The third, and final, part of South Korean writer/director Park Chan-Wook's exemplary Revenge Cycle arrives with all the elegance of its bloody predecessors - Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (2002) and the awesome Old Boy (2003) - but somehow manages to inject more humour into its equally violent and controversial mix. Considering the subject matter of Sympathy For Lady Vengeance this is no mean feat. Forced into taking the rap for the abduction and murder of a small boy by the real killer, or else he'll kill her daughter, nineteen year old Lee Geum-Ja (a mesmerising Yeong-ae Lee) spends the next thirteen years in prison, plotting revenge upon the deviant Mr. Baek (played by Old Boy, himself, Choi Min-Sik). Strangely enough, the alleged child-killer who shocked the nation becomes a model prisoner, making friends with virtually everybody on the inside. Doing favours for those put upon by the obligatory butch lesbian known as The Witch and, ultimately, honing her homicidal skills on the loathsome freak, as well, she makes many handy contacts for later use on the outside. Upon her release Geum-Ja finds the parents of the little boy she was accused of murdering, and seeks atonement in a quite grisly manner, then tracks down her own daughter, who is now living in Australia in an attempt to find the mother-within that she has buried deep behind a dark and scheming mind. But, all the while, the desire for revenge upon the evil schoolteacher, Mr. Baek, hardens her heart and the violent wheels she has set in motion are soon to spin into intense and traumatic overdrive. Just revel in that incredible double-barrelled handgun that she has manufactured to her own specification. It is an absolute beauty of murderous retro-chic.
“Behind that wicked witch's face of yours, I see the presence of an angel.”
To reveal a great deal more of the plot would be to rob you of much enjoyment. Just like the first two movies - all three are related only in the theme of revenge and its awful consequences - there are a few twists and turns that, whilst nowhere near as soul-shattering as Old Boy's rug-pulling trick (for which I'm still receiving therapy), are neat little developments that play with the conventions of such dark and sinister material. The pivotal act of vengeance and its aftermath, which fills the last third of the movie, is designed to challenge and to provoke. Park refuses to shy away from morality-tugging sentiment by embracing the truest aspect of natural justice with an unflinching eye. It's one of the cleverest and, indeed, most satisfying conclusions that I, at least, could hope for. The law, the world over, doesn't do enough to criminals such as Mr. Baek, who is, sadly, all-too common a breed a monster. But Lady Vengeance hits on the most exquisite form of retribution when she makes the shocking discovery of a crucial marble amongst the trinkets of other murdered children.
“So, the kidnapper had kidnapped a kidnapper's kid.”
Park's movie looks amazing. Once again, he uses immaculate compositions that make even the most mundane of locations look almost magical. The streets around the apartment block in which Geum-Ja is staying offer up many moments of lush and dextrous visuals. The long alleyway, in particular, he manages to make threatening in some scenes, utterly bewitching in others. A lot of the exteriors affect a frosty, austere feel that is not simply a result of the wintry Seoul conditions. The interiors are often bright and homely, although the actions depicted within them are usually anything but. For example, Mr. Baek's idea of enlivening the news on TV is a deep clue to his silent aggression, and even Geum-Ja's attempts at romance are decidedly odd and perfunctory, to say the least. Nowhere, other than the cosy home of the Australian foster parents for her daughter, appears comfortable, or safe. Undeniably attractive, Yeong-ae Lee can look alarmingly pretty - strangely enough, these bits tend to be in the prison sequences which is also where a lot of the lighter moments occur - although, all too often she exhibits the necessary cold, cruel gleam in her eyes and a suitably severe countenance. Park gets a wonderful performance out of her, too. It's a tightrope act to keep the balance right and the titular Sympathy For this Lady Vengeance in order, especially when she practices with her new gun on a poor little dog. That so much of her has been eaten away with grief, fear and rage is never forgotten, her emotional plight perhaps taking up more of the screenplay than her retribution. Only in Asian cinema can long lingering shots of often incongruous images actually come to mean something to the bigger picture. And there are quite a few here, a couple involving nothing more threatening than freshly baked cakes - and it is to Park's credit that he can take the trappings of an art house style and mingle it with occasional bravura excess to attain a genre that is entirely his own. His attention to ravishing photography is evident throughout and credit must go to Cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hun for capturing the essence of such extreme motives within such exquisite framing. An early flight of fancy Geum-Ja imagining herself atop a majestic cliff as she drags a bizarre incarnation of Mr. Baek to the edge - his head on a dog's body in a cool riff on the 1978 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Beauty hand-in-hand with grotesquery.
