Triple Threat: Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy

The rapid-fire trilogy stared into the abyss of revenge and conquered the early ’00s.

Movies Features Park Chan-wook
Triple Threat: Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Maybe that’s why the trilogy is such a satisfying structure for so many epic series or curious corners of cinema history. This year in Triple Threat, Ken Lowe revisits another of cinema’s best trilogies each month, including some unofficial trilogies that have come to define a director, actor, or time in film history. You can follow the series here.

When I was in college, I covered a court case for the school newspaper in which a woman had attempted to pass a car in terrible weather on a one-lane highway, and had caused a head-on collision that killed two college students. She survived, and I was to write about her sentencing—listening to the family members of the slain people stand up and speak their piece to her before the judge handed down a ruling. I don’t remember what her penalty was (there was no jail), only that those I told it to later said she’d gotten off light. It should’ve been the death penalty, one person said to me.

But it shouldn’t have been. The families, who were there that day, did not want that—I didn’t even need to ask them to know. That would be awful, and meaningless, even if any punishment devised by any god or man could be worse than living with what she’d so carelessly done. I saw on her face, as she sat there in court, that no such penalty ever could.

Revenge might really be why we are the way we are. Not individually, but as a people. You can argue that preventing it, thwarting it, deterring it, is the entire impetus for why we have things like laws and a societal order—why our judicial system does not extract an eye for an eye. In a world where there is no inherent fairness or justice but what we come together collectively to create and enforce, the question of vengeance hangs over everything. Our fiction constantly prosecutes the question of where justice becomes vengeance.

A lot of it really wants to have it both ways, though: Bemoaning vengeance as an evil, but rooting for the wronged protagonist as they rip and tear until it is done. Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy definitively and completely rejects that framing—but oh, how it tantalizes you with it, entrapping you before the big, awful reveal. Across three movies in the early ‘00s, his features Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance asked viewers if they wanted to see some fucking vengeance, and then made them choke on it. These are beautiful movies that linger in the very ugliest places, and were ultimately one of the mightiest salvos in the new wave of Korean cinema that characterized the turn of the millennium.

The Movies

“I said from the start, I wanted the film to be felt physically, not just emotionally. I wanted the audience to be tired when they finished the film. I wanted their bodies to be tired.”Park Chan-wook on Oldboy

Park Chan-wook’s best-known works emerged during a boom in Korean film production that followed the end of South Korean leader Chun Doo-hwan’s decades-long military dictatorship. Park was in college during the protests against Chun’s government, and in interviews has spoken about how the violence and repression of the time shattered his otherwise fairly comfortable upbringing. It also caused him, in the years after, to meditate on the feelings of rage curdling inside of him, feelings he said caused “the collapse of our internal self.”

It’s as succinct a way of summing up these three films as any: Protagonists whose selves are subsumed entirely in service of their quests to get back at those who have wronged them.

The other major influence Park has cited, in the case of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, is the 1997 financial crisis that affected Asian countries, and in South Korea fueled a growing social divide. In that first film, a fired factory worker, Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), attempts to sell his own kidney in an attempt to help his sister afford her own kidney transplant. When the organ dealers rip him off, Ryu hatches a plot that eventually involves him kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy man. Through a series of mishaps, the child is drowned, and Ryu’s sister, discovering his part in it, soon takes her own life. The movie ends as the kidnapped girl’s father (Song Kang-ho of Parasite fame) takes justice into his own hands… before the associates of Ryu’s slain girlfriend then take justice into their own hands. Park has said he consciously chose minimalistic camera setups, going for simple movement and elemental framing. It makes the few times in the movie when the violence explodes seem all the more unnerving for its matter-of-factness.

The following year, Park was at it again with Oldboy. The more stylized movie is based somewhat loosely on a manga, with the crucial difference that the movie’s twin twists in the third reel were invented by Park and his co-writers. (Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in 2023, he said the epiphany came to him during a bathroom break while he and his co-producers were trying to figure out a better rationale behind the maddening revenge at the story’s center.)

