Vengeance Trilogy (US - BD RA)
Gabe finally finishes with Palisades Tartan's anticipated Blu-ray release...
I’ve already written quite a bit on both Oldboy and Lady Vengeance over my tenure with DVDActive, so in the interest of time and sanity I’m going to supply links to those reviews rather than re-writing them. Below are the links to my thoughts on those two films, followed by my thoughts on Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
R1/R3 Oldboy DVD Comparison
R1 Oldboy Collector’s Edition Tin Review
RA Oldboy Blu-ray Review
R1 Lady Vengeance Review
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) is a sweet natured deaf-mute who spends his days caring for his terminally ill sister, and toiling away at his menial steelworks job. Ryu discovers his sister needs an immediate kidney transplant, and that he is not a compatible blood match. Ryu opts to sell one of his kidneys, plus ten million won, to a mother and son(s) black market team, who agree to give his sister a replacement in exchange. Unfortunately, the black marketeers steel both Ryu’s money and his kidney. In the meanwhile a proper donor kidney is made available, so Ryu and his left-wing radical girlfriend decide to kidnap his boss’s daughter for the ransom. Things get much worse from here.
To call Mr. Vengeance the least successful of the three films in this collection comes down mostly to semantics—there simply aren’t a lot of thematically similar films that fairly compare to either Oldboy or Lady Vengeance. Mr. Vengeance is still an impressive accomplishment, and a successful production on its own terms. Of the three films Mr. Vengeance is the most brutal, uncompromising, and spontaneous. It’s the hardest of all Park Chan-wook’s films to watch (it’s a pretty joyless exercise), and probably the least likely to see excessive replay from fans, but it’s certainly worth revisiting. It’s especially interesting to consider that the film was basically a flop in its native Korea, and wasn’t very well received by anyone until after the success of Oldboy, and Park’s international fame. Mr. Vengeance isn’t the director’s first film, or even his first well-received film ( JSA, the director’s fourth film, was so successful he was given the chance to make Mr. Vengeance despite misconceptions), but it does see him developing his intricate visual style, which sets it apart from his more conventional early work ( JSA is a fantastic film, but it follows a more tradition visual thrust than Vengeance Trilogy, I’m A Cyborg or Thirst).
Mr. Vengeance features a structure and pace that uninitiated Western audiences will find pretty challenging, but actually matches the general feel of most modern Korean films, at least in my experience (which is certainly limited). Oldboy and Lady Vengeance are both more fantastical in tone, and more challenging in terms of story structure, but in both cases the viewer is more involved. We’re invited into these worlds, rather than left as static bystanders. This more detached approach (there are almost no moving cameras in the whole film) gives Mr. Vengeance much of its dramatic strength (we can’t do anything to stop these tragic events), but Park risks failing interest by presenting his story which such brutal inevitably. The film remains powerful in terms of performance throughout (this might be Song Kang-ho’s best performance ever, which is saying a lot), and certainly works as a psychological horror film, but once the vengeance part of the story is set in motion, the joylessness adds up. Though it leaves its audiences with a series of intriguing questions, it also tends to over-dramatize seemingly for the sake of being over-dramatic, or at least deeply upsetting. The first half features moving bits of levity, but even the absurdist humour takes a dive into the abyss when the plot turns (unless, of course, one considers the constant onslaught of bad news so excessive it becomes ironically amusing).
