|Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, 2005. Directed
by Chanwook Park. Yeong-ae Lee, Min-Sik Choi.
A Small Word of Warning: It is almost impossible to discuss, much less defend this movie without giving away certain plot points that should probably stay secret to first-time viewers. While I've tried to stay vague about the details of these points, a close reading may reveal more than you might like to know. Consider this a warning.
Synopsis: Released from prison after being
falsely convicted of the kidnapping and murder of a child, the kindly
Miss Geum-ja Lee begins to set the pieces in motion to take her vengeance
on the man for whom she took the fall. During her stint in prison, she
did innumerable favors, large and small, for her fellow inmates and she
begins to call in her markers one by one in order to get close to the
perfidious Mr. Baek, a schoolteacher on whom she once had a crush, and
for whom she took part in his kidnapping plot. But Mr. Baek has a secret
of his own that derails her plans for vengeance and forces her to take
stock of her own state of grace.
Atonement: Director Chan-wook Park is a startlingly assured talent. This conclusion to his "Vengeance Trilogy" both enriches the themes of the previous two movies and rampages off in an unexpected direction in its own right. It also seems like an answer to the critics of the previous movies who thought them to be "extreme" for the sake of extremity, and accused them of pandering to the baser urges of a bloodthirsty audience. I'm not one of those critics. I think the mask of the cynical stylist slips often in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, or at least often enough to reveal an underlying humanism behind them that belies their brutal surfaces and absurd revenge plots. The last movie consciously echoes both films: the kidnapping plot of the first movie (and kidney transplant, too), the long imprisonment and the visiting of the sins of a parent on the child in the second. Park knows that he is setting up an expectation for even more outrageous carnage, perhaps of a sexual nature given the fact that the film features a female protagonist. Park uses this expectation to play dazzling cinematic games during the film's first forty minutes.
This is a movie that Godard might love, a dazzling assemblage of arbitrary abstractions centered around the image of a beautiful woman. It even fetishizes this image by dressing her in a long dark coat, painting her eyelids a shocking red, and putting a big goddamn gun in her hands. And what, if anything, can be said of a fantasy sequence in which the object of Miss Geum-Ja's vengeance has his head placed on a rocking-horse dog, a scene in which a bullet enters his head and emerges from his ass except that it is a flourish for the sake of providing a flourish. It seems at first that, like its seductive opening credit sequence, this is a film of baroque, intricate textures and grand gestures for their own sake. If the film were to fulfill the expectations the audience brings to these images by matching them with ever more ghastly acts of violence, acts aestheticized into abstraction, then perhaps the criticisms leveled at Park might be justified. Perhaps he IS a cynic after all, one concerned with style over substance. "It has to be pretty," Geum-ja says of the gun she wants made, "Everything should be pretty."
But then the REAL movie begins.
Somewhere around the midpoint of the film, the stylistic games cease. The bright colors of the movie begin to bleed away, and on some prints, Park takes it all the way down to black and white. I didn't see one of those prints, and, frankly, I'm glad of it. The desaturated murk of the film's last act seems more appropriate than black and white. As Mr. Baek's crimes are revealed, the movie turns on an unexpected transformation of theme. Miss Geum-Ja's personal vengeance becomes a societal vengeance. The film begins to implicate the audience itself in the spectacle of vengeance. The act of vengeance ripples through more than the conscience of the avenger, the film suggests. It ripples through the community, thorugh everyone connected to it. Including the viewer.
The violence employed by the previous two movies is largely off-screen here, but that's not necessarily a mercy. Rather than linger over the details of the violence, Lady Vengeance prefers to linger over the psychic toll it takes instead. Here, Park shows that he's still adept and finding the pressure points and putting them to the screws. The final act is a tour de force from Park's ensemble of actors, but it's also hard to watch.
The movie is a love letter of sorts to Lee Yeung-ae, who previously played the lead in Park's Joint Security Area. There are points in the movie where I thought that she was perilously close to being out of her depth, but then her performance would turn back on itself. She is by far the most appealing of Park's avengers, and she even winks at the audience at one point. There's a twinkle in her eye. How much harder is it, then, to watch her fall from a state of grace? How much harder is it to watch her make her atonement only to watch redemption slip from her grasp? How much sadder is it to see her hunger for a redemption that will never come?
This film has a nasty downdraft.