Friday, January 21, 2011

Lady Vengeance

The final film in director Chan-Wook Park's Vengeance trilogy, Lady Vengeance (2005) begins with Geum-Ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee) being released from prison after 13 years, having served a conviction for kidnapping and killing a child. She gained notoriety for the crime because she was only 19 at the time and displayed a fairly sweet, naive nature. The time in prison has hardened Geum-Ja, making her cold and calculating, even though she got released by projecting a spiritual transformation. Rejecting religion, she begins calling in favors from the people she knew in jail and orchestrates a plan of vengeance against Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi).

Park's films are certainly an acquired taste. They are strongly acted, the cinematography is beautifully composed, and Park raises a lot of provocative questions. This is not a mindless Death Wish fantasy glorifying vigilantism and revenge but a careful examination of what revenge does to a person, how they cope with tragedy and loss, and what the consequences of their actions are. But they are also challenging to watch. The subject matter can be dark, the violence is brutal almost to the point of repulsiveness, the pace is slow that it's possible to grow impatient, and there's a fair degree of gallows humor people might think is in bad taste.

Don't watch expecting the Korean version of Kill Bill. While is Geum-Ja is certainly a woman of action and resolve, this is not a tongue-in-cheek, overly-stylized Kung Fu extravaganza. I don't think there's anything truly qualifying as an action scene, and the violence is not something to cheer for or giggle at. It's messy, and in between the blood, we follow Geum-Ja as she conducts her vengeance. Rather than explain up front why she does what she does, Park holds off exposition, gradually revealing the truth as the film progresses, and this creates investment in seeing the movie through. We want to know what Mr. Baek did, and we want to see how Geum-Ja will act against him. Everything falls in to place by the end.


About two-thirds of the way through, I believed I had figured the plot out and was waiting for its foregone conclusion when the true, sick nature of Baek is revealed. When Geum-Ja and the detective find the snuff films of the other children Baek has killed, it is chilling. When the parents of the murdered children watch the footage, it's heart-breaking and sickening. This part has bothered me to a degree; I question whether it would be wise of any police officer to show that kind of footage to the parents. The only justification (or rationalization) I can think of is to show them exactly what he did, so they are fully informed when the vote whether to kill or turn him in, but doing that stacks the deck for killing him, I think. These parents have gone through the pain of losing their children twice, once by kidnapping and then learning they're dead. What good does showing the children crying and murdered do? (I should note we don't witness violence against the children. It's suggested.). That said the scene where they don rain coats and take turns torturing Baek is effective. Revenge is not a dish served cold here; it's a drawn-out, painful affair, and as one father says, it won't bring the children back.


As I said, Lady Vengeance is not a mindless revenge romp. It's well made, deliberate, and thoughtful but certainly not for everyone.

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