurately compare Dolby and DTS tracks. It’s also a pain if you just want to listen to a small portion of the commentary without retuning to the main menu. I’ve no idea why distributors continue to prohibit these operations on region two discs, as most region one discs allow you to switch without issue.

Extras



Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Of the three titles in the set Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance definitely benefits the most from the additional supplemental material, as it has not been particularly well-represented outside of Korea until now. Firstly, we have feature-length commentary from Park Chan-wook and friend Ryu Seung-wan (director of Crying Fist). Obviously the track is Korean-language with English subtitles, but it still makes for an interesting read. In fact, the track actually addresses a number of issues I had with the film (specifically why the kidnapping target spontaneously changes mid-scene), and all-in-all it is a worthy effort.

The Vengeance Trilogy
Moving on to disc two we come to a short (approx. fifteen minutes) featurette entitled 'Jonathan Ross on Park Chan-wook'. I'm not a particularly big fan of Ross' presenting style, as he strikes me as more of a fanboy than a serious reviewer, but his presence in the piece is limited to a short introduction and some voice-over work. The majority of the featurette is comprised of clips from the three films in the 'Vengeance Trilogy', along with dubbed interview footage with Park Chan-wook in which he discusses some of the themes running throughout the films.

'The Process of Mr. Vengeance' is a thirty-two minute featurette that basically acts as a ‘making of’. It starts off with a short segment in which Shin Ha-kyun and Bae Du-na visit a sign language school to learn how to talk with their hands, before moving on to behind-the-scenes footage from the set in which Bae Du-na has a mini-breakdown after failing to sign coherently. More interview footage follows, in which we hear from all of the principal actors and learn that Shin Ha-kyun and Bae Du-na had a bit of a thing going. The next segment deals with the special effects process, detaling how some of the gorier moments were accomplished. The featurette ends with a look at the cameos by Ryu Seung-Beom and his brother Ryu Seung-wan, who also choreographed a short fight scene between Shin and Bae. It’s also worth mentioning that the original Korean release allowed you to view this featurette as four distinct chapters, but there’s no such option here.

The Vengeance Trilogy
'My Boksu Story' runs for around seventeen minutes and features new interviews in which the actors discuss the filmmaking experience. I say new, but in reality they are identical to the interviews included on the Korean Special Edition release of the film (from which all of the material on the two-disc set has been sourced). Again, these were available to view individually on the Korean release, but here they’re all lumped together. The written cast profiles are also missing, but it’s still nice to have an English-subtitled version of the interviews at long last.

A series of 'Crew Interviews' follows, and runs for a little over twenty-one minutes. These interviews were available to view individually on the Korean Special Edition, which made them a little easier to digest than sitting through them all in one sitting. We hear from director Park Chan-wook, who discusses the evolution of the film, along with the cinematographic process. There’s more of this from the director of photography, who explains the difference between the Super 35 and anamorphic formats, and the difficulties of shooting in the latter. The lighting director also pops up to discuss his part in creating the look of the picture.

The Vengeance Trilogy
Rounding out the features on disc two we have a number of storyboards and the film's original theatrical trailer. These are fine for what they are, and certainly worth including for the sake of completeness, but neither is likely to bring you back for repeat viewings. Once again, the ability to select individual storyboards has been lost, as have a number of other features from the Korean release.

Oldboy

Disc one includes not one, not two, but three commentary tracks. I'll come clean now and admit that I only made a partial sampling of each track, rather than reading them all (hell, you try sitting trough six hours of subtitled commentary), but that gave me a pretty good feeling for them. It's interesting to note that the advertised commentary by Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News is nowhere to be seen (or heard). I can only guess that it was dropped in favour of the ghastly English dub, which was a real mistake.

First up is a solo track with Park Chan-wook, who gives a thorough analysis of the film. He explains the reasoning behind various creative decisions, as well as pointing out that not everything in the film should be over-analysed (the ants for example). The second track is a technical commentary with director Park and cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hun. I’m not really into technical tracks, but if lots of talk about green filters and bleach-bypass is your cup of tea you’ll find plenty of worth here. The third and final track, featuring the director and cast, is easily the most enjoyable. The participants bounce off of one another and joke around while discussing the film, ensuring a nice balance between informative commentary and anecdotal chat. Oh, before I forget, the first disc also includes the film’s original theatrical trailer.

The Vengeance Trilogy
Disc two contains the mammoth, three-hour-plus documentary 'The Autobiography of Oldboy' (which should have been subtitled 'Everything You Always Wanted to Know About OldBoy… and Quite a Lot More Besides). This really is one of the most comprehensive behind-the-scenes documentaries I've ever seen, beginning on day one of the shoot and taking the viewer on a journey through the entire production process. This isn’t one of those fluffy promotional features, narrated by ‘Voiceoverman’; In fact, there’s no narration whatsoever. Instead were treated to raw on-set footage, which shows the cast and crew actually filming the various scenes. Honestly, there's enough material here to write an entirely separate review, but suffice to say the documentary is every Oldboy fan’s dream.

Sadly the rest of the extras found on Tartan's current two-disc release of Oldboy are nowhere to be seen, which is a real pity (not to mention a bit of a gip). Without these oversights this boxed set could have been something truly special.

Lady Vengeance

Disc one includes a brief introduction by director Park Chan-wook, who explains his reasons for releasing the ‘fade to black-and-white’ version of the film. Those of you debating whether this truly represents Park’s preferred version of the film will have your questions answered by this piece.

The Vengeance Trilogy
The disc also includes three commentary tracks, and again I only listened to portions of the subtitled tracks to save time (and my sanity). The first, with director Park Chan-wook and star Lee Young-ae, is perhaps the most interesting and definitely the most light-hearted. They talk at length about Young-ae’s performance, as well as inadvertently highlighting some of the loose translations used for the subtitling (specifically the line ‘go screw yourself’, which is actually closer to ‘mind your damn business’). Periods of dead air are kept to a minimum, and on the whole I found it to be a very enjoyable read. The second track features Park, the director of photography and the art director, and is (unsurprisingly) the most technical of the three commentaries. While it’s interesting to read about such things for a while, it does get tiresome when you’ve just ploughed through hours of subtitled features. Track number three comes courtesy of Richard Pena, Program Director, Film Society of Lincoln Centre.

I listened to Richard Pena's track over a couple of evenings while drifting off to sleep and I have to say that it helped immensely in that department. It is very dry, with a surprising amount of dead air, but it does explore some of the less obvious themes running through the film, along with its connections to the other films in the 'trilogy'. I'm guessing this track was originally created to appease an American audience unaccustomed to reading their commentaries, and with two tracks featuring the actual director of the film, this critic track seems a little redundant. Still, it's nice that Tartan thought to include it.

Disc two features most of the supplemental material that was present on the Korean Special Edition release, and we start with the ten minute ‘The Making of Lady Vengeance’. Narrated in Korean, the featurette takes us behind-the-scenes as director Park shoots the film. Although no interviews are included, we do see candid footage of Lee Young-ae preparing for the role of Geum-ja, Choi Min-sik showing his softer side by clowning around on the set, and many of the supporting cast and crew.

The Vengeance Trilogy
The next item on the menu is ‘The Style of Lady Vengeance’, which is itself divided into subsections, including ‘Visualization’, ‘Production Design’, Costume & Make Up’, ‘Art’ and ‘CG’. Each featurette can be viewed individually, and the first deals with subjects such as the stylistic choices made to differentiate the film from Park’s earlier works, with subsequent featurettes examining the impact of the original intention to transition to black and white, the importance of selecting the right colours and costumes, the creation of practical special effects, and the utilisation of computer-generated visual effects to enhance scenes.

‘Alternate Scenes with Commentary‘ is a slightly disappointing feature, if only because the commentary by Park Chan-wook and his collaborators is the only available audio track. Unfortunately this makes the dialogue on the scenes themselves very hard to make out, and because only the commentary is subtitled you won’t be able to understand them unless you are fluent in Korean. What's really frustrating about this feature is that the commentary was optional on the Korean Special Edition release...

‘The Characters’ presents a few short interviews with stars Lee Young-ae and Choi Min-sik, along with a number of the supporting actors that portrayed Geum-ja’s prison inmates and members of the bereaved families. Each segment runs anywhere from five to eight minutes in length, and I was especially interested to hear from Lee Young-ae, mostly for her thoughts on the filmmaking process, but partially because I could look at her all day and never get tired.

The Vengeance Trilogy
‘Lady Vengeance in Venice’ is an interesting little featurette that details Park Chan-wook and Lee Young-ae’s trip to the Venice Film Festival, where the film won a number of awards. I preferred this featurette to the rather stilted ‘making of’, largely because we actually get to hear directly from Park Chan-wook and Lee Young-ae, rather than hearing about how great they are from a third-party. There is still a bit of that going on, when various journalists and critics heap praise upon the film, but all-in-all it is quite an informative piece.

The ‘Trailers & TV Spots’ section is pretty self-explanatory, and includes both the original Korean teaser and trailer, along with the UK trailer. Three TV spots are also included, and vary in length from fifteen to thirty seconds.

Before I wrap up this section I have to mention one thing that really bothered me about the subtitling on all of the extras. While the menus correctly list the cast and crew in the usual Korean Lastname/Firstname format, the subtitles inexplicably reverse this (so Park Chan-wook becomes Chan-wook Park, even when the name is spoken in the correct manner). I found it distracting enough, and it could potentially confuse those unfamiliar with the tradition of putting the family name first. The commentary subtitles also appear to use the McCune-Reischauer romanization system, rather than the Revised Romanization system employed for the standard Korean dialogue, which results in various spelling discrepancies (‘Geum-ja’ is alternately spelled ‘Keum-ja’ or ‘Keumja’).

The Vengeance Trilogy

Overall


Well, there’s certainly no doubting the quality of the films presented in this collection, but it's the quality of the set that's the biggest surprise. I've been fairly critical of Tartan UK in the past, with their dodgy NTSC to PAL transfers and limited bonus material, but they really have delivered the goods this time. Sure there is still room for improvement—the set should include the full-colour version of Lady Vengeance and all of the bonus material from their current Oldboy release—but on the whole it is a very good effort. Still, I feel that the lack of the aforementioned bonus material and slightly lazy presentation dictated a score of eight, rather than nine out of ten.

Even so, if you don’t own these films this is currently the best English-language release around and you simply must get your hands on it. Even those familiar with Park Chan-wook’s trilogy might find something of interest here, especially if they previously bought Tartan's relatively featureless, standards-converted versions of the films. I've longed for the day when I could unreservedly recommend a Tartan release, and that day has arrived.


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