(Note: I meant to pick this series up much, much sooner than I did, but as you can probably deduce my Top 25 of the Decade list demanded my full attention. You can take a look at the first entry in this two-part series here. Another note: This series is not spoiler-free in the slightest, and I suggest skipping both articles until you’ve viewed each film in the Vengeance trilogy.)
This particular theme– minor transgressions informing disproportionately larger tragedies– is one revisited in the film that truly made Park an international critical darling, 2003’s Oldboy. In fact the film’s central conceit revolves around an act of vengeance wholly incongruous to the offense it answers. Hapless Dae-su, forcibly interred in a private prison for fifteen years without knowing the “who” or “why” behind his confinement, discovers (after a three-day marathon of revenge) both his enemy and his crime: Dae-su spread a rumor about fellow classmate
Woo-jin, informing the entire school of the latter’s incestuous relationship with his sister, Soo-ah. Catching them in the act, Dae-su tells his best friend of what he witnessed, and begs him to keep it a secret; expectedly, his friend tells his friends, and the story of the juicy scandal spreads like wildfire, ultimately driving Soo-ah to suicide when the rumor burgeons out of control and becomes unbearable. Dae-su’s crime, though certainly unforgivable, is minuscule in comparison to the punishment he receives from the vengeful wrath of Woo-jin, robbing him of fifteen years of his life and sundering his family (Woo-jin murders Dae-su’s wife and frames him for it; Dae-su’s young daughter is whisked away to live with a foster family). The experience of imprisonment drives Dae-su near-mad and molds him into the monster Woo-jin desires him to be.
Oldboy leaves us with no doubts over the iniquity of Dae-su’s actions, and horror over what his crime ultimately wrought. With but a few words, spoken to his friend, the teenager unwittingly sets into motion events that end with one of the victims of his loquaciousness killing herself. But if his crime is acknowledged for what it is, there’s no denying that his comeuppance is overwhelmingly distorted taken in context with the micro-level of participation he had in the proliferation of that lethal gossip. For all his fault in the tragedy, Dae-su meant no harm; it is unthinkable to suppose that he intended to hurt either brother or sister at all (though we must accept that short of his friend speaking nothing of the rumor to others, there is no scenario in which Dae-su’s blabbermouthing would not end up humiliating Woo-jin and Soo-ah). The same cannot be said of Woo-jin, who in retatliation fully wished to cause grievous injury to Dae-su and his loved ones; furthermore, on his mission for vengeance, Woo-jin incurs a great deal of collateral damage, like a spurned and furious god unleashing his divine fury on anyone fool enough to stand in his path. Perhaps the pain Woo-jin feels over his sister’s death, as well as his guilt over his involvement, is simply that great that his vengeance must be equally immense so as to properly match both; perhaps nearly three decades of emotional torment caused his feelings to bloat beyond his ability to manage them, much like the rumor that claimed Soo-ah’s life. What we can definitively conclude is that regardless of the extremity of Woo-jin’s anguish, the revenge he claims far outweighs the crime Dae-su committed, further demonstrating how even the most seemingly minute slight can lead to unprecedented calamity and loss.
Unlike Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, however, Oldboy is not primarily invested in exploring the cycles that revenge inevitably creates. The second of Park’s vengeance thrillers instead dwells on the failings of revenge and depicts the act’s inherent inability to bring satisfactory healing and closure to people who seek it. In the quest for vengeance, one may endure greater spiritual damage than they initially experienced, leaving them with an even more dire need to abate their pain than before. Alternately, even when one succeeds in exacting their revenge, they may find that despite their best efforts they still are not relieved of their suffering. This is because vengeance’s promise of catharsis is empty, and Park makes this shortcoming explicit in the resolution of the respective arcs of both Dae-su and Woo-jin.
In the film’s climax, Dae-su is denied his revenge on Woo-jin; in part his failure in juxtaposition to Woo-jin’s victory strongly emphasizes that seeking revenge does not guarantee a cure to the internal and external afflictions a person is made to withstand. While Dae-su’s tenacity and ingenuity yield the truth he’s longed to discover (the impetus behind Woo-jin’s seemingly unprovoked scheming and plotting), they do not provide him with that last detail that he believes will wash away the agony of the last decade and a half, namely Woo-jin’s death. His entire journey is senseless; Woo-jin, the puppet master, ever has the upper hand, and he completes his own revenge by utterly stripping Dae-su of his remaining humanity and dignity, leaving him a weeping, scarred shadow of the man we are introduced to in the film’s opening. In seeking revenge, Dae-su only inflicts further anguish upon himself; instead of finding the solace that he sought, he only increased the impact of his downfall. As the camera lingers on his haunting, sad, and manic smile, it is all but assured that nothing could possibly ease his pain, neither the best efforts of a hypnotist nor the sudden and violent death of his nemesis.
The film focuses primarily on Dae-su but there is no denying that Woo-jin is just as central character to Oldboy‘s plot. Oldboy is as much about his revenge as Dae-su’s; in fact it is arguably more about Woo-jin’s bid to avenge his sister and liberate himself from his torment. All events in Oldboy are the machinations of Woo-jin; while we only meet him roughly halfway through the film, we have felt his wrath throughout each frame preceding his introduction. Therefore, when Woo-jin is confronted by Dae-su at the end, their encounter is the culmination of their separate vengeful sojourns. Unlike Dae-su, however, Woo-jin is able to see his vengeance through to the end; he reveals the full truth to Dae-su, who collapses from the final blow of Woo-jin’s master plan, and then walks away to take a ride in an elevator, openly gloating over the greatest injury he has caused his enemy yet. But his satisfaction is short-lived; the doors close, and Woo-jin finds that with his revenge complete there is no longer a stopper to suppress the torrent ofemotions roiling in his heart. Years of suppressed grief come flooding back as he re-lives his sister’s suicide; the camera swaps between the grown-up Woo-jin weeping in the elevator to the teenage Woo-jin holding onto his sister’s hand as she dangles over the edge of a bridge. When he relinquishes his grip, the film cuts to the present, and the elder Woo-jin fatally shoots himself– the last act of a human being frantic and desperate to end his suffering.
