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Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

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Chan-Wook Park
Lee Yeung-ae
Choi Min-sik
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After the huge international success of “Oldboy”, anticipation for the final chapter in director Chan-Wook Park’s thematically linked so-called “Vengeance Trilogy” is sky high. And deservedly so – upon reflection both of the previous films (“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”, & “Oldboy”) I would now rank as being my favourite release from their respective years. If “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” is therefore to rank as the least of the trilogy, then it’s more to do with the fact that the bar has been raised immensely high, rather than any great flaw in this newest film. In fact, “Lady Vengeance” in an intelligent & accomplished piece of filmmaking, & ranks as one of the highlights of my cinema-going year.
Geum-ja (Lee Yeung-ae) is released from prison after 13 years for kidnapping & murdering a child. Inside her various acts of kindness & cruelty have earned her the reputations of being either a witch or an angel. Outside the prison, she is met by a choir who sing of her kindness, & a priest who offers her white tofu to symbolise her purity. She knocks the tofu to the ground & stalks away, for whilst inside she has been putting together a plan for vengeance. But for whom, & for what? And will this path provide her with salvation & peace?
First to state the fairly obvious – if you go into “Lady Vengeance” expecting “Oldboy 2”, you’re going to be pretty disappointed. Just as “Oldboy” is a very different film to “Mr Vengeance”, so “Lady Vengeance” is very different again, both stylistically & tonally. Perhaps wisely, the director seems to have no interest in simply replicating neither the complex & shocking brutality of “Mr Vengeance”, nor the manga-inspired kinetic thrills of “Oldboy”. Instead, “Lady Vengeance” is a brilliantly controlled icy black comedy. The plotting too, is less complex & twisty than its predecessors, although by no means incapable of throwing in some unexpected kinks out of left field.
Despite these differences, the film is littered with references to the previous two films – for example some of the framing is reminiscent of “Mr. Vengeance”, & like that film the plot revolves around a child kidnapping gone wrong. The plot also takes in a character imprisoned for a long time, who is released to take vengeance like “Oldboy”, whilst Lady Vengeance’s apartment is visually reminiscent of that films hotel-room prison.
The first hour or so introduces us to Geum-ja as she is released from prison, & follows her as she starts to visit friends she made whilst inside, & we flashback to events during her incarceration. There are hints of some cunning “plan” she’s been working on for years, but it’s not until the audience is let in on the truthful reason behind her imprisonment that the plan finally starts to swing into action & the narrative really begins to move forward. There’s also a confident shift in focus as the film becomes something of a meditation upon the ethics of revenge & a final unexpected narrative turn sidelines Geum-ja herself whilst pointing up the glorious absurdity of revenge. Here the film presents a big departure from the previous two films, in that the person who is having revenge wreaked upon them (played by “Oldboy”s Choi-Mink Sik) is almost entirely unsympathetic. This is in stark contrast to the conflicted loyalties of “Mr. Vengeance”, where the audience could empathise with both parties, but it adds a new layer to the trilogy & is an aspect of revenge that the previous films had not covered. Indeed, for much of the first hour Lady Vengeance herself is not particularly sympathetic either – she’s had many years in prison coming to terms with what has happened & coming up with her plan (neither of which the audience are privy to until half-way in) so she comes off as something of an icy bitch. That iciness – reflected in the gorgeous winter setting – infects the film as a whole, making it less immediately emotionally resonant than the earlier two films, although its cumulative effect lingers long after the end credits have rolled.
In terms of the violence expected of any revenge film, “Lady Vengeance” does contain its fair share of nasty moments. It is, however, rather more restrained than the previous films & is at least as reliant upon the suggestion of things just outside of the frame for its unsettling effect as it us upon stark depictions of bloodletting. Don’t be too put off though – there were certainly moments here that had me squirming in my seat.
One element where the film really scores in its startling visual prowess. The director seems to have been increasing in confidence of pure cinematic style with each successive release, & “Lady Vengeance” is arguably his best looking film to date. Re-uniting with his DoP & lighting director team from “Oldboy”, the use of icy colours (which move to almost monochrome towards the climax) is simply gorgeous, & set off by the director’s continually inventive choice of angles, lenses, camera movements & editing. Like “Oldboy”, there are sequences that border on pure cinematic poetry, the visuals synching perfectly with the spot-on score by Jo Young-wook & Choe Seung-hyun – also “Oldboy” veterans who blend Vivaldi excerpts into their original music to stunning effect.
The performances throughout are terrific, particularly Lee Yeung-ae (a veteran of the director’s “JSA”) as Geum-ja. A real departure from the type of roles she is normally associated with, her cool femme fatale poses mask a soul who has lost everything & who increasingly understands her actions will not bring the catharsis or salvation she craves.
Whilst it may not be quite so startlingly original as his last two films, for this third revenge film Park Chan-wook has pushed the idea into directions new to him & produced a film filled with complex morals, rigorous intelligence, finely-tuned performances, amazing visual style & topped with a moving climax. It goes without saying that it’s a must-see, & cements the ‘Revenge Trilogy’s position alongside the likes of ‘Three Colours’ a major achievement in world cinema. 

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