April 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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Sympathy for Lady Vengeance  
Music composed by Cho Young-Wook, Choi Seung-Hyun, and Na Seok-Joo
Featuring the works of Vivaldi, Alicante/Jordi Savale, and Paganini
Performed by the Mo-Ho Baroque Ensemble
  Available on Pastel (PMCD 7005)
Running Time: 45:00

Soundtrack CD album available from yesasia.com with the catalogue number: (1004042899).

Available at the film’s official website for free download.
Click on the "Media" link, and you'll see four parts below "Soundtrack". Each part is a zipped folder containing multiple MP3 files (20 in all).

[ED: This review has minor spoilers.]

For those unfamiliar with Park Chan-Wook’s work (or any critical Korean film) and rely on popular opinion for direction will miss out on spectacular experiences. But the public attitude may be correct in assessing the Vengeance trilogy’s first installment. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), the gruesome and darkly amusing bloodbath, intently views categorical viciousness with a clinical eye. While Park wants audiences to understand the plausible reasons and motivations for such relentless acts of cruelty (nothing happens without a reason), the camera is overly attentive to the details of the acts themselves. In a ghostly aesthetic reality, sound becomes an invaluable source of expression, and materializes as tormented specters hovering in the wings; prominent effects (e.g., butchered meat, grunts, screams, cracking ribs, dripping liquids, heavy breathing) and long silences often create ideal atmospheres for comedy or terror. And what little music heard in the film is expressed eloquently, but performs as noise, as heard in Ogura Satoru’s notorious Za Ginipiggu series—a somewhat shameful line of Japanese, pseudo-snuff films-turned-horror flicks. Nevertheless, it would be wrong for anyone to believe that violent acts are still the aim of the film’s two brilliant successors, Oldboy (2003) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005).

Park, known for his first Korean hit in 2000, JSA: Joint Security Area, a political thriller also starring the lead of Lady Vengeance, Lee Yeong-Ae, gives audiences the classic theme of revenge in a scintillating, vividly visceral, three-chapter arc. The director comes from a philosophy background, and it shows: if Mr. Vengeance is a sanguinary meditation on “reason”, Oldboy is a glorious epic of “spirit”, and Lady Vengeance is about satisfying “appetites”. Technically, all three films possess Plato’s society-mind tripartite, but the sinuous stories within often take their given part beyond the limits and juggle astonishing feats of virtue and vice.

Mr. Vengeance shows how wise and imprudent acts can kickoff a bloody domino effect of endless retribution. Every character has a reason for being (or not being), and all that they do, minute or enormous, for the sake of protecting or to avenge, is justified. Everything is rationalized in such a way that moments that should be construed as temporary insanity or a “crime of passion”, are methodical and nearly unsympathetic. Regardless of the angle it’s viewed from, the constant spilling of blood—however horrifying—is always done with righteous intent.

As the trilogy’s gripping climax, Oldboy embodies refreshingly renewed Korean sensibility and bursts at the seams with passion and daring. Oh Dae-su, an average man (played by Choi Min-Sik), is kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years in a seedy, windowless hotel room. He has no knowledge of why this happened or who did it to him.  So when Oh finally emerges, he’s a very changed man—a warrior, annealed by rage, honed by loss, and in desperate search of justice. The film may center on him, but it’s everything and everyone around him that shapes his character and influences his actions. His tremendous, twisting journey is fraught with love, paranoia, tragedy, and death, but is nonetheless exhilaratingly alive from start to finish. It’s the most profound work of the three, beautifully rendered, coursing with irony, and intuitively scored by Cho Young-Wook (more anon).

Lady Vengeance is the perfect finale to a long line of payback; it’s an extravagant moral play that’s sharper and more satisfying than the Kill Bill volumes. The personification of “appetite” is so immense that Park makes it an omnipresent backdrop on which reason and spirit play out—frequently punctuated by highlights of dark desire: immoderate indulgences of food, sex, money, and death. Since Platonic standards demand productivity, the heroine, Lee Geum-Ja, makes her living as a gifted pastry chef while collecting the odd favor from ex-fellow inmates she rescued or inspired with religion. Lady Vengeance isn’t an emotionally effusive picture, but it’s complex in its mix of messages, elements, and characters (e.g. many actors from the trilogy reappear; Choi Min-Sik in particular) and relies heavily on cool, ironic wit to carry it along. The comedy is hilarious, and ventures often into to Beckettesque territory—an effect mostly due to the choppy narrative. The tale’s progression of cause and effect is somewhat like that of Mr. Vengeance, tortuous and set to intrigue, but what’s more fascinating is Cho’s music; it supports all the plastic charm and muted grace of Lee’s persona, all the while telling the story of Lady Vengeance through immaculate compassion. (Again, more anon.)

