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The Vengeance Trilogy: Alienation and Communication in Society

Updated on October 2, 2011

The Vengeance Trilogy directed by Park Chan-wook evokes postmodernism filmmaking to demonstrate how revenge is born through the individual and society. Using language and alienation, Chan-wook demonstrates how vengeance can arise in various forms. By molding communication in his first film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Chan creates a series of social and cultural misunderstandings that lead to a series of deaths. Chan-wook’s second film, Oldboy, works to alienate the main character in an attempt for truth to be unraveled. Finally the third film in the series, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, aims to use alienation and language in order obtain justice. All three of the vengeance films tell a story of social interactions between the individual and society, which can only be achieved through the forms of communication by language or the lack of it from alienation.

From the very beginning of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance it becomes clear that the film is based on the social constructs of language and alienation. Ryu, (Ha- kyun Shin) who is the only deaf character in the film, symbolizes the ideology of being alienated from a world in which spoken language is needed in order to communicate. The opening sequence shows this by starting the film with a girl speaking at a radio station broadcasting a message that Ryu sent in. The broadcast, which explains Ryu’s own inability to speak to his sister, tells her that he is willing to donate his own kidney in order to save her. Afterwards a shot of his sister is shown crying in her brother’s arms while listening to the broadcast, however the scene quickly shifts to another shot revealing a doctor. The doctor who is sitting, looks at Ryu and tries to explain that his kidney is not a match and he can’t use it to save his sister. While the doctor is explaining how blood types work, the audience is shown how Ryu is unable to comprehend what the doctor is saying to him. The contrast that Chan-wook uses within the first three minutes of the film then prepares audiences for what the rest of the film will be about. In an article written by Kim Kyung Hyun called “Tell the Kitchen That There’s Too Much Buchu in the Dumpling”” Reading Park Chan-wook’s “Unkowable Old Boy, Hyun says, “Park Chan-wook’s creative use of subtitles and intertitles, which feature characters other than Ryu speaking verbally while using sign language to Ryu, help the audience to understand the narrative. But such performative use of bodily gestures and linguistic images complicate the communicative channels of language” (Hyun 104). These actions then are statements that shows how communication and the lack of effectively being able to communicate is a crutch, but also how vengeance can be created out of misunderstandings that are formed.

The second film within the Vengeance Trilogy is called Oldboy and follows the story of Oh Dae-su’s (Min-sik Choi) quest for truth and redemption. Unlike the first film in the trilogy, Oldboy focuses on the effects of isolation and alienation as a literal concept rather then symbolic a one, like in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Starting towards the beginning of the film, Oh Dae-su is shown as a drunk, but successful man who is captured and imprisoned. His imprisonment lasts for around fifteen years until he is released one night. “In Old Boy, Dae-su makes a dramatic transformation after being locked up for 15 years. As mentioned earlier, one significant change is signaled through his voice. Not only does he speak in a terse monotone, but he also speaks through voiceovers” (Hyun, 104). Chan-wook uses the imprisonment of the main character in the film to establish the effects of alienation on a person’s mind and shows the frustration of a person when he is unable to communicate with language in the film. Interestingly enough the main conflict of Oldboy comes from communication and language. “One of the most intriguing points of Old Boy is that linguistic communication almost always falls outside the sphere of rational dialog. Verbal miscues, infelicitations, and gaps between signifiers and signifieds produce not simply miscomprehensions between two individuals, but also help create a world that is “beyond knowable” (Hyun, 101). Since it is Oh Dae-su who tells his friend about Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu) and his sister’s incest-like behavior. This chain reaction of cause and effect between communication and language (Oh Dae-su telling his friend about Woo-jin Lee) leading to isolation and alienation (Oh Dae-su becomes trapped for fifteen years) is the exact opposite of how the first film in the trilogy is set up, since Ryu’s alienation starts off the chain reaction of misunderstandings through communication and language. This would suggest that vengeance can start with alienation or communication through language and that the end result is death in some form.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the last film in the trilogy and explores the ideas of seeking justice through the use of language and alienation. The main focus of the film then becomes about a woman named Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee) who is forced into confessing to a murder that she did not commit. In order for her to complete her vengeance though, Geum-ja Lee must become a murderer so that she can eventually torture and kill the real murderer Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi). This scene can be shown clearly when she is at the abandoned schoolyard holding a puppy. In the scene the weather is cold and snow surrounds her, the puppy is seen looking into her eyes and whining. Geum-ja Lee holds up a gun and shoots the puppy a few times ending its life. By killing the innocent dog Geum-ja Lee effectively alienates herself from society because modern society would not kill the dog which represents innocence. Communication is also unique in the film because Geum-ja Lee’s daughter speaks only English and the teacher speaks English in some parts of the film as well. “When English is spoken in the film, Park slows down his enunciation so that Korean subtitles can appear word-by-word, choreographed in the exact rhythm and order as the words being spoken so that the audience can witness the process of translation laid bare” (Hyun 104). By using different languages in the film Chan-wook further creates a sense of separation between both the mother and daughter and the teacher from the rest of society.

Overall the three Vengeance films are a collection of masterpieces showing and utilizing postmodern cinema as a style to convey the topic of revenge for the individual and society. The effects of using both symbolism and literal material in the three films explain how vengeance starts, but also how it is carried out and finished. Chan-wook’s use of alienation and language in the films are powerful and leave the audience seeking more vengeance by the time the film is done. In this way Chan-wook successfully shows the driven hunger of vengeance, which is reflected in his filmmaking style.


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    • PaulEdward profile image


      7 years ago from England

      Cool! I wrote a film review of Old Boy. I loved that film.

    • bocheli profile image


      7 years ago

      AWESOME FILMS. Old Boy is one of my favorite films of all time,

      right next to Clockwork Orange & Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.


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