(Special Presentations) South Korea, 112 minutes
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Written by: Jeong Seo-kyung, Park Chan-wook
Cast: Lee Yeong-ae, Choi Min-sik, Kim Shi-hu, Nam II-woo, Kim Byeong-ok
A choir of tofu-bearing Santas welcomes a woman released from prison. That same woman spoon feeds bleach to the cellblock bully while acting as her caregiver. The families of murdered children trade turns carving up the killer and pose for a communal photo.
It should come as no surprise that “Sympathy For Lady Vengeance”, the final chapter in Park Chan-wook’s “revenge trilogy”, is another gloriously operatic, squirm-inducing, and often uproariously funny meditation on the futility of Old Testament justice. Those expecting the trippy Kafka-meets-meets Ichi plot machinations and stylized splatter of the latter entry—2003’s Cannes Grand Prix winner “Oldboy”--might be disappointed if expecting a cheesy “Terminator 3”-styled gender switcheroo. More reminiscent of the first installment, “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance” (right down to the title), this is a more deliberate and less baroque take on the theme, with Chan-wook introducing the potentially de-fanging concept of redemption. Thankfully, he pulls no punches, even if this is no “Oldgirl”.
Hardly the first film to feature a woman as avenger--"Ms. 45", "Shame", "I Spit On Your Grave", “Angel", and of course, “Kill Bill” —few have been as concerned with consequences of violence, and most are a helluva lot easier to summarize. But here goes:
Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) is released from prison after thirteen-and-a-half years in jail for the murder an eight-year-old boy. Now a woman of thirty-two, she puts her skills to work at a bakery, attracting the puppy-dog affections of a smitten young apprentice. Seeking atonement for her alleged crime, she visits her victim’s parents and severs one of her fingers in a plea for forgiveness. Police chief Choi, always suspicious of Geum-ja’s confession, visits the bakery to lend a sympathetic ear, unaware that she is wasting no time in hatching a meticulous revenge plot against “Mr. Paek” (Oldboy himself Choi Min-shik), a grade school teacher who is in fact, a multiple murderer of children for whom Geum-ja took the rap. Why? To save her daughter Jenny, whom she discovers is alive and living with Australian foster parents. Her thirst for vengeance is intensified by her unresolved feelings for her abandoned child.
As an inmate, Geum-ja offered charity and offered spiritual guidance to her fellow prisoners. Now, she’s enlisting their help. One of them, an ex-con and former prostitute, provides her with a room. Another, a reformed bank robber, has her husband fashion Geum-ja a custom double-barreled pistol. Yet another has devoted herself to her friend’s cause above-and-beyond-the-call by marrying the disgusting Paek.
Gathering tokens of Paek’s involvement in his crimes—victims’ personal tokens, videotapes of the slayings—Geum-ja engineers a meeting of the families of the slain children at a remote, abandoned school, where all are given a chance to partake in a savage cleansing ritual to unleash their pent-up rage and vindicate the woman whom they’ve long feared and loathed.
Reteaming with his “Oldboy” and “Three Extremes” DOP Chung Chung-hoon, Chan-wook crafts one mournfully beautiful image after another, from the opening credits, in which tendrils of ink and blood snake across a stark, clean canvas, to the concluding(and appropriate in its symmetry) image of the still broken and weeping Geum-ja enveloped by falling white snow.
Chan-wook perfectly modulates the blackly farcical (prison rape is rarely played for laughs, but you will chortle) amidst the downright nightmarish (parents being made to watch videos of their murdered children’s pleading cries for mercy) as he delights in subverting this well-exhausted genre with an assured hand. The complex, elliptical structure shifts between Geum-ja’s past and present, while veering off into the lives of the supporting characters and, in the third act, daring to push the grieving parents to the forefront. The performances run the gamut from the theatrical to the crushingly real, with the remarkable Jeong Seo-kyung (of Chan-wook’s “JSA”) managing to remain a mysterious and utterly bewitching cipher while eliciting our somewhat questionable empathy. Perhaps this is why the film has been retitled, simply, "Lady Vengeance" for its North American release...?