For both men, revenge is a fruitless labor; Dae-su is denied from fully carrying out his revenge, and Woo-jin finds that having completed his, the emotions that drove him to pursue it in the first place still dwelt in his soul. Both of them find out, with tragic consequences for both of them, that revenge is a distraction of sorts that keeps them from confronting their despair and overcoming it without sustaining greater emotional damage. The spiritual purification that they seek cannot be obtained through means of cruelty and brutality. Instead what they find is something insubstantial and fleeting, perhaps a brief moment of reprieve that washes away shortly after the realization hits that their pain has not been alleviated as they hoped it would be. Ultimately, the revenge of Oldboy is hollow; however fervently Dae-su and Woo-jin believe in vengeance’s power to heal their wounds, they discover that the ends they’ve fought to achieve yield no such amelioration and instead have further tarnished them both, body and soul.
Oldboy‘s release seemingly cemented Park’s viewpoint of revenge as destructive and pointless; both Oldboy and Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance weave tragedies replete with nihilism and devoid of any hope of redemption for their characters as well as their audiences. Confirmation that Park intended to revisit the subject one last time to tie out his loosely-connected trilogy naturally led to the belief that his third vengeance picture would tell a yarn similar to its predecessors, but 2006’s Lady Vengeance (a.k.a. Sympathy For Lady Vengeance) set itself apart from the former two films by instead examining ways in which revenge actually does lead one to closure and relief rather than further existential strife. Lady Vengeance‘s heroine, Geum-ja, finds the justice she craves where Oldboy‘s Dae-su and Woo-jin, and Sympathy‘s Dong-jin and Ryu all fail; she avenges the wrong done to her at the start of the film and finds herself cleansed by its climax, ready to begin her life anew in the wake of the crime committed against her and her daughter.
Perhaps part of what makes the difference between Lady Vengeance and the other films in the series lies in the clear distinction between the wronged party (Geum-ja) and the villain (Mr. Baek). Mr. Baek cuts a distinctly irredeemable figure, a significant change in the formula of ambiguity established by both Sympathy (which draws no line between the relative morality of both Ryu and Dong-jin) and Oldboy (where Woo-jin, despite being brutal and despicable, still manages to possess qualities that make him sympathetic). Baek, however, asserts himself as being remorseless and soulless immediately. No wrong is done to him that leads him to his murderous path; we simply accept him as a monster because that’s precisely what he is. He acts not out of grief but out of pure cruelty.
Baek’s persona is significant in a couple of ways. First of all, because he is utterly unsympathetic, the audience is behind Geum-ja from start to finish. There are no second thoughts as to whether or not she’s justified in her intent to murder Baek. Additionally, because Baek is such a cut-and-dry villain, Geum-ja’s need for revenge transcends the baser nature of the act and instead morphs into a quest for justice; she deserves her revenge, and Baek deserves his punishment not just for his crime against Geum-ja, but for other heinous acts left unspoken of until the last third of the film. We learn that Baek stole a memento from Won-mo after killing him; Geum-ja finds numerous and similar trophies in Baek’s possession and realizes that her former partner in crime has killed several other children. The families of those deceased kids still grieve for their losses. Discovering this shocking truth, Geum-ja’s personal grudge against Baek transforms into a mission of compassion as she gathers the families together and gives them the chance for justice and closure that they have been denied for years following the deaths of their children.
As the film slowly draws to a close, the families and Geum-ja together kill Baek and bury his corpse deep in the woods; they then share birthday cake and sing a final happy birthday in memory of their children. While nothing can truly erase the collected loss that they share, Baek’s death (and their participation in it) has brought these strangers together and granted them a palatable release from the mourning they have sustained in the absence of knowing the truth behind their children’s disappearances. Geum-ja’s personal catharsis manifests itself in several ways. Most obviously, her own hand in Baek’s murder brings her solace after her ordeals in and out of prison; she’s also happily reunited with Jenny, her daughter, and finds herself in a position to make a fresh start in the wake of the events that unfold throughout the rest of the film. Baek’s death additionally sees Geum-ja complete her spiritual reconstitution in a manner quietly foreshadowed during her time in prison, where she is viewed as angelic and pure despite her true motivations. When we reach Lady Vengeance‘s climax, she actually assumes that mantle and becomes something of a surrogate angel to the suffering families of Baek’s other victims, mercifully granting them the reprieve they so richly deserve. Where the laws of mankind can not provide these people with the conclusion they require, “the kind-hearted Ms. Geum-ja” can.
Lady Vengeance is the antithesis to Oldboy and Sympathy in how it perceives the act of revenge. For the former film, revenge can cleanse one’s soul and restore one to health and wellness; for the latter two, revenge merely ensures that its adherents remain on the same ruinous path that led them to choose vengeance in the first place. These perspectives clash with one another for certain but despite their incongruity they are able to co-exist; as Park sees it, they are merely two sides to the same coin. As much as revenge can bring a person lower than they thought possible, it ultimately can also be good for their health.