Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

dir: Chan-wook Park
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Considering the sheer quantity of crap that comes out at the cinemas and on DVD, it’s refreshing to occasionally get excited about a specific director’s work. It’s a grand affair to ‘discover’ a director whose work you’ve known nothing about before, whose work opens up a whole new world for you. You search out their earlier films, and you eagerly anticipate their new flicks.

The Chan-wook Park film I saw was Oldboy, just before the Lumiere cinema shut down, a year or two ago. The film, to put it mildly, and Americanly, rocked my world. It was a revelation, and not only did I set out to find out if his other films were as masterful, but I also became even more interested in checking out Korean films in general.

If you’re lucky, when this happens, you discover that the director and his people are even better film makers than you expected from the first effort you got to see. If you’re unlucky, you find out they’re a lucky bunch of hacks and their one good film was a fluke. You know, like Star Wars.

Park didn’t disappoint me, and he’s no one-hit wonder. His earlier flicks, like Joint Security Area (JSA), and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance showed me that this guy has a command of three of the most vital aspects of decent film: story, characterisation and scene composition. JSA, despite being book-ended with scenes hard to sit through (not because of violence, but because of excruciating acting by one of the main actors), showed that Park was more than capable of comfortably teasing out a story about a friendship between South Korean and North Korean soldiers that ends in tragedy. It also showed me that Park’s not just interested in extreme or transgressive cinema, which I might have assumed from the hammer-dentistry nastiness of Oldboy.

Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, the first part of Park’s so-called Vengeance trilogy, was a remarkable film, at times inventive and experimental, and at others downright gutting. The film looked amazing, the actors completely sold what they needed to do, and the killer story emphasises how easily the best laid criminal plans of mice, men and mutes can go astray, as the self-defeating nature of revenge explodes around them.

Now we come to the third and final part. Does it live up to its first two most excellent predecessors?

Nothing could, really, but Park still does a bang-up job of getting close.

In this instalment (none of the three films are connected in any way apart from thematically, though many of the actors from the first two flicks have cameos or roles), our protagonist is Geum-ja (Yeong-ae Lee). Geum-ja has just been released from prison after serving a 13 year sentence for kidnapping and murdering a child.

It wouldn’t be much of a character to get behind if circumstances were actually as they appear to be. Geum-ja has been plotting her revenge on the person who put her in jail for those thirteen years, and her thirst for vengeance isn’t even close to being slaked. Thirteen years is a long time to be working towards a goal, so in that time she’s been making and revising her plans, making alliances with women in prison who owe her favours for services rendered, and biding her time to strike.

Such an all consuming passion can burn away the more human parts of our personalities. Geum-ja, despite being known as ‘Kind Hearted’, who often strikes poses evoking the iconography of saints in the throes of religious ecstasy, is still a very nasty piece of work.

Her release from jail, her grand plan, and her time thinking about absolution and vengeance has made her a pretty cold person. As the film progresses she tries to balance the two elements; remaining somewhat capable of human emotion yet still ruthlessly focussed on her goals. As such, many of the people around her realise they are merely chess pieces on a board of her construction.

She’s an interesting contrast to the protagonist from Oldboy, Dae-su, who goes stark raving mad through incarceration and his all-consuming lust for revenge. Geum-ja instead remains perfectly sane and lucid, and is no less dangerous in seeking out her day in the sun.

Mixing the minx-like, femme fatale behaviour with her soulful, sorrowful side sounds like a very difficult proposition for any actress, and, to be honest, I don’t know if Yeong-ae Lee does that good a job. I hated her work in Joint Security Area, but I didn’t even realise she played both roles until afterwards. Still, for some reason whilst I was watching it, there was something about her that I just didn’t like, and it’s not the character that I’m talking about.

These Vengeance picks of Park’s are curious beasts indeed. The strain and style of sardonic humour present is a good deal darker than what I’m usually used to, but culturally, I have so little idea about Korea that I don’t know how extreme it really is.

I’ve seen reviews and commentary online from South Korean film fans who say this film is an out-and-out comedy, and not as ‘serious’ as I would take it to be. I can see how that could be the case, but somehow I missed the exact scale and scope of its overall thigh-slappingness.

That’s not to say I didn’t find it damn funny at certain points or that I wasn’t entertained, because I most certainly was. Particular scenes when Geum-ja is still in jail and setting her plan by creating allies are downright hilarious. Another scene at a sculpture’s house, a former cellmate of Geum-ja’s who now makes her fortune by sculpting statues of a woman holding the severed head of their partners, with women sending in images of their men for her to work with, is pretty good too.

But some other seasons seemed a bit… undercooked. I also didn’t grasp what the significance of a particular plot point regarding a gun she has constructed was meant to emphasise, and a lot of time is spent on it. Maybe I’m just too much of an ignoramus to grasp all these details.

As such, whilst the story and the resolution of the plot certainly work and are in keeping with the ethos and aesthetic of the earlier two films, I don’t think it was ultimately as strong.

When Geum-ja flicks the switch on the final stages of her plan for revenge against the man who put her away, the movie changes significantly in terms of its tone and seriousness, probably for the better. And when things get messy, goddamn do they get messy.

In a strange piece of synchronicity, some of the flick’s scenes are actually filmed in Australia, of all the lousy places to set up a camera. For story reasons I won’t go into, an Australian couple play a minor role in proceedings, which is somewhat comical, I guess. It’s always weird to see how other cultures view our humble, vast and inhospitable country.

These kinds of films, ones that rest on the actions a person who has been wronged takes, rests on a number of factors. Revenge flicks essentially devolve into stories about vigilantism, about people committing horrific crimes to balance up the scales for the horrific crimes committed upon them. To really make us relate to the vengeful protagonist, the crime against them or their loved ones has to be really horrific. That way if they end up ripping the bad guy’s head off and grating it on a cheese grater, or running them over with a harvester, we (the audience) are supposed to think that it is justifiable.

In Park’s two earlier vengeance flicks, the vengeance wrought and the vengeance owed are not justified; there’s no moral superiority or righteousness for anyone involved. To a certain extent, I think the game’s a bit different in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The intent is different, as well, because this one seems to have its theme of absolution, or redemption or forgiveness, but none of that is centrally worked out through the actual caper against her tormentor, where his crimes are supposed to justify what happens to him.

If I wanted that kind of A Time to Kill experience, I’d instead watch one of the millions of flicks pumped out by Hollywood where a good cop’s wife / girlfriend / dog are mercilessly butchered by maniacs who is then justified in going on a kill crazy rampage for the next two hours.

For those with weaker memories than mine, or who devote their brain-cells to more important memories, all you need to know about A Time to Kill is that it has Samuel L. Jackson screaming ‘Yes, they deserved to die and I hope they burn in hell!’ at the top of his overacting lungs. Make of that what you will.

Still, Lady Vengeance is interesting, the flick is stylish, well-made, mostly well-acted, with enough of a spirit of anarchy and inventiveness to mean nothing is that predictable. It is a less-transgressive, less risky way to finish the Vengeance trilogy, but a decent homecoming all the same.

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“But there’s no such thing as a ‘normal person’” – Mr Baek, no need to preach to the choir, man, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.