The set starts with a bit of a shock— Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance looks amazing. Not that I expected Palisades Tartan to drop the ball, but the DVD always struck me as so grainy. Apparently I entirely forgot how colourful the film was, and I forgot about Park’s deep focus, high detail compositions. There are very few camera movements in the film, and the static nature certainly doesn’t hurt the possibility for utter clarity in 1080p HD. The costumes, and props, not to mention Shin Ha-kyun’s hair, are all set apart with bright colours, which pop beautifully against the grey, industrial backgrounds. Detail levels are close to fantastic, and relatively consistent, from extreme close-ups to the big, wide-angle shots. Park’s visual choices are consistent enough that I find it hard to point to a specific sequence as standout; rather, the whole thing looks pretty great. I suppose the whole of the middle of the film river scene is a good enough candidate, especially the overhead shots of Ryu burying his sister with rocks, which is swimming with fine details, and perfectly separated colour elements. There are some minor artefacts here and there, like small dark blotches towards the beginning of the film, some slight edge-enhancement on the harshest contrasting elements, and some heavier grain during the darkest scenes. The second half of the film does feature more noticeable fine grain overall, but nothing immediately apparent in my opinion.
This brings us to Oldboy, which you may have already heard from your friends that found a copy of the set at Best Buy (I could not), is a bit of an A/V flop. For some reason Palisades Tartan decided to cram all the available extras onto a single disc, and the transfer certainly suffers (more on the audio below). This transfer is brighter, and features more vibrant colours than any of the DVD releases (the colour timing is the same as all previous Tartan releases, not as green as the Korean DVD version), but a comparison to the Blu-ray Tartan released just before going under (Palisades Tartan is mostly a different company) reveals some pretty obvious inadequacies. The old disc is sharper, especially during busy wide shots, and the grain is finer. The edges here are often muddy, the grain is chunky, compression artefacts abound, and the blacks bleed over the colour edges during the darker scenes. Frame rates appear a little rougher as well, revealing some minor interlacing effects, even though this is technically a progressive transfer. It’s not a travesty of a transfer, and fans without the older Blu-ray should be moderately satisfied, assuming they aren’t thinking too hard about the problems, but in all this is a disappointment, and it does resemble an up-converted DVD. The one and only advantage I can see over the previous Blu-ray is the relative lack of sharpness keeps the harsher whites from blooming as they did there (though honestly, you can get that from the up-converted DVD version).
In a strict visual sense Lady Vengeance is probably Park’s masterpiece, and the piece of this collection I was most looking forward to seeing in HD. The transfer features minor problems that probably could’ve been avoided had two versions of the film not been squeezed onto one disc (each with their own DTS-HD track), but this 1080p release is a pretty sizable upgrade from both the interlaced Tartan DVD, and the progressive Korean special edition releases. Some of the brighter, sun-drenched scenes exhibit minor edge-enhancement, mostly during expansive wide-shots, and there’s still sizable grain during the darkest scenes, specifically those taking place in Geum-Ja’s basement apartment. The black are not consistently pure, which is a holdover issue from both DVD versions. Background blacks especially tend to absorb the hues around them. According to my sources (this guy named Chris) the UK Blu-ray wasn’t particularly vibrant, so I’m happy to announce that the good news begins with the colour quality, which is impressively bright overall. The difference between the present day and flashbacks was always clear on old release, but the difference between each flashback is now more readily apparent, specifically differences in saturation. Fine detail increases are a bit less impressive, but backgrounds are notably sharper, and textures plenty pleasant. The middle film assassination attempt, which was excessively dark on every DVD versions, specifically benefits from the HD detail increase. Certain shots are still too dark, and the blackness still isn’t pure, but the sharpness is a marked improvement. The climax purposefully contrasts the more decorative hues of the earlier scenes (even when not fading to black and white), so I’m not sure any release will ever be less than gritty during the latter sections, but my expectations were still slightly stilted for the final thirty or forty minutes of the film.
