Vengeance is destructive, there’s no catharsis to be found in this indulgence, only the loss of your own self. I love stories that explore this idea because almost every other story ever written is about the struggle to overcome something about ourselves, the heroes get better essentially. Revenge tales show us what happens when you let that dark part utterly consume you but in a way that’s so very human.
In light of a project I’m working on I decided to go back and watch Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy. Park first came to the attention of most in the West through Oldboy, but that was only the second of three films dedicated to revenge – Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and finally, Lady Vengeance.
Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) is a deaf-mute whose struggles to look after his terminally ill sister are made impossible when he’s suddenly laid off from his factory job. His anarchist girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Doona) convinces him to kidnap the daughter of an executive to raise the funds he needs, hilarity ensues!
And we’ll get back to that soon, but probably the most immediately striking thing about Mr Vengeance is the complete lack of music. Park is trying to bring us in to the silence of Ryu’s world by emphasising the natural sounds of the world around us. Footsteps, car engines and buzzing insects provide our soundtrack for the film and it starts of as stunningly effective; but as the plot rolls on and a different character becomes our main focus, it starts to mean a lot less. On top of that, the four or five musical stings used throughout the film are all wildly misjudged.
That character we see later is Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho), aforementioned father and executive and a man with reason for revenge. He highlights some of the best aspects of these films, once you dig down to that deep part of your soul there are no good guys anymore. Revenge leads to evil, no matter where you started, and in this film both sides have good reason to do what they do.
Ryu is naturally isolated from society, he’s a meek person who only wants the best for those around him, but things keep getting worse. Anarchist Cha already has a chip on her shoulder about society and together their actions reflect less a desire to help Ryu’s sister (though that remains important) and more revenging themselves upon a cold, capitalist society where they simply don’t matter. Park is part of the system, rich and privileged and able to take care of his family easily, until that’s ripped from him by those in need. The beats of revenge and where ire is aimed shift all throughout the film each side deserves what they get in the eyes of the other, and that leaves us all worse off.
I’m purposely trying to avoid major spoilers for any out there I might encourage to watch this, but that’s quite fitting, the film itself refuses to ever explain anything. Sometimes this is handled beautifully like the scene where Ryu is fired without a word exchanged. Other times it’s just messy and we could really do with a little more show in our tell, even worse the copy I have doesn’t translate the text when there’s close ups of paper. There are also a few weird gaps in logic, we never actually see the kidnap happen, it’s just assumed that it has, moving on.
The Korea on show here also feels quite different to Park’s later films, everything is far less sumptuous, it’s a country that’s cold and suffering. The colour is just much more natural and it feels more like the Korea a lot of people probably experience. It’s the development of a cinematic style that will fully bloom in Oldboy, but it works here, the story needed that naturalistic reflection rather than big stylistic moments.
I can see why young me loved this film so much, older me sees a lot more flaws, but it remains good if a bit long and messy. It’s a great revenge story that probably needed 20 fewer minutes.
And in the end we all die.