Lady Vengeance, the final third in Chan-wook Park’s “revenge trilogy” of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, is everything a movie should be: great entertainment, a work of visual art, and a thought-provoking meditation on everything it brings up. Without ruining any of the details (and to ruin a movie like this is a cardinal sin) I will say that it contains elements of both Sympathy and Oldboy, in terms of its plot, structure, style and themes. It is at times also as blackly funny and horrifying as both of those movies, and like them it is only about revenge in an indirect way. Its real subjects are sin and redemption, innocence and culpability — in short, all the things that the other movies in the trilogy were also obsessed with, and which also gave them the flavor of classic tragedy.
Vengeance opens in the middle of things, much as Oldboy began in the middle of things: the real story has actually started much earlier. A woman named Geum-ja (JSA’s Yeong-ae Lee) is released from prison, having served a thirteen-year sentence for abducting and murdering a three-year-old boy. Inside the prison, she was a “kindly angel”, extending a helping hand to all who needed it, but upon her release she immediately becomes cold and withdrawn. This change in behavior comes hardest of all to her spiritual father, a priest who has taken an interest in her case; in fact, Geum-ja’s first words to him upon being released are “Why don’t you go fuck yourself?”
Geum-ja spent thirteen years in prison for murdering a child, no thanks
to the perfidy of another man. Once out, she begins to plan revenge.
The crime she committed created a national sensation — there is an unexpectedly funny throwaway line about some unscrupulous movie director is going to make a film about her life — and so while she is anathema to the public at large, she remains close with all of those she knew in prison despite her change in demeanor. She has been working on a plan to get revenge on Mr. Baek, the man who blackmailed her into killing the boy — and there are lingering questions as to whether or not she even committed the murder in question. To that end she assembles help, both wittingly and unwittingly, from her cellmates: from a senile North Korean spy, a design for a peculiar gun; from a machine-shop owner and his wife, its construction; from a baker who met her in prison, a job.
When Geum-ja forms a relationship, however one-sided and parasitic, with a young co-worker, she tells him more. She’d moved in with Baek after getting pregnant, and he had used her to execute a kidnapping / blackmailing scheme. When she refused to go along he held her child for ransom, then gave the baby up for adoption after she went to prison. It is also revealed by degrees that her kindness in prison was perhaps only a mask, that her generosity may have been earned only through fear, and that what others do for her after prison may come not out of gratitude but a kind of unspoken terror.
Then, one by one, there are a succession of twists. First comes when Geum-ja finds her missing daughter, Jenny, now living happily with an Australian couple. This is played out in an extended sequence which begins wistfully and then by degrees mutates into black comedy: the girl wants to go back and see Korea herself, and goes so far as to threaten suicide to do it. The way this is handled is a classic Park tableau: first, the girl with a knife to her own throat; then a 180-degree camera reversal showing the parents and Geum-ja on the couch, frozen in horror. Of course, the presence of her daughter comes as both a relief and a complication: now she has to include him in her plans, and explain (shilling for confess) to her why she was “dumped” (Jenny’s word).
Then there is another revelation, one even more horrible, about the real nature of what was done to her and why. When it comes, it opens like a trap-door under Geum-ja’s own feet as much as it does the audience’s. Because of what she learns, she must make a completely different variety of moral decision, one which involves other people and not simply her own thirst for revenge. That she has steeled herself to kill for this long becomes almost irrelevant. She must now turn the responsibility of this matter over to others who have not steeled themselves to kill, but who are willing to do something even more troubling: diffuse the responsibility for murder among each of them.
With help from her former inmates, she's able to track down her betrayer,
and create a weapon that she has to steel herself into being able to use.
Like the two films before it, Lady is a showcase for stylized direction gone right. Park uses CGI, saturated colors, “impossible” camera moves and many other presentational tricks to complement the film, not drown it out. At one point, for instance, Park make use of ambient audio as he did in Sympathy: as an extension of the goings-on onscreen. When Geum-ja explains how the kidnapping went wrong, we hear noises in the adjoining apartment that are like Greek choruses to her words. Prisoners’ recollections of Geum-ja’s kindness are accented with comic-book-like exaggerations (as when a halo appears around her head and she glows with saintly light). The first half of the movie is more stylistically flamboyant and fanciful, the second half more controlled and somber but no less impressive.
Park finds graphic and striking ways to make his characters embody their natures. In Oldboy the main character wolfed down a live squid to feel that much more alive; here, Geum-ja mashes her own face into a white cake and stuffs it into her mouth to feel that much more pure. Earlier, after leaving prison, Geum-ja rouges her eyes and dresses in an ankle-length leather raincoat to make herself look all the more predatory. When she obtains her weapon, she dry-fires it at Jenny’s dog — not out of sadism against the dog, but to simply see if she can stomach putting a gun to a dog’s face. If she can’t do that to a dog, what are the odds she can do that to a human being, even someone who murdered a child without remorse?
When Geum-ja's daughter turns up, it forces her to reconsider her approach to the plan:
Can she make her daughter a party to her revenge? Should she?
Korea has a fairly diverse pool of actors to choose from, but Park has stayed with many familiar faces from the last two films, and even earlier, to good effect. Yeong-ae Lee was impressive in JSA (although her accent derailed many of her English-language lines), but she commands the whole of Lady without fault, and is equally credible as both a 19-year-old girl and a 35-year-old woman. Even more fascinating is the choice of Min-sik Choi — from Oldboy — as the man responsible for Geum-ja’s torments. This movie demands a completely different kind of performance and demeanor from him than Oldboy did, and he delivers it: he gives us a pathetic, dismal little man who did horrible things out of complete cynicism, and who shows no courage in the face of death. He is not even the most important character, and both the film and his performance in it reflect that.
Someone asked me not long ago what the difference between Japanese and Korean cinema is, aside from the most obvious cultural ones. I thought about it and said: Most Japanese films are about giving it your all, regardless of the morality of the situation. Korean movies are more preoccupied with the morality itself, with guilt and redemption — and given that Korea has a more avowedly Christian populace than Japan does, that’s not surprising. All three of the Vengeance films, Park’s earlier JSA, Korea’s ur-blockbuster Shiri, the brilliantly mad Save the Green Planet! — all feature characters tinged with the need to find forgiveness not simply in the eyes of peers or parents but in the eyes of God. Geum-ja wants not only revenge but absolution for her sins, whether they were sins she committed voluntarily or sins that were forced upon her. What she finds is something even deeper than that, which is the question of whether or not she has the right to speak on behalf of the dead.
The final third of the film opens up moral quandaries not even suggested yet, and brings Lady Vengeance
into line with its cohort movies in being about more than just the act of taking revenge, but also its implications.
Various critics complained that the last third of the film does not live up to the first two-thirds, because of the shift in tone (and even theme). In short, they are complaining about something that is in retrospect an integral element in the movie’s design. My criterion for whether or not a movie works is simple: Does it do what it set out to do, and does it optionally accomplish even more along the way? In this case, yes: Lady Vengance knows what it wants to be about, gets there with even more to spare, and the detours along the way are part of the plan.