This release has a distinct advantage over the long available UK Blu-ray release—it features both the full colour, theatrical version of the film, and the ‘fade to black’ version. The fade to black version, which slowly turns to black and white with a few colour highlights (ala Schindler’s List or Sin City), is idealistically the preferred version, and is a stylistically interesting idea (which originated with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), but it’s never quite worked. The latter third of the film is, as stated, darker and less colourful even when presented in full colour, but the post-production de-saturation muddies the details, especially during the climax, where the lack of highlights causes an utter loss of definition (during the colour version the skin tones and costumes set the characters slightly apart from the backgrounds). Perhaps if the film was shot black and white specifically in mind (apparently Park didn’t commit to the idea until after the theatrical release) the contrast would’ve been cleaner, and the concept would’ve worked, but as-is, the full colour version is the way to go for first time viewers. It is important to note that those without multi-region players have never had the chance to see this version before, so American fans should definitely give the fade to black version a chance. This high definition version works better than the Korean DVD release, featuring more aggressive contrasts, sharper blacks, and finer grain, but is still, in my opinion, not the ideal way to watch the film.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance isn’t as visually stylized or abstract as Oldboy or Lady Vengeance, but the sound design is a few steps above either film, or perhaps any film in Park’s catalogue. This new DTS-HD 5.1 audio track doesn’t blow the DTS DVD away, but is generally better on every level. The uncompressed nature certainly makes a difference in volume levels. The opening scenes immediately roll out all the track’s strengths, including the major disparities in sound between the film world, and Ryu’s interpretation of the world. The scene that establishes the character’s factory work environment is incredibly busy with sound, from the frontal assault of spinning metal tumblers, to the unsettlingly realistic rear channel machinery, which also sets the LFE throbbing. This is followed by a scene of Ryu and his sister in their apartment, where the paper thin walls fill each channel with a different little story of domestic hell. The design doesn’t let up from here, though spoken words do become slightly more important once the story shifts over to Dong-Jin’s story. The huge sonic difference between Ryu’s deafened world view. The sheer noise of his various environments continues to titillate (or drive the viewer to near madness, as in the case of the autopsy scene), and hyper-realistic aural details keep the centre channel lively despite the general lack of spoken dialogue during the film’s first half.
The biggest error in this whole collection is not the less than stellar video quality of Oldboy’s HD transfer, it’s the missing DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track. It’s listed on the back of the box, it was included with the previous Blu-ray release, but it is not here. The lack of space created by including all the extras leaves only room for a Dolby Digital EX track. This means the sound on the Blu-ray is actually a slight step back from the DVD release’s compressed DTS track. The track features no obvious sync issues, misplaced directional effects, or overt distortion, but it is compressed, and sizably quieter than the other discs in this collection. I suppose this is all I have to say about the subject. Feel free to visit my old Blu-ray review to hear more about what you’re missing.
Lady Vengeance’s fully uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a clear upgrade over the standard DTS DVD releases, but the film itself isn’t exactly an aural marvel. The film’s sound is more or less defined as a mix of understated, naturalistic sound, and Choi Seung-hyun’s Baroque-infused musical score. In this respect the film rests sonically somewhere between the other two films. The tracks real subtlety is not found in the stereo or surround channels, but in the contrasting centre channel, which uses both complete silence and muddy noise to its advantage (the shock of sound is used to perfect effect during the final act slaughter). The reality of the centre channel, and it’s occasionally crowded composition, often reminds me of a Cassavetes or Jarmusch film. There are directional effects, such as moving cars, Geum-Ja’s clacking footsteps, and the odd gunshot, but the bulk of the non-musical sound is centred. The music is another story, and comes through with all the beauty and grace needed to make the contrast really work. The post-climax reprise of the operatic main theme is particularly well represented, including deep, resonating strings, warm vocals (which work through all three front channels), and a perfectly pitched bells.
Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance’s extras begin with a commentary track featuring director Park Chan-wook and actor/filmmaker Ryoo Seong-wan (director of Crying Fist and City of Violence). This is the best of Park’s commentaries, mostly because Ryoo, as an obvious fan, acts as a solid moderator, and keeps the director talking. The tone of the track is also generally sweeter in nature, and more amusing in tone. Perhaps the director was burned out on the process by the time this track was done. There is an issue with the encoding of this specific disc, however, which will likely not be an issue for most viewers – the disc does not allow you to switch between the commentary and DTS soundtrack without accessing the pop-up menu. This makes it impossible to listen to the original audio while reading the commentary subtitles (something I like to do with foreign language commentary tracks), and prohibits switching off the commentary without a trip back to the main menu.
