A beautifully shot action-thriller that acts as a fantastic beginning to a much loved trilogy, and highlights the importance of Asian cinema in the action thriller genre.
Park Chan-wook’s revenge thriller follows Ryu, a deaf-mute who wants to donate his kidney to his dying sister. The opening act highlights the families trauma, as well as their poor financial situation culminating in Ryu losing his factory job. Ryu and his activist girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi hatch a plan to kidnap the daughter of Ryu’s former boss President Park to ransom her for money they need for the medical fees. The darkness of the film lifts off from the end of the first act as tragic circumstances lead to both Ryu and President Park seeking revenge.
The film plays within each act on the idea of a greater need. In many ways this begins with an early discussion of the morality of kidnap. Ryu and Yeong believe their need for medical fees greater outweighs the happiness of Park for a limited time. They convince themselves that by kidnapping Park’s daughter, she in return will have a better life as her Father will realize the love she deserves. Greater need as a theme occurs as well within Ryu and President Park’s revenge plots, both believing their retribution is just and they will stop at nothing to seek this. Retribution becomes the culmination of each act with scenes of retribution signalling the next stage in the plot.
Park’s camera work is both beautiful and extreme. Coen brothers-esque distant shots leave the audience guessing on many levels as to what is occurring in the distance on screen. The low camera shot as Ryu is jumping behind a crowd gives a prime example of this technique. The audience themselves craning to see what Ryu is so desperate to get access to. The violence while both brutal and bloody, as we have come to expect from this genre of Asian cinema, is offset by the distance camera work. Park’s cameras pull away at times of severe gore which makes for an easier watch while still leaving enough to the imagination that will make even the most seasoned of gore viewers squirm. The end in particular left me feeling as if this film will be very difficult to forget in a hurry.
The lack of music gives a tension greater than film scores usually have the ability to create. The silences feel drawn out, long, and uncomfortable. It gives greater weight to Park’s extreme takes on the medium of film – challenging what we have come to expect of Western made thrillers. The dialogue is limited and at times quiet. The lack of dialogue means that much of the plot is told through the camera work, scenery, and emotion – fitting as Ryu’s lack of hearing and speech means that you see the film almost through his unique lens – fostering sympathy to Ryu’s good intentions in act 1 and the start of act 2 as well as his revenge mission in the climatic end sequences.
If Park’s intention was to make you sympathize greatly with his protagonist then he succeeds. The film is a great opening to The Vengeance Trilogy. I toyed at length with how to rate this film, it is great but at times felt drawn out and long – particularly in the first act. I believe that Park wanted this slower beginning to the trilogy to really set up the themes of the later films. It challenges all notions of Western cinema and demonstrates why this action-thriller genre is defined by so many great Korean films. My rating is shown below, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this alters after watching both Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. The context of seeing the trilogy as a whole could come to define this film and cement it in my mind as a great of Asian cinema.
I can’t wait to enjoy Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance over the coming days to see is Park’s unique take on cinema reaches even greater heights.