Park Chan-wook, 2005
Starring: Yeong-ae Lee, Min-sik Choi, Shi-hoo Kim, Yea-young Kwon
Chinjeolhan Geumjassi aka Sympathy for Lady Vengeance or Lady Vengeance literally translates as “The Kind Ms. Geum-ja” and concerns a woman framed for murder who seeks revenge when she is released from over a decade in prison. Lee Geum-ja confessed to the kidnapping and murder of a young boy because she was blackmailed by the real killer, a schoolteacher named Mr. Baek. The film jumps from her life in prison to her present quest for vengeance. In prison she was given the nickname “the kind Ms. Geum-ja,” because of the sweet, selflessness acts she performed on behalf of other prisoners. After she is released, she discards her kind persona, dons red eye make-up and manipulates many of the released prisoners into helping her with her plan for revenge.
Baek kidnapped Geum-ja’s baby daughter as blackmail and part of her plan is to track down her now teenaged daughter and make amends. Baek, meanwhile, figures out her plan and ambushes his girlfriend (another ex-con put in place by Geum-ja) and attempts to have Geum-ja and her daughter kidnapped. This does not go particularly well for Baek, who is almost killed, until Geum-ja discovers something terrible. Baek has souvenirs from multiple child victims. She discovers tapes he made of the other murdered children and contacts their parents and the detective in charge of the boy’s case, who always believed she was innocent.
The group converges in an old, abandoned school where Baek used to work as a teacher. Geum-ja shows the parents the videos of their children and proposes that they vote to turn him in or kill him themselves. After some difficult discussion, they choose the latter option, with each parent taking part in the murder and burial. They have an uncomfortable celebration with a cake Geum-ja has made and sing “Happy Birthday” to their dead children. Geum-ja brings her daughter a white cake, symbolic of purity and absence of sin. Her daughter offers it to Geum-ja instead, who sobs and buries her face in the cake.
The concluding to chapter to Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy after Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and the more famous Oldboy, Lady Vengeance is a different film from its predecessors for three primary reasons. First, Baek is indisputably a villain with no sympathetic backstory or motivations. Second, though the film is driven by a heroine, it is essentially a tale of group retribution. Finally, though Geum-ja has a detailed plan for revenge, she is primarily concerned with atonement. The film is seeped with religious imagery, dipping into both Christian and Buddhist symbolism for themes of forgiveness and confession. Ritual activity is more important than in either of the previous films and, as in Oldboy, food caries a major symbolic significance that repeats throughout the film.
At its heart, Lady Vengeance is a stylized melodrama, which is perhaps a nod to Lee Young Ae’s status as one of the most popular actresses in Korea. Geum-ja’s transformation from sweet saint of the prison to black-clad demon of vengeance is also, in part, a transformation of Lee’s persona. Though the film has the same visual flair and attention to detail as the rest of the trilogy, it is less subtle or minimalistic than Sympathy but not as flashy or noir-influenced as Oldboy. Park moves from rich colors and textures towards an emphasis on black, white and red. There are actually two versions of Lady Vengeance - the theatrical release and a “Fade to Black and White” version, where the colors are gradually leached from the film. The score by Choi Seung-hyun is baroque-influenced and includes a version of the theme from Vivaldi’s "Cessate, omai cessate," where a woman sings about getting revenge on the man who betrayed her.
Lady Vengeance did very well in Korean theatres, but received mixed reviews worldwide, probably due to the very different nature of the film. Though it is somewhat flawed in terms of plot development, it deals with more mature issues than either of the previous films. Park questions the nature of trauma and catharsis, as well as what happens when revenge is complete, how it transforms identity and whether or not we can ever change back into the person we once were.
The strong bond between Lady Vengeance and the other two films of the trilogy lies in thematic content. They all contains the same elements of irony and the absurd, as well as similar plot points like kidnapping, imprisonment, communication barriers and domestic tragedy. Park also uses a lot of the same actors, including Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik. Looking out for all the overlapping cameos is like the “Where’s Waldo” of Korean revenge cinema, particularly because Park and fellow horror director Kim Ji-woon frequently share cast members. Many of the same actors can be found in Kim’s A Bittersweet Life, A Tale of Two Sisters, and I Saw the Devil, where Choi Min-sik plays the villain.
As in Jacobean revenge tragedy, each film in Park’s trilogy is set up around a murder mystery, characters struggle with madness, the violence is sensational if almost comic and there are even occasional visits from ghosts. Fantasy is particularly important in all three films and Park takes particular care to stress that revenge and revenge cinema represent a fantasy and the purging of wrongdoing through sadomasochistic spectacle only results in tragedy and disaster. I suspect that some of his plot points are not completely believable for the simple fact that verisimilitude is not a high priority and is sacrificed in favor of emotion. All three films state irrevocably that life is pain and the only possible salvation comes from love, even though it is often another source of pain.
As with the rest of the trilogy, Lady Vengeance comes highly recommended. It is available on DVD from Tartan Video, which includes a making of, interviews, and several commentaries.