“This is 802 Han Apartments ... we've had a finger cut off here!”
Initially, I was quite surprised by the tone that Park sets up. The first third of the film is slightly disjointed, mingling flashbacks with the present and jumping from the irrelevant to the suddenly very poignant. But, really this just harks back to the tone of Old Boy, whose middle section suffered from the same element of tricksy narrative. The prison sequences are fairly entertaining, with Geum-Ja's hidden agenda proving to be a slow-burn delight. The unsettling moment when she has to re-enact the murder of the little boy for the press and the police - which of course she never committed - elicits some mightily odd and disquieting emotions. Does the Korean Judiciary really utilise such tactics, I wonder? And the truly eye-popping hilarity of Geum-Ja's meeting with the foster parents just has to be seen to be believed. I can't think of another filmmaker who could get away with this departure in tone yet still keep his movie right on track. Of course, all this helter-skelter plot weaving is to culminate in one very protracted sequence that, despite some visual punning (think of the weapon-wielding queue lining up to placate the hysterical passenger in Airplane), is wholly and completely devoid of humour. The final act swings the movie back full circle, Park's screenplay zeroing in on the blackest of human desires like a missile of retribution. With very naturalistic performances and some exceptionally harrowing - though thankfully brief - scenes of Mr. Baek's videotapes of his victims calling out for their parents (God, I have to tell you - this really hurt. So be prepared), he puts you right at the complicated heart of revenge. Vital and upsetting, he turns the screws with a clinical calculation that gains power from not showing you exactly what you want to see. A lesser talent would have descended to an all-out gorefest. In fact, despite ample opportunity, Sympathy For Lady Violence actually seems to shy away from violence. Oh, don't worry, there is some and it is immensely satisfying, too. But Park knows that his firebrand, radical nature goes deeper than merely portraying shootings and a damn good kicking. I remember so looking forward to Old Boy's claw-hammer rampage down the corridor but, in the end, it was no more shockingly brutal than what is simply implied here in Lady Vengeance. So, at the end of the trilogy, he seems to have jettisoned the knee-jerk craving for archly stylised uber-violence in favour of the deeper, and infinitely more distressing primal core at the heart of such acts.
“The police have big sticks. But they don't know how to use them.”
So, this is homicidal art house, the plot drawn up and out of its intimate track and elevated to a much broader canvas by clever manipulation of character and audience perception, and captured within a chop-and-change, flashback-fuelled scenario that pulls no punches. The narrative is actually very simple, and told in a slow, measured manner that may not please some of the Trilogy's fans, but gains an operatic grandeur from its dark and nasty stateliness. Park's eye for comedy may be more prevalent than in the previous two entries but that doesn't lessen the impact of its no-holds-barred themes. Emotions are toyed with constantly, the whole story just a twisted metaphor for guilt and sacrifice. Written down in stark black and white, the plot is disturbing and unlikely to appeal to anyone who hasn't already experienced Park's brutally clever films, yet it must be stressed that, once again, the subject matter is dealt with in such a left-field, avant-garde fashion that the unpleasantness is eerily intoxicating. To be honest, I just don't know how he does it. When it comes to children in jeopardy or, as in this case, actual child murder, I would take some pretty solid convincing to entertain the film for even a minute. Though, in Park's reliable hands, the results diffuse all that all justified anger with an agreeable level of catharsis. The scumbags certainly do some despicable damage but you can be assured that they are going to get some very righteous comeuppance by the end. The knife slid in-between our ribs this time out could've been the most painful yet, but the off-hand light-hearted approach keeps it sugar-coated and, although it may waggle about in there, Yeong-ae Lee's hypnotic performance ensures that it doesn't penetrate too deeply.
“They should have couples' prisons - but then that would be paradise ... not jail.”
So, although nowhere near as heartbreaking or as enjoyable as Old Boy (still my favourite Korean movie) Sympathy For Lady Vengeance still hits all the right buttons. The theme of getting even reaches a whole new level with collective vengeance being the icy prerogative acting as the movie's backbone. With Park's fabulous filmic tricks in play - love the scene change that sees the faces from the prior sequence pushed aside as a door opens up literally onto the next and the brilliant use of a hostage as a translator - he keeps you guessing all the way with an ease of style that is never less than enthralling. A marvellous film from a truly unique talent.
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