The trilogy’s path of music styles are the following: elegant noise, elegant dynamism, and elegant restraint; resembling an exotic plant fed on blood with roots in carnage, it only requires ample time and deaths to grow. When it finally blossoms, it’s the most breathtaking specimen ever seen… until its source of life begins to runs dry. As pure poetry in motion, Oldboy is this botanical wonder brought to full maturity. Like a master raconteur, Cho’s score covers a huge range of styles to complement or contrast the action. It’s amazing in how many flavors and forms noir suspense presents itself: sublimely sardonic, bittersweet waltzing, jazzy interludes (à la Stéphane Grappelli), crisp, synth/electronica stylings, Glassian ostinatos, pop rhythms, and Vivaldi’s “Winter” from the Four Seasons concerto. If the styles seem to shift in mood, color, and ideas, you only have to read the track titles (actual films) to know from where and whom both director and composer drew inspiration:

“Look Who’s Talking”, “Somewhere in the Night”,
“The Count of Monte Cristo”, “Jail House Rock”,
“In a Lonely Place”, “It’s Alive”, “The Searchers”,
“Look Back in Anger”, “Room at the Top”,
“Cries and Whispers”, “Out of Sight”,
“For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “Out of the Past”,
“Breathless”, “Dressed to Kill”, “Frantic”,
“Cul-de-Sac”, “Kiss Me Deadly”, “Point Blank”,
“Farewell, My Love”, “The Big Sleep”, “The Last Waltz”

It’s an audacious cocktail of styled sensations; and though it’s not the driving force of the film, Oldboy was made infinitely more compelling with the shrewd blend of madness, mayhem, and melancholy.

In diametric contrast, Lady Vengeance is deadly beauty; aloof, striking, and dangerous. It's a captive, cultivated Cobra Lilly (of the carnivorous persuasion) at the height of its bloom, but one about to undergo immediate transplant into the wild. In an unpredictable world, will it flourish or wither? When movement and actions are judiciously restrained for survival’s sake, it becomes apparent that flamboyant musical styles aren’t what propel the film. Lady Vengeance, without the intrusions of first-person flashbacks, is (essentially) a less complicated, lighter film accompanied by an emotionally Byzantine score. Cho collaborates with producer/composer, Choi Seung-Hyun, and arranger, Na Seok-Joo, to bring about what seems like a straightforward repertoire on album, but a focused, complexly integrated score for the film.

Unlike in Oldboy, the music of Lady Vengeance is vital to striking the right tone; music, tempered by silence, takes on a myriad of roles that do for the film what the graphic sounds did for Mr. Vengeance, but there’s never any hostility as it serves as a conduit of angst, humor, and irony. Baroque, Italian-styled phrases frequently morph into an analytical shrink, mildly sardonic spectator, comedic straight man, or the nonplussed arching of brows. It’s this clever juxtaposing of musical tone and character that imbues in the film something the characters don’t, or can’t always secure for themselves, that is, sympathy. (Most of which doesn’t manifest until the movie’s second half.)

‘Guem-Ja's Prayer’ is used for the film’s visually sumptuous title montage; with the lead-in harpsichord and plucked strings, the attitude is delicate, barbed, and wry until the burgeoning mass of black stems and red petals become a punctured vein—which oozes the lovely title. As the sequence blossoms into a ballet of swirling designs, blood, baking, and textures, the latticework of strings join with winds to build gracefully into a rich, dark culmination of appetites. After hearing this, it makes you wonder why the alternate take of Vivaldi’s ‘Cessate, Omai Cessate’ (the main theme) wasn’t used; the violin solo is bright, buoyant, and in line with wit, but the ominous opening justifies the use of the alternative’s viola—also featured Oldboy’s “Farewell, My Lovely”. It would strengthen the ties between the films if used (the solo’s brooding tone is where Lady Vengeance arrives at later on), but if nothing else, the track is an added bonus.

