(Release Date: July 29, 2005 [South Korea])
(United States Premiere Date: September 30, 2005 [New York Film Festival])
Lady Vengeance (as it has been released in the US and UK) seems to come full circle in Park's saga, adopting many of the elements of the other two films. Central to the plot is a child abduction gone horribly wrong, yet also central to the story is a reprisal planned during years of imprisonment. Even the Kidney plot of the first film is winked at, and the star of the second story, Choi Min-sik is featured prominently in this final chapter. In spite of the noteworthy similarities and self-references, Lady Vengeance is a completely unique and strikingly original film that has its own exciting, touching and disturbing plot.
The kindest girl in prison is being released after discovering that she can invoke the angel within her. After the ugliness of a ransom-kidnapping turned accidental death, our heroine has become a model prisoner, inspiration to people both in and outside the prison block and borderline Christian Evangelist. However, upon her parole Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) rejects the church group that counseled her and begins to look up old prison acquaintances, cashing in old favors and cutting a bloody trail on her way to her accomplice (the rectal-polyp whose idea the kidnapping actually was). After thirteen years of imprisonment it's time to get even with Mr. Baek (Choi), the man who took away her life (and her newborn daughter) away from her at the green age of only nineteen.
What begins as a standard revenge black comedy in the vein of any part of Park's Revenge Trilogy and Tarantino's Kill Bill duo, quickly evolves into a complex and visually stunning art film that pushes past the previous entries for accolades all its own.
Told in a linear narrative from the moment she leaves jail, Lady Vengeance is interlaced with temporally disjointed flashback sequences which fill in the gaps and deeply enrich the tale step by step. At first, sweet Geum-ja is on her warpath for Baek as payback for the injustice of her isolation and the theft of the person, the mother that she could have been. However, as the tale progresses we find out just how Geum-ja honed her craft, what she has been up to for thirteen years, just what marionettes she's controlling in the theatre of Seoul and exactly how and why she demands this kind of loyalty from her fellow prisoners.
However, as frightening as some of these things may be (she's both an angel and a witch) that's nothing compared to the shocking depths in which she finds Baek. In Oldboy, Choi Min-sik went from a yuppie suit and tie guy to a scarred madman by the final sequence. Here he has the opportunity and curse to play both characters at the same time. Here Park and co-writer Jeong Seo-Gyeong dispense with the series tradition of cyclical revenge, in which each character on their respective warpath both deserves their revenge and to have revenge meted upon them. Here there is no question that Choi's Baek is fully worth every ounce of wrath that the beautiful Geum-ja has to offer him, and much, much more. It actually got to the point that I wanted to crawl up on screen and take my boot off up his ass, myself.
To this end, Lady Vengeance manages to be less violent and less bloody than either of the previous films. Somehow Lady Vengeance also manages to be much more disturbing on a much deeper level. While it's true that there is blood and gore in this film, this is a much more artistic and crafted movie during which most of the violence takes place off-screen, punctuating the already brilliant story. Still, Lady Vengeance pushes the nausea threshold of any sane viewer on a much more psychological and disconcerting level. It's this stomach-churning sickness that pushes the limits of the audience's constitutions, but at the same time makes the comeuppance we eventually are rewarded with all the more satisfying. This movie asks some bold questions about the nature of revenge, the depths of psychosis, the depravity of humanity, the rights of the parents of murdered children and the responsibility and entitlement of the guilty.
All of this combines to make a fantastic and enriching film. Truly, above all of these things, it's Park Chan-wook's directing that makes Sympathy for Lady Vengeance so very good. The screenplay makes for a superb story, but Park's storytelling is the element that truly sells this tale. Let's face it, the trilogy's strange dreaminess is pushed to the Nth degree here, intoxicating the audience with its surreality. The fact that the audience buys this story every step of the way is a credit to Park's artistic proficiency. Further, Park supplements his directorial style with tasteful special effects, using the screen as a canvass upon which to paint this shocking and touching portrait of many a soul. Fascinating camera angles, the use of long periods of time without cuts and the thrilling mixture of real-time blocking with juxtaposed framing shows just how much an already excellent director has improved his craft.
Park probably could have made this movie work with pipe cleaner puppets and cardboard cut-outs. However, he had an incredible cast to work with as well. Obviously Choi is superb (evoking a hatred in the audience most wouldn't believe), but Lee Yeong-ae steals her own show here. With her red eye shadow and distant stare, Lee manages to present the beautiful face of a porcelain doll in one scene and then to twist it into the face of a killer within seconds. It's hard to imagine anyone portraying such a multi-faceted and layered character as Geum-ja better than Lee. An enchanting portrayal of Geum-ja's now teenaged daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young) and her Australian adoptive parents (Tony Barry and Anne Cordiner) doesn't hurt a bit either. Park Chan-wook isn't just having fun casting his stars from his Revenge Trilogy as well as his 2000 film Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA, he packs as many Park-Flick-Veterans into this film's 112 minutes as he can fit. Appearing to say "Wazzap" are Kang Hye-jeong, Kim Byeong-ok, Lee Dae-yeon, Lee Seung-Shin, Oh Dal-su, Oh Kwang-rok, Yu Ji-tae, Yun Jin-seo and most notably Song Kang-ho in a gritty cameo. (I feel like I just recited the Seoul Telephone Directory.)
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the humor in this film. With subjects as dark and heart-murmur-inspiring as those shown here, it's amazing to find that Park still manages that old black comedy magic with aplomb! Park uses his familiar spin on humor to not only weave this tapestry, but also to punctuate his intentions. Certain rough, borderline vile, acts are decorated with uncomfortable laughs when portrayed by our protagonist. However, the truly sick and corrupt debauchery is played at its very coldest and joyless. This modus operandi makes the reprisal we observe feel like our first breath after almost drowning. Trust me, you'll be happy to laugh at the right time... you'll need it.
Once again, Park succeeds in crafting a superb revenge thriller, rife with comic darkness, touching sweetness and disturbing sickness. The completeness of art found in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance helps to make this Park's best and most compelling film. Lady Vengeance makes no excuses for its vengeful and cold theme, but it does manage to balance this with incredible filmmaking, great writing, acting and the skill to make art of revenge. Four and One Half Stars out of Five for Sympathy for Lady Vengeance! It's a surreal nightmare to say the least, and makes both Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance look like episodes of Seseme Street or 3-2-1 Contact by comparison to the "hard-to-watch" factor shown here. Amazingly, it's handled in the mind, with what we do not see taking us over. If you can find it in theatres (I caught it during a seven day run at the Nuart in Los Angeles) see it, or, buy it on NTSC DVD while you can! Meanwhile I'll be apologizing to everyone I've ever pissed off. I've learned that one cannot be too careful. See you in the next reel. Anyong.
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