Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Movie Review: "Lady Vengeance"

This is part 4 of my Park Chan-Wook retrospective

"Lady Vengeance" is the perfect capstone to a series of films that each subvert the conventions of traditional revenge thrillers in different ways: "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance"  removes the divide between hero and villain, sympathizing with every member of the cast. "Oldboy" denies the hero catharsis or even victory. And "Lady Vengeance" depicts a heroine who gets her revenge, but learns that what she really needs is to be forgiven. That proves much more difficult.

The titular Lee Geum-ja ("Lee Yeong-ae") is released from prison after serving 13 years for kidnapping and murdering a young boy named Won-mo. In truth, she was intimidated into assisting the vile teacher Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik) who threatened to kill her newborn child. In the end, she took the fall for the crime, and in the process became a media sensation. The nation fell in love with her youth and beauty, and watched as she had a very vocal religious conversion behind bars, and cultivated a reputation as "Kind-hearted Ms. Geum-ja" (the Korean title of the film, incidentally).

Of course, this was all an act. Behind this mask of virtue, Geum-ja was plotting an epic revenge scheme, forming alliances with other inmates in order to cash in favors from them upon her release. Now that she's out, she suits up on a black coat and puts on shocking red eyeliner: war paint for her costume as an avenging angel. The revenge scheme goes off without too much trouble, but is only one element of a pretty wide-ranging plot that is not afraid of digressions.

This is the most stylistically restless film Park had made to this point, shifting in tone from grim and violent to practically comedic at the drop of a hat. It feels very theatrical, with devices such as the baroque soundtrack and jumbled chronology serving to distance us from the proceedings. The omniscient narrator's identity remains secret until the end of the film, but she tells us events that she could not possibly have seen firsthand. Like "Mr. Vengeance", we are meant to process this story as a parable, with a lesson in mind.

As I mentioned, the narrative jumps around to all sorts of tangents: each of the prisoners Geum-ja befriends gets their own little vignette, revealing that Geum-ja dirtied her hands quite a bit on the inside. My favorite is the story of a married couple very much in love with each other... and armed robbery. Once freed, Geum-ja tracks down her daughter, now living in Australia and a pouty little bastard about it. And she starts a love affair with a  goofy young man solely because he's the same age Won-mo would be were he still alive.

Geum-ja's rage against Baek is muddled by the fact that she was partially responsible for Won-mo's murder. She visits the home of his parents and begins chopping off her fingers one by one in their living room until they will forgive her. Yet this gesture, dramatic as it is, proves to be pointless. In "Lady Vengeance" Park plays a lot with Christian imagery and themes, casting doubt on the idea that you can just fall on your knees and beg God to cleanse your soul. Geum-ja's ultimate quest is not to kill Baek, but to be forgiven. Forgiven for Won-mo's death, for giving up her daughter and for all of the other wrongs she has committed to get to this point. She despairs when she realizes that that this may be impossible.

The stakes are raised further when she learns that Baek killed several more children after Won-mo, whose deaths would have been avoided had she turned him in. Wracked with guilt she (barely) restrains herself from killing him, and instead assembles a kangaroo court comprised of the dead children's relatives. She offers them a choice: Turn Baek in to face a long jail sentence, or exact a "more personal" revenge. This surreal segment is the grimmest of the film, intellectualizing vengeance to the point where it becomes almost mechanical. How satisfying can it be to get your knock in on an incapacitated man years after the original crime was committed? And still, even if Baek is successfully murdered, it's not going to bring anyone back, is it?

This has been the hardest film for me to wrap my head around up to this point in the retrospective. "Lady Vengeance" is nowhere near as airtight as "Mr Vengeance", but it's not that sort of movie. The narrative is big, emotional, wreckless, and messy. But Park's direction remains tightly controlled, and this is perhaps the most cinematically rich film he's made to date. I have spent hours attempting to unpack it in a short review and I just can't do it justice. What I can tell you is that I love it, and it's a damned shame that it's not generally given the same recognition as its siblings.

Other films directed by Park Chan-wook:

The Moon... is the Sun's Dream (1992)
Trio (1997)
Joint Security Area (2000)
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
Oldboy (2003)
Lady Vengeance (2005)
I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006)
Thirst (2009)
Stoker (2013)

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