The featurettes then begin with ‘The Process of Vengeance’ (32:00, SD) is an all purpose making-of featurette, beginning with a look at the actors’ time at sign language school, followed by a bit of on-set practice. Focus moves on to some words on the difficulties of dealing with such distressing subject matter from Song Kang-ho, followed by a similar interviews from Shin Ha-kyun and Bae Doo-na, who are both a little less introspective than Song. From here focus moves onto special make-up effects, and discussion concerning some of the supporting characters that move through the peripheral of the film. The featurette is pretty dry, but doesn’t overstay its welcome, and does give genuine insight into the filmmaking process. There are a few amusing bloopers as well.
‘My Boksu Story Retrospective’ (17:20, SD) is a series of retrospective documentaries with the cast (filmed for the Korean DVD release), who again discuss the challenge of the project, along with the film’s rough initial reception. More cast and crew interviews follow (40:00, SD), enough that the commentary track is rendered a bit repetitive. There’s also overlap to the ‘My Boksu Story Retrospective’ interviews, which is frustrating. Finishing the extras off are a series of animated storyboards (10:00, SD), a trailer, a photomontage (1:50, SD), and ‘Jonathan Ross on Park Chan-wook’ (17:00, SD), a featurette I believe was made for the Tartan UK release of JSA.
The Oldboy extras are exhaustive, and include every found on Tartan’s limited edition tin set, except the tin itself, the film cell, and the original graphic novel. Unfortunately, again, all eight hours of material has been crammed onto a single disc, albeit in a standard definition form. I’ve already reviewed all of these extras from my tin set review, so please visit that link. It’ll save me some copy and pasting time (and this review is already verging on endless).
The Lady Vengeance extras are mostly mixed leftovers from the original Tartan DVD release and the Korean special edition release. These begin with three more rather exhausting audio commentaries. The first track features Park and lead actress Lee Young-ae. This is an emotionally warm track, which unsurprisingly focuses on acting and actors. Of the three tracks this one features the most blank space, but Lee’s presence certainly keeps Park from devolving into his usual detached self.
The second track features Park, his DP Chung Chung-Hoon and art director Choi Hyeon-seok. This track is extremely technical, sometimes boringly so, especially for viewers who aren’t particularly interested in such things. This is probably the most consistently gabby of the three tracks, but is disappointing because it lacks any 'meaningful' discussion about the meaning or the film. There is some brief talk about the vague politics behind some of the film's more extreme 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. The last track, featuring film critic Richard Pena answers some of the pressing content based questions I'd wished Park would've addressed, and helps put the film into context for viewers having trouble reading the film, especially its visual language. Also included on the first disc is a Park Chan-wook introduction to the fade to black version of the film (01:20, SD).
The second Lady Vengeance disc is a regular DVD, the exact same one that comes with the eight-disc DVD version of this set. Many of these extras suffer video issues similar to NTSC to PAL conversion discs. The extras start with ‘Making of Lady Vengeance’ (10:40, SD) is a tonally dour look behind the scenes of the film. This is primarily another fly on the wall collection, with a tonally flat commentary set over a whole bunch of rather fun looking set footage (it’s practically a blooper reel). Subject matter includes discussion of Park’s direction, actors and acting, production design, learning English, and filming in Australia. ‘Lady Vengeance EPK’ (28:00, SD) is more of the same, but with scenes from the film put into the mix, and a more elongated trailer tone (it actually includes the teaser trailer). There isn’t too much overlap between the two featurettes, and the footage of Choi Min-sik working with the kids is pretty great. ‘The Style of Lady Vengeance’ is divided into five sections, ‘Visualization’ (06:20, SD), ‘Production Design’ (08:20, SD), ‘Costume and Make-up’ (08:00, SD), ‘Special Art’ (07:00, SD) and ‘Computer Graphics’ (07:00, SD). These featurettes overlap a bit with the information found in the commentary tracks, but are the preferred way to absorb the information.