After a bender that sees him released from police custody, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) awakens inside a locked, secluded hotel room. He is being imprisoned, and he does not know why or for how long. His only connection to the outside world is a television. Whenever he needs food, it’s dropped off through a slot in his door. Whenever he needs any kind of medical care or his room needs rearranging, he’s gassed unconscious. He dreams of nothing but revenge for 15 years, even as he slowly, laboriously tries to file his way through a wall when nobody is looking. When he’s released, he tracks the killer down with help from a young woman who takes pity on him, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong).

The pettiness of the transgression, the enormity of the punishment Oh Dae-su has undergone, his total surrender of his humanity in the quest to avenge himself for it, and the monstrous reveal of just how far his enemy has been willing to go to punish him, are some of the most shocking things a movie has dared to do in the 20 years since Oldboy first came out. Everybody namechecks the “hallway scene,” the one-take brawl in which Oh Dae-su and his trusty hammer completely disassemble a corridor of thugs. That part is awesome, but it is not remotely the point of the movie, and having watched the film once and discovering its reveals, you can never watch that fight the same way again. Oldboy is, in a way, a movie that can only be watched in the truest sense one time.

Park capped the trilogy with 2005’s Lady Vengeance, another movie centering around the protagonist’s imprisonment and the revenge that follows. Lady Vengeance, as the title implies, is about a woman’s vengeance, and it colors the movie in a completely different way. The movie follows the wronged Lee Geum-Ja (Lee Young-ae) as she is released from a 13-year prison term after a concerted effort by well-wishers taken in by her piety behind bars and her angelic presence in the media. We learn quickly that Geum-Ja is no saint at all, but has spent more than a decade slowly building up a network of informants and allies she befriended in the slammer, from the half-insane North Korean spy whose journal conceals designs for a homemade firearm to the women who celebrate when she slowly poisons their rapist cellmate to death with bleach over a period of years.

We learn that Geum-Ja was made to take the fall for an unspeakable, pointless crime—her own child being used as a hostage to force her silence by the real killer, who committed the crime for the absolute pettiest of motives. But then, Geum-Ja discovers that the child is in fact alive, and an ongoing distraction in her single-minded pursuit of bloody satisfaction. The movie is unique in that the initial perspective character remains the (anti-)hero throughout, and Geum-Ja achieves her aims in spades. We see without a doubt that the killer (Choi Min-sik returning) deserves every torment—Geum-Ja has the total complicity of a police detective in dragging the captive prisoner before the parents of his dozen or so murdered victims, proving to them that this guy did it, and then collectively determining how they will torture him to death.

This scene goes on forever. It borders on impossible to watch if you are a parent.

Oldboy in particular swept film festivals and caught the eye of Quentin Tarantino (of course), and it’s hard to overstate how influential it’s been. The vibrant South Korean cinema scene’s success with Western audiences over the past couple of decades owes much to Park, and this trilogy.

Best Entry

I’m tempted to say Lady Vengeance because of how it shows Park’s extremely successful reframing of vengeance from a woman’s perspective and its much larger cast of characters, all of whose performances are phenomenal. There’s no denying Oldboy the crown, though: The stylized narrative, the captivating setup, the utter devastation at its core—they all mark it as a once-in-a-generation picture and truly the only one of these to make vengeance nauseating.

Unofficial Trilogy Notes

Park has gone on record as saying that he actually regards Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance to be more like a duology with his 2000 thriller Joint Security Area, because, he said, both were more grounded in current events that concerned him at the time.

Marathon Potential

Abysmal. Any one of these is enough to wipe out the most cynical cinemagoer for at least a week. I started my rewatches of these last year to make sure I had enough time to recover from each one before processing the next. Don’t do this to yourself, or your friends.

Join us next month as Triple Threat explores the seedier side of the City of Angels from a Lynchian perspective with the unofficial “L.A. Trilogy” of Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., and Inland Empire.

Kenneth Lowe may be a monster, but doesn’t he deserve to live? You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses, on Bluesky, and read more at his blog.

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