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Lady Vengeance

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 06/19/06 20:02:24

"South Korea's bad boy is back -- with a Vengeance!"
5 stars (Awesome)

As stylish as it is unsettling, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a brilliant coda to writer-director Park Chan-wook’s so-called “Revenge Trilogy,” three distinct but slyly interconnected films woven on the themes of retribution and redemption. In Lady Vengeance, Park has created perhaps the most complex and tormented of all his characters – the beautiful Lee Geum-ja, an avenging angel whose soul has been corroded by betrayal, loss, grief, shame, and rage.

As in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (the first chapter of the trilogy), at the heart of Lady Vengeance is a “good” kidnapping – one in which the child is to be returned safely to its loving family after the ransom has been paid. Where the child-snatching in Mr. Vengeance resulted in unexpected tragedy, here the outcome is cold-blooded murder.

After confessing to and being convicted of the crime, and serving 13-1/2 years in prison, Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) is released to society, seemingly rehabilitated and by now widely known as “Kind-Hearted Ms. Geum-ja” for her selflessness toward her fellow inmates.

In truth, as we learn, Geum-ja had cultivated her friendships carefully from the first day she was incarcerated, sweetly performing kind acts for her cellmates – including offing the prison bully and relinquishing her own kidney (another nod to Mr. Vengeance) – in anticipation of calling in numerous favors on the outside in order to carry out her plan to destroy the monster who betrayed her fourteen years earlier.

A television star in Korea, Lee Young-ae collaborated with Park Chan-wook once before, starring in Joint Security Area as a Swedish army officer of Korean descent. Here, the demure actor plays dramatically against type, brilliantly interpreting the searing confliction of Geum-ja, a woman tormented by the extent to which her life has spiraled out of control, at the same time she struggles with the notion that she cannot achieve any measure of redemption until she has exacted her bloody revenge.

Also featured is a stellar cast of performers whose faces, if not names, will be easily recognized by viewers of Park’s earlier chapters in the trilogy: Acclaimed Korean actor Choi Min-sik, whose portrayal of Oh Dae-su was the heart and soul of Oldboy, is another who defies typecasting here as Mr. Baek, the monstrous school teacher responsible for Geum-ja’s suffering and the object of her vengeance. (His own Oldboy nemesis, Yu Ji-tae, who performed as Oh Dae-su’s tormenter, Lee Woo-jin, appears here in cameo as the adult ghost of a murdered boy.)

Oldboy fans should also quickly recognize actor Oh Dal-su. In Lady Vengeance he is Geum-ja’s boss, a baker and her mentor; in Oldboy he will long be remembered as Mr. Park, the guy who had his dental work rearranged with a claw hammer.

Rounding out a fine cast of Korean superstars is the marvelous Song Kang-ho, perhaps the most recognizable face for Korean cinema enthusiasts, having been featured prominently in Memories of Murder and JSA, among the many other titles spanning his illustrious career. In Mr. Vengeance he was the industrialist who tragically lost his daughter; in Ms. Vengeance he is seen briefly as one of Mr. Baek’s thugs.

Also re-teaming with Park Chan-wook are his dazzling Oldboy collaborators, cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hun and composer Jo Yeong-wook (along with Antonio Vivaldi). Together again, this is a dream team that once more delivers a crackling story that is equal parts horrific and poignant, richly seasoned with a huge dollop of humor that is as black as baker’s dark chocolate, set against a stylish (and highly stylized) visual palette, augmented by a haunting, beautifully feminine baroque score.

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