South Korea, 2005
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 31 October 2005
Source Tartan Films 35mm print
Features: The 43rd New York Film Festival
Park Chanwook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the latest in his “Vengeance trilogy,” a series of kinetic and morally baffling tales of rage and revenge. Following upon Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, Park’s new entry in the series continues the director’s careful dissection of the agony and ecstasy of vengeance, but here the waters are muddied with more than the usual ethical quandaries.
From the first strident strains of harpsichord on the soundtrack, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance announces itself as a baroque work, brashly exploiting any number of camera tricks and CGI-candy. (This is a familiar tack for Park, who, even in more seemingly realistic films like JSA, will nonetheless play with digital landscapes and computerized owls.) With these devices in hand, Park constructs a light and plastic world of color and vibrancy. As in Oldboy, even the wallpaper has the power to move and morph psychedelically, and time and space seem to yield to Park’s lively narrative sense. The fetishism of guns, blades, and cakes dominates the visual field in massive, seductive close-ups, as Lady Vengeance amasses the tools of her revenge. As she says of her beautifully cast, double-barreled hand-cannon: “It has to be pretty. Everything has to be pretty.”
Leaping backwards and forwards in its chronology, the film follows the tortured path of its titular Lady Vengeance, Geum-ja, who has served thirteen years in prison for abducting and suffocating a young boy. As soon becomes apparent, Geum-ja was not responsible for the boy’s death, but was in fact taking the wrap for her boyfriend, Mr. Baek, an infanticidal school teacher who has kidnapped Geum-ja’s own daughter for blackmail. Episodic and lighthearted, much of the film’s first half is constructed around her formative years in prison, in which she feigns a religious awakening (and an infectious spiritual radiance) in order to plot an early release and the details of her revenge. With her charm and seeming innocence, she assembles a loyal team of female convicts around her, and once released, she’s all business.
The style and set-up of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance are likely to prompt obvious comparisons to the Kill Bill films. But such a juxtaposition does not favor Tarantino’s work and is thoroughly upended in Sympathy’s truly unnerving second half. Park’s film proves itself wittier and more economical than Tarantino’s recent works in its first half, and more daring and provocative in its second. While Kill Bill revels at length in the setting-up of a satisfying woman-kicking-ass saga, Lady Vengeance thwarts its viewer’s desire for savage retribution with an ugly dissection of revenge’s moral limits. There is no bold set-piece, like the extended lateral tracking shot that captured Oh Dae-su’s onslaught in Oldboy, but rather a slow and stomach-churning application of anger, as Geum-ja draws the families of all of Mr. Baek’s victims into her coterie of reprisal. It is a nerve-wracking and deeply problematic move that attacks the viewer’s ethical sensibility and questions the possibility of any kind of catharsis or purity resulting from an act of vengeance.
Call this Park’s feminization of revenge. With his usual narrative dexterity and cinematographic playfulness, the director has constructed a stylish and hermetic payback fantasy, but this fantasy soon gives way to the stickiness of real violence and real pain. Like a fairy tale with fangs, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance promises pleasurable escapism, but ensnares its audience in a thorny line of questioning. Sympathetic it may be, but its pretty veneer masks a dark center.