Paganini’s Caprice, or ‘The Witch’, is rarely heard in its entirety although its full form exists on the album. It’s difficult to determine who was responsible for its use, but phrases of the work appear in or prior to a number of brief scenes for the sake of comedic/dramatic punctuation. (If there weren’t already a theme for Lee Guem-Ja, this would be it.) Idiosyncratic encounters notwithstanding, the phrases of the original melody often act as ellipses prior to or in the aftermath of violence and indulgences. The extended squiggly variations signify the turning of the screw. For example, there’s a scene that cuts between Lee’s blasé revelation of her crime and a woman refusing to eat cake “made by hands that killed”. It’s a great moment thanks to frantic fiddling and Asian humor.

Melodrama is a large part of eastern comedies, and there are many instances of it in Lady Vengeance. ‘A Spy’, a tender, reverent piece, contrasts Lee’s “piety” with crass dialogue and earnest, if superficial, awakening. ‘Fatality’ is a brooding, mischievous string arrangement that features (briefly) maudlin celli, and solos for oboe and clarinet; it’s a quasi-lament that’s used twice: in one segment, it accommodates scenes of imprisonment, a failed robbery, and a surprising organ donation. During the second appearance, the saccharine portions play up the absurd circumstances of a heartfelt apology from Lee. (A tearful ‘Farewell’ follows-up the former incidence.) ‘Sunny Afternoon’ arrives soon after a darkly derived offshoot of Platonic desire—murder, while ‘You’ve Changed’ is positioned in one of the film’s explicitly entertaining, back story deviations. ‘None of Your Business’ is perhaps the most effusive cue used in the start of the film; traditionalists might fall for this swelling theme of heartache. But if they do, they’ve fallen for a gag. It’s true, the sincere track narrates Lee Geum-Ja’s public fall from grace, but within a minute, her musings on inner goodness are paired with visuals of prison friendship, haircuts, and cake decorating! By the end, it’s not surprising when her thoughts become a theatrical sermon on sinners and the life-changing power of prayer.

Towards the middle of the album, the tone becomes more sentimental. ‘Marble’, the extended version of ‘Geum-Ja’s Prayer’, is well-matched with the behind-the-scenes account of Lee’s crime; the harpsichord lead-in is dry, and tragically understates shared conspiracy, but slowly undulating strings soon escort the solo to oblivion.  The helpless surrender to the undertow captures the mindset of Lee during the frantic scene when press members crowd in to take snapshots of a reenacted murder.

Family is the basis of the Vengeance trilogy—more so in Lady Vengeance than the others, hence the focus of five tracks on Lee’s long-lost daughter, Jenny. ‘Mareta, Mareta No'm Faces Plorar’, an 18th century, Spanish folk cradlesong, is representative of Lee’s chance for personal salvation. She hums this to her stubborn child after finding her, but the ‘Lullaby’ is later sung by Jenny in forlorn despair. (Incidentally, the alternative take is much more pleasant to hear.) Despite appearance and prickly disposition, Jenny (‘The Angel’) has in her the kindness that everyone professes to see in Lee. ‘The Letter’ to her mother, led again by a cynical harpsichord, is one of poignant scorn; a split screen features Jenny speaking the written words, and Lee, frantically paging through an English-Korean dictionary.

‘Pull the Trigger’ enters at a curious moment, but what the music depicts as brisk and conclusive is a scene showing the exact opposite—it’s a breath-holding moment of suspense. ‘Wicked Cake’ appears in a very intimate scene of physical violence, but it doesn’t portray the terror of the victim or the gravity of the abuse. The somber piano underscores Lee’s realization of the killer’s lack of remorse and the cathartic release of more gratifying payback. The spiccato stylings of ‘Crime and Punishment’ revert to the comedy in the first half; it’s a brief cue, but the visuals that coincide with it turn what would normally be a scene of “discussion” into grim amusement.

