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Lady Vengeance
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by Peter Sobczynski

"a.k.a."Kill Bill: Volume 3"
3 stars

Back in 2004, the Cannes Film Festival jury, led by none other than Quentin Tarantino, awarded the Grand Prix (essentially their second-place award–the top prize that year went to “Fahrenheit 9/11") to “Oldboy,” Korean director Park Chan-wook’s bloody and brilliantly mind-bending second part of a proposed loose trilogy of films using revenge as the common theme. (The first part, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” finally appeared in the States after the successful release of “Oldboy.”) With “Lady Vengeance,” the concluding film of the set, it feels as if Park decided to repay Tarantino for the award by crafting a film that is essentially a feature-length homage to the “Kill Bill” films. It’s a nice sentiment but in this case, a simple thank-you note might have been more effective because the resulting film is kind of a disappointment–the freshness and ingenuity of “Oldboy” has been replaced with the kind of lazy self-satisfaction that often comes when a unique filmmaker unexpectedly achieves worldwide success and isn’t quite sure of how to handle it.

As the film opens, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) is released from the prison where she has been incarcerated for 13 ½ years. We learn that she confessed to the kidnapping and murder of a young boy and spent her time in prison transforming herself, through selfless good deeds and the work of a dedicated preacher, into a virtual poster girl for the power of rehabilitation. As she emerges from the prison walls, she looks so pure and angelic as she stands in the snow as the preacher and some of his followers approach her that it seems impossible that she could be anything other than an angel. Quickly, however, Geum-ja disabuses us of that notion by coldly slapping away the preacher’s gift of a white tofu cake (traditionally eating as a symbolic kickoff to a fresh start in life) and suggesting that he perform an anatomical impossibility on himself.

Through a fractured narrative structure, we eventually begin to learn more about Geum-ja’s past. Years ago, as a confused teenager who unexpectedly became pregnant, she asked a former grammar school teacher of hers, Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik, the beleaguered star of “Oldboy”), if she can stay with him. Before long, Baek convinced her to help him with the kidnapping of a boy in order to ransom him to his rich parents. When things go bad and Baek kills the kid in a fit of annoyance, he forces Geum-ja to confess to the crime by threatening to kill her own child if she doesn’t. She did–even though her confession was less than convincing to the cop in charge of the case–and spent her time in prison plotting her revenge and cultivating relationships with the fellow prisoners who will help her set it in motion as they are released back into society one by one. One even goes so far as to marry Mr. Baek in order to keep track of him.

Geum-ja sets her plan in motion but is distracted when she tracks down the whereabouts of her child, a girl named Jenny (Kwon Yea-young) who has been adopted by an Australian couple. She goes off to Australia to meet her daughter, they bond and she winds up bringing her back to Korea for a visit. At first, Geum-ja’s newfound maternal leanings threaten to push her away from her plan of revenge but she quickly readjusts her priorities in a manner that will appall animal lovers everywhere. At the same time, though, Baek has gotten wind of her plan and makes an attempt to kill her once and for all. It fails and Geum-ja is about to get her revenge when she makes a shocking discovery that forces her to reevaluate her plans.

I have no idea if Park conceived of the story of “Lady Vengeance” before or after seeing “Kill Bill” but one cannot deny that the two films have any number of similarities–a woman re-emerging after a long absence to deal with duel feelings of revenge and motherhood while tracking down the man who did her wrong, over-the-top violence and a scrambled narrative that only gradually reveals itself over time. The difference between the two films is that while these aspects felt fresh and organic in Tarantino’s work, they feel somewhat forced and unnatural here. In “Oldboy,” Park told a story that was run-of-the-mill in its broad strokes but unique and ingenious in the details. Here, the storyline is pretty familiar and not even the extreme contortions of Park’s screenplay is able to quite disguise that fact–even the seemingly surprising developments in the final reels have a whiff of seen-it/done it to them. More problematic is the way that Park insists on the redemption of his central character without ever really providing any true sense of it–this is supposed to be the emotional center of the film but it comes off as shallow as everything else.

“Oldboy” was also celebrated for its wild, over-the-top violence and while “Lady Vengeance” is a less brutal film, his nasty set-pieces are far less effective because he is trying to hard to shock viewers without ever really earning the right to do what he does. For example, videotapes of some of Baek’s previous crimes are discovered and the brief glimpses that we are treated to are truly grotesque–so grotesque, in fact, that they border on exploitative. These are prelude to the equally icky conclusion but this sequence isn’t nearly as provocative as it thinks it is–for all its efforts, the ending of the film comes off as little more than a politically correct “Hostel” and it refuses to even attempt to deal with the issues that it raises. Other attempts to ratchet up the weirdness come off as desperate attempts to attract attention–I suppose that Geum-ja needed a fat homicidal lesbian opponent that she needed to defeat in prison to win the respect of the other inmates, but did this character really need to be a cannibal as well?

“Lady Vengeance” has its virtues–it is reasonably stylish and rarely boring (it does drag towards the end–like “The Da Vinci Code,” this is a film that seems to come to a natural conclusion and then drags things out for another fifteen minutes) and Lee Tae-hun turns in a fearsomely convincing performance in the lead role. However, the drive and energy that marked Park’s previous work is largely absent here–it feels at time as if he made the film less because he needed to and more because he told people he was doing a trilogy and felt that he had to make good on his word. Hopefully his next work will contain that drive and energy in a way that will allow him to cash the check that “Oldboy” wrote.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12891&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/26/06 00:08:55
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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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  10-Feb-2006 (18)


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