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Lady Vengeance
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by Jay Seaver

"The end of Park's vengeance trilogy is the best part."
5 stars

Though the English-language title of Park Chan-wook's most recent feature most explicitly references the first entry in his so-called "revenge trilogy", "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance", and it quotes an important line from that film, it's the parallels with "Oldboy" that may leap out the most vividly - the lengthy period of imprisonment, the elaborate plan, the pain of not knowing a lost child. Heck, when the time to inflict some pain comes, one character chooses the hammer as his weapon of choice. It's not quite as flashy as "Oldboy", but that's to its benefit - there's nothing smirk-worthy in its ending to keep it from hitting like a ton of bricks.

Thirteen years ago, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) didn't seem like the type to murder a six-year-old boy; indeed, one of her fellow prisoners would later say that she shined with the light of goodness. But she confessed, and was convicted. Inside, she earned the admiration of a Christian preacher (Kim Byeong-ok) for her devotion to God, a baker (Oh Dal-su) for her ability to make delicious pastries from substandard ingredients, and her fellow prisoners for taking unpleasant jobs like caring for an elderly North Korean spy. When she is released at the age of thirty-two, she takes a job at the baker's shop but turns her back on the church; she also tracks down the inmates released before her and presses them into service in her plan for revenge on Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik), the man she holds responsible for losing everything that matters to her.

Fans of Park's films may remember Lee Young-ae from Joint Security Area, though not necessarily particularly vividly. She's got a much meatier role here, one that not only gives her the opportunity to age fourteen years as the film jumps back and forward in time from her prison release, but makes her a woman whose decisive actions belie her very confused motivations. Her plans call for vengeance, and she takes on a harsh demeanor upon her release from prison, but she's aware that mere revenge isn't enough. She craves absolution, trying to find it from religion and from the murdered boy's parents, from Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), a girl she goes to Australia to find. She needs Geun-shik (Kim Si-hu), a co-worker at the bakery who is the same age Won-mo would be if he were alive, to know her history so he can forgive or despise her as is appropriate.

She's not entirely brittle, though. Even though the film's Korean title literally translates as "Kind-hearted Ms Geum-ja", there's an element of irony to it. After all, she's not in prison for petty theft, and though her actions once in prison are generally good things, they're self-serving in the long term. Just as the post-release Geum-ja is often uncertain behind her harsh facade, the sweet-faced girl we see in prison is sometimes frighteningly calculating. She quietly takes control of her community there, trading a kidney for future considerations, and smiling like a mischievous child when she takes the first step in disposing of an overtly monstrous inmate. When she smiles upon seeing "The Witch" laid out on the floor, we start to think maybe she did kill that little boy - we at least think she could.

Ms. Lee is hardly the only actor giving an excellent performance; Choi Min-sik doesn't appear until the film's second half, but he becomes a major force in the story, adding and subtracting malice in a way that's thoroughly believable for the audience but shocking for the characters who have to reconcile the two sides to what seems like a simple English teacher. Nam Il-woo takes a role that could have been one-note as the detective who didn't quite believe Geum-ja's confession and makes him more complicated. There's the sense he should be Geum-ja's moral compass, but may not quite be up to the job. Kim Si-hu makes Geun-shik curious about the beautiful older woman he's working with, and portrays his character's youth and naiveté well - he really can't wrap his head around the idea that this woman has killed, and may still be up to no good. A bit off the mark is young Ms. Kwon, whose English sounds stiff (with a North American accent, at that) for someone supposedly raised in Australia. We don't quite get the connection between her and Geum-ja that we might like, which is a shame.

Park uses every technique available to get the audience into the story - narration, flashbacks, on-screen data dumps when a new prisoner appears, and really does one of the more effective jobs I've seen at throwing a lot of characters at the audience without causing much confusion. I love the juxtaposition of the sweet desserts Geum-ja makes while plotting her revenge - I wonder if "just desserts" has the same implication in Korea that it does in English. And I absolutely adore the sustained feeling of uneasiness the last act provides. It starts with a logical but still shocking twist, which doesn't come with a musical sting or flashy camera angle but instead gives the audience a silent moment to consider the meaning of a set of innocuous objects, which suddenly makes Geum-ja's story all the more tragic, piling even more guilt on her. The film had already been in a dark place, but it becomes even more bleak by doing a thorough job of obliterating the line between right and wrong, leaving the heroine and audience unsure where they stand.

This is good, heady stuff, tense and shocking without being gratuitously violent - the closest thing to a traditional action scene is a very grim affair. Now that Park Chan-wook has revenge out of his system, it will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12891&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/06/06 16:25:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2006 Portland Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Florida Film Festival For more in the 2006 Florida Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/16/12 Matthew Thompson Dalldorf Eric, do not compare this to 'Kill Bill!' 5 stars
8/12/11 jiropan highly recommended 5 stars
5/18/11 kris Snider is completety misjudging this violent and profound gem. 5 stars
4/09/11 donkey hump Eric D. Snider missed the point completely . 5 stars
1/18/11 moose rapper Disturbing, funny and sharp as a tack 5 stars
1/11/11 Josie Cotton is a goddess My favorite in the trilogy 5 stars
8/10/09 menten concluding chapter of vengeance trilogy. perfect! 5 stars
4/23/08 Nathalie N Fine, Stylish, Moving... 5 stars
10/24/06 Pritchett You're right, it's BETTER than OLDBOY. 5 stars
9/20/06 malcolm good, but no 'Oldboy' 3 stars
9/13/06 Stubby I thought it was the best of the three, but yeah it's nothing like KB. 5 stars
9/04/06 K.Sear The weakest of the three yet still enjoyable. To compare it to "Kill Bill" is ludicrous. 4 stars
8/12/06 Harold Call me nuts, but...the best of the three! Park is a genius!!!! 5 stars
7/15/06 Nightjorn Uh, Eric..."Mr. Vengeance" came first...and it was better than "Oldboy." 4 stars
7/14/06 Alfred Guy Not as riveting as the first two. 3 stars
10/01/05 David Ehrlich best film of the year 5 stars
9/28/05 E. Northam Wicked black comedy at times; provocative with disturbing and intense moments 3 stars
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  DVD: 16-Mar-2010

  10-Feb-2006 (18)


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