Sympathy for Lady Vengeance Movie Review
It starts with the release of Lady Vengeance aka Lee Geum-Ja (Yeong-ae Lee) from prison. She was set up for the kidnapping and murder of a young child when she was 19, fearing the real murderer would kill her young daughter. Well, now she's out, and heaven knows what was sowed is going to be reaped. Lady Vengeance sets up an elaborate plan to get revenge for her and all the families of the kids who were killed by Mr. Baek (Choi Min-Sik), an elementary school teacher. She uses every contact she has made in and outside of prison to set up a good life and a good way to avenge the children who were murdered.
The film spends much time supplying us with sometimes useless but consistently hilarious flashbacks to Geum-Ja in prison, where she was called sweet and referred to as "The Kind Ms. Geum-Ja." Yeah, right. Lady Vengeance makes plenty of friends when she disposes of "The Witch" (Go Su-heui), a disgusting bull-dyke who forces other inmates to go down on her and serve her in other ways, threatening disfigurement and death if she is not pleased. The way she takes care of the Witch is pleasant compared to how she dispatches Mr. Baek. (But spoiling her means of taking care of Baek should carry a five-year prison sentence.)
Bad news first: The over-stylized nature of the film makes it much less intense and riveting than Park's last two films. That exhilarating moment in Oldboy where Gang Hye-jung is crying on the subway while a human-sized ant sits at the other end of the train is gone. Instead, the surrealism of that moment become silly moments of outrageous humor. It's a switch of tone that is hard to settle into, but it doesn't hurt the film in the long run. Park uses visual effects not to create monsters or great armies, but to bring unbelievable space and depth to his images. The shot of Lady Vengeance at an abandoned school, using a puppy as a test subject for her new revolver, enraptures and covers the viewer, and there are at least five other shots like that.
As in all his films, Park has a special talent with the actors. Yeong-ae Lee has contagious fun with the character but she knows that Lady Vengeance is a tainted woman with deep emotional scars. Her quest for vengeance seems to run right along with her need to redeem herself to be a mother, and Lee has little problem showing the throbbing heart underneath the dark mind. It's an outstanding performance. On the other side is the reliably brilliant Choi Min-Sik as Mr. Baek. Min-Sik has little or no trouble finding the fierce perversity and formidable evil that Baek is capable of. Although we hardly see an act of cruelty on screen, it's easy to see him as a purveyor of it.
In the end, it all comes back to Park, a master filmmaker, and his ability to surprise us even when we think we have it all figured out. His talents at blending dark humor and images of unrelenting terror can only be equaled by Todd Solondz and Quentin Tarantino. He bears more of a stylistic resemblance to Jean Pierre Jeunet than any of his Three... Extremes cohorts: the way that Jeunet held his style in check until the indelibly charming Amelie mirrors Park's tidal wave of stylistic choices and buoyantly colorful production schemes here. However, when we look at that last shot of Lady Vengeance, her daughter, and her lover standing in the snow (cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hun creates miraculous imagery), there is little doubt that Park doesn't just want us to see this as another Death Wish. He wants to get into the black heart of revenge, and his films are testaments to that journey.
Aka Chinjeolhan geumjassi.
Reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival.