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Lady Vengeance

Chan-Wook Park Completes His “Vengeance” Trilogy

Lady Vengeance ("Chinjeolhan geumjassi") is the third film in Chan-wook Park's loose "vengeance" trilogy (loose because the three films share themes but not characters) that began with 2002's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and continued with 2003's Oldboy. Released to art houses last year in the United States, Oldboy quickly gained a devoted following among fans of Asian cinema, due to a combination of a clever, puzzle-laden storyline, graphic violence, a delirious, excessive visual style, and a downbeat, ambiguous denouement. Lady Vengeance may not acquire the same kind of cult following as its predecessor, but it may be Park's most thought-provoking, challenging film in the trilogy, suggesting that revenge may have a far more cathartic, purifying effect than previously depicted.

As Lady Vengeance opens, Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee), convicted of the kidnapping and murder of a five-year old boy, has been released from prison after serving 13 years of presumably a longer sentence. Geum-ja has been a model prisoner, accepting religion and spirituality into her life, and through "good works" helping the other prisoners, she's acquired a network of supportive friends and acquaintances. Her seeming transformation from conscienceless murderer to model prisoner has been a sham, however. Once out in the real world, her true intentions begin to show themselves. A cold, dispassionate woman greets the Christian missionary who waits outside the prison (and who counseled her while she was in prison).

Geum-ja has spent the last 13 years planning revenge on Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi), the man whose actions led to her imprisonment. How and why his actions led to her imprisonment is best left unexplored here, but Mr. Baek, Geum-ja's former teacher had leverage to force a young, 19-year old Geum-ja to claim responsibility for the murder. Caught between two equally difficult choices, Geum-ja chose self-sacrifice, knowing that her actions might have saved one individual while leaving others exposed to violence or worse. The dilemma has only sharpened her desire for revenge, but Geum-ja also wants to renew contact with someone from her past. A side trip to Australia exposes Geum-ja to personal and emotional risks, all of which will cause complications in her plan.

Lady Vengeance and Oldboy share some surface similarities, including a falsely accused/imprisoned protagonist driven to revenge and a complicated time scheme. Oldboy begins in mid-story with the desperate protagonist, Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi), dangling another man from a rooftop, then skips backward in time to tell Dae-su Oh’s Kafkaesque story of imprisonment for a mysterious crime. Lady Vengeance takes a different approach, focusing first on Geum-ja's release and acclimatization to the outside world, stopping occasionally to introduce Geum-ja's fellow prisoners and their backstories, with only the occasional mention of the revenge plot.

It’s only after Geum-ja returns from her side trip to Australia that the revenge storyline slips back into the foreground. Fans of Oldboy will likely find themselves disappointed, even bored, by the deliberately paced, violence-free first half of the film, but it's all part of Park's strategy to lull viewers into expecting something meditative or “arty” before exposing us scenes of realistic, protracted violence, made all the more disturbing due to the central character’s involvement.

While Oldboy fans may find Lady Vengeance a minor disappointment, Park makes sure the film has plenty of visual style to keep moviegoers at least superficially interested. Visually, few directors can compete with Park’s eye for composition or his grasp of the full panoply of techniques available to modern filmmakers, from editing to cinematography and production design (subtle and not-so-subtle color and costuming cues used to give viewers insight into individual characters and their state of mind). For Park, visual style is secondary to story and emotion, and with Lady Vengeance he proves once again that he belongs among the world’s top filmmakers.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars