'Sympathy for Lady Vengeance' was released in 2005 and was directed by Park Chan-wook. This movie is the final chapter in Chan-wook's vengeance trilogy, which began back in 2002 with 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance'. This was followed by a movie which really brought something immensely new and exciting to the world of cinema, the magnificent 'Oldboy'. This was the movie which really made the world sit up and take notice of this innovative and edgy director. 'Oldboy' is without doubt one of my all time favourite movies and made stars out of all involved in its twisted tale. 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance' was an enjoyable affair but was simply blown out of the water by the far superior 'Oldboy'. Two years later, Chan-wook released this movie, which aimed to close out the director's vengeance trilogy.
Like many great directors, Chan-wook has a select group of actors whom he regularly collaborates with. This movie is no different, with Choi Min-sik (the star of 'Oldboy') playing Mr. Baek and Lee Yeong-ae ('J.S.A') playing Lee Geum-ja, the heroine of the movie. Aside from the multitude of prison characters that crop up along the way, these two actors are the focus of the piece. Byeong-ok Kim, Hye-jeong Kang, Ji-tae Yu, Dal-su Oh and Seung-Shin Lee, all familiar faces from 'Oldboy', also pop here and there playing minor characters. A young unknown named Yea-young Kwon plays Jenny, Geum-ja's daughter. For a young actress with no professional acting experience, I have to say that I was impressed with this actor's performance, proving that she can hold her own with some of Korea's biggest names.
The movie focuses on the remarkable story of Geum-ja. We initially know nothing about this young lady, only that she has been recently released from prison. As she's welcomed back to the free world by some carol singers from the local church, it appears that she underwent a transformation during her time inside, completely atoning for her sins and making her piece with God. As the movie progresses, we see that although Geum-ja underwent a transformation inside of prison, she has undergone a more drastic personality and mindset restructure since her release. Through flashback we learn the troubled story of this beautiful young woman.
When she was only nineteen years old, Geum-ja was committed to a women's institute for the kidnap and murder of a five year old boy. We witness her reinact the events which led to the toddler's death for the police and media (on the day of her arrest). She carefully and calmly ties up the police's mannequin, casually selects a large cushion and then violently leaps on the dummy, smothering it with such aggression that the head falls clean off. During this scene, Geum-ja's eyes blaze with hatred and malice, leading all in the room, who are suitably taken aback by this angelic looking teenager's startling behaviour, to believe that she is indeed both capable and guilty of the crime in question. Having served her term, she is released a free woman. In prison she was known as the angel, always willing to help out even the more depraved inmates with whatever duties they required. A lot of favours were gleaned inside and now Geum-ja plans to call them in. She has transformed into a creature of hatred and she seeks to track down the man who ruined her life thirteen and a half years ago.
I remember the first time I watched this movie. It was about two years after I had seen 'Oldboy' (which had been spun to death during this period) and I was really excited to see what the final chapter in the vengeance trilogy would hold in store. It's worth noting here that although the three movies are indeed a genuine trilogy, their characters are in no way linked; vengeance is the common theme which binds them, nothing more. So, when this movie was released, I immediately snapped it up and while I most certainly enjoyed it, I didn't enjoy it as much as I had anticipated. I have to say that I enjoyed this BD release a whole lot more. Perhaps it's because this movie, like the majority of Chan-wook's movies, contains a complex plot that weaves back and forth through multiple storylines almost constantly. As such, benefits are to be had from repeated viewing. The manner in which Chan-wook delivers the material is simply genius. Almost every scene transition is different and innovative; backgrounds often move as the boundaries between fantasy and reality blur for a moment before returning to normal as the next scene settles in. Language is also used effectively, as are written Korean subtitles (during the English speaking portions), to highlight detachment and other concepts. The camera is almost continually roving, rolling, inverting and panning to create and incredibly energetic and exciting piece of filmmaking.
The plot is both cerebral and interesting. Chan-wook delivers Geum-ja's story masterfully through flashback. The tone of the image changes frequently, varying from sepia to cool blues, but this never appears to be another cheap trick to introduce a novel aspect to the movie. Infusing the entire movie with classical music serves to highlight the brutality of some of the content and is another example of Chan-wook's vision. The beautiful cinematography from Chun-hoon also deserves a mention and is simply stunning at times. For example, the bleak and unwelcoming snowy landscapes really serve to reflect the hostility and hatred which has been brewing within Geum-ja for all those years. The main character's story is intertwined with many others and these are all told in a very fluid and comprehensive manner. There are also plenty of depraved acts and shocking moments to keep the audience on the edge of their collective seat. Even though the run time is nearly two hours, the time flies by, especially considering that there's not a whole lot in the way of set variation or action content. There are even a couple of laughs and black humour thrown in for good measure. The characters, the story of Geum-ja and the incredibly stylistic and slick way in which Chan-wook presents, all form a very entertaining package. My only criticism is that the ending is somewhat disappointing. Right up until the last twenty minutes this really is a top notch movie but then it just fizzles out instead of exiting with a bang. The manner in which the previous instalments of the trilogy concluded also had this cryptic-director-delivering-a-message-to-the-audience style conclusion. I understand that the closing scenes represent the emancipation and rebirth of Geum-ja but really, was the cake bit altogether necessary? Don't get me wrong, as a whole I would most definitely recommend this movie to all fans of Asian cinema but it's far from perfect.
All of the actors involved are, for the most part, very good indeed. Yes, there are a few instances of ham but I think that this tends to creep into the majority of Asian speaking movies which feature English dialogue (or maybe it's the fact that I just don't like it!). Yeong-ae really impressed me in this role and has demonstrated that she has what it takes to make it into the big league. The closing scenes, where she alternates between breaking out into a maniacal smile and breaking down and bursting into tears, is a prime example and exemplifies the manner in which she can convey emotion with ease. Her transition from the “angel” of the prison to the “witch” of the real world is very well executed. Even her interactions with her daughter and all those who fall immediately in love with her dazzling beauty is believable. It's only a shame that this young, relatively inexperienced and talented actress has more or less dropped off the face of the planet following her performance here. One of the major disappointments for me in this movie, aside from the slightly cryptic and non-essential ending, was Chan-wook's use of Min-sik. He is vastly underused but when he does take centre stage there is a gravity about him that few actors can achieve. He also demonstrates his acting ability in his transition from a controlling male chauvinist to whimpering prisoner, which is very pleasing to watch. I suppose that this is the story of Geum-ja and her character certainly takes the lion's share of camera time.
So, with this movie, Chan-wook finally lays his tales of vengeance to rest. The entire piece is a slow boil to an exciting climax and subsequent anti-climax. Although sometimes confusing and complex, the end payoff is high, as the myriad of stories finally come together as one. Yes the end is somewhat ambiguous and slightly nonsensical (or maybe I'm just not getting it!) but overall this is a cracking movie. It really serves to explore the choices (and guilt) of a young lady and the resultant devastation these choices inflict on her life. It also serves to expose the resolve of the human spirit and the steel and strength which can be gained from simple emotions. The characterisation is very strong and the entire piece is kept energetic, interesting and innovative by the masterful direction of Chan-wook. This movie, while not as entertaining as it's predecessor, most certainly comes recommended and definitely deserves a place in every Asian movie fans collection.
Surprise, surprise, like the scandalous announcement of the remake of 'Oldboy', this movie has also been selected by the studio executive whores to brutalise in a Western remake. 'The Departed' worked because it was a normal story and I have absolutely zero confidence that either of Chan-wook's movies will translate, and are bound to be very disappointing. This fact stands regardless of whether a remake of the original movies or a new adaptation from the comic books is on the cards. I hope that this reviewer is proven wrong but just in case, get this movie (and 'Oldboy') now on BD before they are spoiled forever!
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