Friday, September 16, 2005

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

“It has to be pretty, everything should be pretty” The kind lady Geum-ja wistfully intones this phrase to the machinist who is going to build her instrument of vengeance.

Rejoice fans of Chan Wook Park, for Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the fitting conclusion to his Trilogy of Revenge. In fact, this film represents some growth over Old Boy. Do I have Your Attention? Those disappointed by this film are probably going to be so only by expecting a dizzying mind-trip along the lines of Old Boy, and not getting that expectation fulfilled. Here Park plays his hand a little (but only a little) more out in the open and aims for understanding and empathy over blowing minds.

*Potentially MILD Spoilers - Beware if you want to go in COMPLETELY fresh*

After being sent off to prison for the kidnapping and subsequent murder of an 8 year old boy, young teenager Guem-Ja quickly loses her naïveté as she adjusts to prison life. She flirts with Christianity, and offers charity to many of the inmates she shares a cell with. She is very helpful and constructive in prison, and does a lot of favours for a lot of the inmates (the film nicely digresses to fill in several portraits of Korean women in prison and how they got there). No one has committed a crime as heinous as Geum-Ja though, and she goes exceedingly out of her way to atone for her crimes, to the point of giving lectures to the other inmates on finding her spirituality.

But the story is never so simple. Geum-Ja has left a daughter behind herself. She took the fall completely (although she is not innocent herself) for her accomplish who was the more vicious half of the kidnapping duo to prevent him for killing her daughter. Now she has missed out on many years of her daughters life, who we learn was quickly put up for adoption in Austraila after Geum-Ja was jailed (to the point where the girl didn’t learn Korean, only English).

Geum-Ja has a plan which she puts into motion. First, her form of atonement to the parents of the dead boy is filled with a shocking image and some pert irony. But then, it is a plan of simple revenge; that is until she discovers something horrific and tragic. This prompts a change in plans to something far more elaborate and diabolical an aim to achieve some kind of catharsis.

Park continues his sometimes poetic, sometimes down and dirty look at the effects of Violence on normal people in a cruel and unjust urban landscapes. If Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was about silences and Oldboy was about disconnection, Lady Vengeance is about ritual and most importantly for the closing chapter of such a surreally violent trilogy, atonement.

The film is achingly beautiful, laced with dark humour and darker images, and captures a diverse and increasingly macabre collection of tiny rituals, many of them involving food. One fascinating sequence involves an invested group of people folding a bloody sheet of plastic like a flag at a military funeral. Another surreally violent scene shows her building the nerve to act on something, but destroying something innocent. It stretches any sympathy you may have from Geum-Ja while adding layer upon layer of complexity for both her character and her situation.

Yeong-ae Lee is magnificently up to the task of portraying such a complex character who goes through so many transitions but intentionally maintains a distances from both the other chracters in the movie, as well as the audience. Geum-Ja Lee is the harbinger for moving on, although it is clear she never will be able to. The relationship between Geum-Ja and her daughter has only a small amount of screen-time, but it is crucial to the story working, and is told with a bittersweet combination of hope and tragedy. The 13 years which were lost for Geum-Ja have such far reaching consequences. Prison and planning have made her a strong-willed, confident, competent and capable woman, a far cry from the victimized wallflower she was as a late teenager.

I’m very impressed with the career of Chan Wook Park. The 'Revenge Trilogy' is such an incredible success, with each entry being both different and successful. I hope he moves on and does something different still, bringing his unique sense of cinema to another worthy subject.

Raise expectations. When this film plays comes to DVD in Korea, or plays North American Cinemas come January, it is going to have a big fan-club.


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