When the verdict is finally decided, there is an awful—but hilarious, extended period of anxiety and sounds. Park’s Asian sensibility and wit makes the dénouement an invigorating, if ambivalent, experience; no one is entirely happy with the results, yet justice has been done, and in this, it shares a musical link (a waltz) with Oldboy. The majority of the waltzes in Oldboy are in the vein of madness—‘Cries and Whispers’, ‘Breathless’, and ‘Farewell, My Lovely’ could easily be rearranged for any freakish, circus funhouse. The latter track’s arrangement is the one that ‘Unhappy Party’ most resembles; instead of keeping the solo clarinet prominent, the waltz in Lady Vengeance uses it to lead in the string orchestra before merging with other wind instruments. It is no longer a lone soul wrought and ravaged by revenge, but many. Mr. Vengeance featured a hesitant (or perhaps indifferent) ending when the blood ran dry, but Lady Vengeance has a small daughter. Unlike Oh Dae-su of Oldboy, she has a chance of true redemption.

Judging these albums as standalone works is a near impossible task. So, experience Park Chan-Wook before listening. You’ll be thrilled you did.

Tina Huang

Rating: 5

Note: The same overall rating applies to the Oldboy score by Cho Young-Wook (not available for free download online).

Michael McLennan adds:-

[ED: Just as we ‘went to print’, Tina submitted a review of this soundtrack much deeper than anything I’d written below. I include my original review all the same as it comes from the perspective of one who hasn’t seen the films. - MM]

The assumptions we make about the cinema we don’t imagine we’ll ever see usually say as much about our ignorance as our wisdom. Our willingness to overlook art that carries certain social associations usually comes back to bite us. Listening to the music of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance made me think that I’d been unjustifiably arrogant about the films of Park Chanwook, the Korean filmmaker whose films to date (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy) have obtained cult popularity and moral disapproval from mainstream critical press, a unit remarkably amoral itself when it wants to be. The plot reads as the edifying kind of material I’d expect given Park Chanwook’s previous violent subject matter:

Leaping backwards and forwards in its chronology, the film follows the tortured path of its titular Lady Vengeance, Geum-ja, who has served thirteen years in prison for abducting and suffocating a young boy. As soon becomes apparent, Geum-ja was not responsible for the boy’s death, but was in fact taking the wrap for her boyfriend, Mr. Baek, an infanticidal school teacher who has kidnapped Geum-ja’s own daughter for blackmail. Episodic and lighthearted, much of the film’s first half is constructed around her formative years in prison, in which she feigns a religious awakening (and an infectious spiritual radiance) in order to plot an early release and the details of her revenge. With her charm and seeming innocence, she assembles a loyal team of female convicts around her, and once released, she’s all business. (http://www.notcoming.com/reviews.php?id=531)

It sounds like pretty black comedy, the type that could easily double as pornography for those with a fascination for stylized violence. And I made the worst assumptions about the music for the piece. I suppose I expected the synthetic drones of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. Or the electronic apocalyptica of The Dust Brothers’ Fight Club. Or pastiche and referential pop a la Tarantino. (Which can be remarkably enjoyable, as in Kill Bill Vol. 1.) Even something along the lines of Kenji Kawai’s score for Ghost in the Shell or its recent sequel Innocence wouldn’t have surprised me. (Nor displeased me, as they’re good scores.) So imagine my surprise to find that Park Chanwook’s final film in his revenge trilogy is scored in a manner not dissimilar to Lars von Trier’s Dogville of all things, with adaptations of baroque classics, and original compositions within that idiom. It stands out as a fresh work, and ironically so for relying on one of the oldest annotated musical traditions.

Of course there’s a world of difference between what von Trier and Park are up to. Von Trier uses the baroque pieces – Vivaldi, Albinoni, et al – as an ironic comment that goes hand-in-hand with John Hurt’s oh-so-sarcastic narration, a mockery of the Paul Bettany character’s paradoxical and confused Enlightenment aspirations and realpolitik actions. In Park’s vengeance fantasy, I suspect the baroque sound is very much a part of a formalism that is the director’s trademark, and also that of his methodically vengeful characters. It does for revenge what Kubrick’s use of a Schubert trio did for opportunistic wooing in Barry Lyndon, and with a similar sense of irony. Lady Vengeance and her predecessors in the trilogy serve their vengeance with plotting that would put most Elizabethan revengers to shame. The idea is that the formal modes of Vivaldi, Paganini and others suit the premeditation better than the sentimental romanticism of vengeance that might be suggested by nineteenth century romantic writing for orchestra and opera. (Though both of the latter have been used for schemes of vengeance, with the climaxes of the Godfather films immediately coming to mind.)

