Tuesday, February 21, 2006


“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 an exotic gun.

After being sent off to prison for the kidnapping and subsequent murder of an 8 year old boy, young teenager Geum-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 inspirational lectures to the other inmates on finding her spirituality.

But the story is not so simple. Geum-Ja has left a daughter behind herself. She took the fall completely (although she is not innocent herself) for her accomplice 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 Australia 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.

Director Chan-wook Park continues his sometimes poetic, sometimes down and dirty, but always gorgeously cinematic look at the effects of violence on 'normal' people in cruel and unjust urban landscapes. (Park has been referred to as an asian Quentin Tarantino with much, much more substance). If Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first part of his thematically linked trilogy of vengeance, was about a silent failure of communication and Oldboy (presented as KBT#7) was about disconnection, Chinjeolhan geumjassi is about something wholly appropriate for the closing chapter of such a surreally violent trilogy: Atonement.

The film is achingly beautiful and laced with dark humour. It 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 Geum-Ja building the nerve to act on something just, but destroying something innocent. It stretches any sympathy you may have for her 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 characters 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.

With its delicate, but baroque score, beautiful imagery (from a pristine plate of tofu to the barren Australian outback) Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is haunting, cathartic, and above all, pretty.

If you have not been to a KBT for some time, this is the film to return to! (I assure you that seeing the other two parts are not necessary, each film in this trilogy is fully stand-alone.) Drinks at 8:15. Trailers and Showtime at 8:30pm.


Anonymous colleen said...

I don't know if you've shown this already, but I just saw "Three Extremes"--which is a set of three short films in the genre of new asian horror. "Dumplings" by Fruit-Chan, "Cut" by Park, and "Box" by Miike. All the films are extremely disturbing and beautifully shot.

1:36 a.m.  
Blogger Kurt Halfyard said...

I haven't had the pleasure of seeing 3-Extremes yet. However, I did show Fruit Chan's extended feature-length version of DUMPLINGS at a KBT screening. ( http://kurtscomment.blogspot.com/2005/07/kbt-presents-dumplings.html) One of the best asian horror films and certainly the best one out of Hong Kong. If you havent had the chance to catch his long version it is worth seeking out. Also, there is a 'sequel' to 3-extremes (3 new shorts from 3 different asian filmmakers) coming out soon as well, I believe.

At the moment 3-Extremes is sitting in my Zip (Canadian Netflix) queue.

12:04 p.m.  

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