The ‘Park Chan-Wook’ tab starts with ‘Interview with Park Chan-wook’ (42:00, SD), an interesting, but exhausting, interview with the director covering all three films in the collection, but clearly recorded on a Lady Vengeance press tour. Instead of being subtitled, Park is sitting next to a translator, which slows the discussion to a crawl. ‘Park Chan-Wook: Mr. Vengeance’ (17:20, SD) appears to be taken from the same interview session used for the disc’s making-of featurettes, features a couple of ‘all star’ interview subjects, and covers much of the same stuff already covered in the collection’s other interviews, but is interesting in that it visually compares scenes from all three films. ‘Photography’ (09:50, SD) briefly covers the director’s penchant for behind the scenes photography, which was apparently inspired by Jeff Bridges (this one really should’ve been in HD). The section ends with a short film recommendation from Park (03:00, SD)— The Freaking Family. Too bad Palisades Tartan couldn’t include the film itself.
‘Characters Interviews’ include stars Lee Young-ae (06:30, SD) and Choi Min-sik 0(6:40, SD), along with supporting player prison inmates (05:20, SD), and members of the bereaved families (07:40, SD). ‘Lady Vengeance in Venice’ (08:30, SD) covers the film’s journey to the Venice Film Festival, where it won a series of awards. The press interview section again covers similar information already covered elsewhere in the set, but in a more accessible and personable manner. The disc also features a collection of deleted/extended/alternate scenes, with commentary from Park and Lee Young-ae as the only audio option (14:00, SD), ‘Get Together’ (09:30, SD), a brief discussion of the film’s Vengeance Trilogy cameos, a Korean trailer, a US trailer, TV spots, and a poster gallery.
The Vengeance Trilogy is likely the most anticipated Blu-ray release of the year for some people, and I’m genuinely sad to say it’s only two thirds successful in terms of HD image and uncompressed audio quality. Personally I own the older Oldboy Blu-ray release, so I’m generally satisfied that my collection is complete, but anyone that missed out on that release, or, God forbid, sold that release in preparation for this one, will be disappointed. Again, Oldboy doesn’t look terrible, but it is a downgraded version of the two-disc release, and the DTS-HD Master Audio advertised on the box is not present on the final disc (I’m sorry I don’t have the ability to get Blu-ray screen-caps or I’d do an image comparison for you). I can assure fans that the Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance discs are sizable upgrades from the DVD versions, and that all the available extras short of the Oldboy comic and film cell are present, but that might not be enough to make the set’s price worth-while. I’ve seen no news on single disc releases, and assume this collection will remain scarce even after the wider release (it’s still only available through Best Buy as of this writing). I’m still optimistic about Palisades Tartan’s future output, and hope the company learns from the mistakes made on this release.
* Note: The above images are taken from the UK Blu-ray releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 15th June 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 Korean, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Korean, Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Korean, Dolby Surround Korean, Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Extras: Director and Cast Commentaries, The Process of Mr. Vengeance, My Boksu Story, Crew Interviews, Jonathan Ross on Park Chan-Wook, Sountrack and Photos, Storyboards, Original EPK, Deleted Scenes, Behind the Scenes Documentaries, Cast and Crew Interviews, Le Grand Prix and Cannes, The Autobiography of Oldboy, Making of Lady Vengeance, Style of Lady Vengeance, Director Interviews, Character Interviews, Lady Vengeance in Venice, Get Together, Trailers, TV Spots, Collectible Booklet
Easter Egg: No
Director: Park Chan-Wook
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Shin Ha-kyun, Bae Doo-na, Choi Min-Sik, Yu Ji-Tae, Kang Hye-Jeong, Lee Yeong-ae
Genre: Drama, Film-Noir and Thriller
Length: 361 minutes
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