The performing group is the Mo-Ho Baroque ensemble, and while their renditions of classics and new material probably isn’t the epitome of baroque technique (I wouldn’t know myself), there is definite character to their reading of the material. [And possibly, as Tina suggests above, performance is tailored to dramatic effect, not technical perfection.] Vivaldi’s ‘Cessate, Omai Cessate’ is adapted as the film’s main theme, also presented as an alternate take at the end of the album. It’s sinuous violin melody over stately string rhythms sets the tone for revenge as a dish served cold. ‘The Witch’ re-arranges Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 in A Minor, the piece similarly showcasing a strong violin theme. More ambivalent are the adaptations from Vivaldi concertos – the ‘Sunny Afternoon’ is an allegro without the solo emphasis, ‘You’ve Changed’ (Concerto No. 3) again uses the violin to characterize Lady Vengeance, and the tellingly-titled ‘Crime and Punishment’ uses the spiccato effect in a body of strings from Concerto No. 2 to forebode payback. The classical adaptations are rounded out with a lengthy vocal piece that one imagines accompanying a Godfather-like final killing montage.

The underscore by Jo Yeong-wook and his collaborators (the delineation between composition, production, etc is unclear) steps slightly outside the parameters of baroque pastiche, drawing on a wider range of influences. ‘Guemja’s Prayer’ sets out a harpsichord melody with swelling string harmonies and full orchestral accompaniment – it speaks of vengeance that gathers strength, though it starts in a small voice. It’s a strong theme, and reappears frequently. In ‘A Spy’, it appears in more gradual rhythms. ‘Letter’ holds off from the climactic measures, and ‘Marble’ is a more extended treatment – the best rendition on the album. And there’s more to the underscore than the theme. ‘Unhappy Party’ is a fast waltz with prominent woodwind solos. It nudges its way towards ‘Geum-ja’s Prayer’, but holds off on the satisfaction of its opening measures for a more ambivalent feel. ‘Farewell’ features a lovely short flute melody. ‘Lullaby’ is a harpsichord melody adapted from a traditional Spanish melody. The lullaby is presented in music-box form in the concluding track, first accompanied by oboe, and building to orchestral heights by its end.

‘Angel’ is another deft interpolation, this time of a Russian melody with orchestration more suggestive of the late nineteenth century / early twentieth century. It plays as slightly sentimental in the context of the fairly detached and form-driven underscore around it. Also a little bit of a mismatch is ‘Wicked Cake’, featuring more traditional piano writing for thrillers. John Williams or Bernard Herrmann could have written this and counted it as a lesser piece, though it adds a nice variety to the violin-and-harpsichord dominated cue list.

I enjoyed this album. It made me feel like I’d underestimated the director-composer team behind the film a great deal, and encouraged me to watch one of Park Chanwook’s vengeance trilogy sometime, if only to see how the musical choices made here payoff in the context of the film.

Michael McLennan


Track Listing:

  1. Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (02:26)
    Adapted from Vivaldi's Cantata "Cessate, Omai Cessate", RV 684 "Ah ch'infelische Sempre"
  2. Guemja's Prayer (01:44)
  3. None of Your Business (02:46)
  4. A Witch (04:44)
    Adapted from Paganini's Caprice No. 24 in A minor - Quasi presto
  5. A Spy (00:56)
  6. Fatality (02:40)
  7. Sunny Afternoon (01:30)
    Adapted from Vivaldi's Concerto for Strings in A major, RV 159, Allegro
  8. You've Changed (01:31)
    Adapted from Vivaldi's Concerto No. 3 in G major, RV 310, Largo
  9. Marble (02:12)
  10. The Angel (01:04)
  11. Farewell (00:34)
  12. Lullaby (01:49)
    Adapted from a traditional lullaby
  13. The Letter (01:19)
  14. Crime and Punishment (01:31)
    Adapted from Vivaldi's Concerto No. 2 in G minor, RV 578, Adagio e spiccato
  15. Pull The Trigger (00:39)
    Adapted from Vivaldi's Concerto for Bassoon in E minor, RV 484, Allegro
  16. Wicked Cake (02:47)
  17. Unhappy Party (03:08)
  18. Mareta, Mareta No'm Faces Plorar (06:02)
    Anon, Alicante/Jordi Saval, performed by Montserrat Figueras & Arianna Savall
  19. Sympathy For Lady Vegeance (alternate take) (02:21)
  20. Lullaby (alternate take) (03:17)

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