Lady Vengeance

This last and best part of director Park Chan-Wook’s revenge trilogy makes ‘Kill Bill’ look like child’s play.

By: Elise Nakhnikian
(   Lee Yeong-ae is the delicate-looking beauty with a spine of steel in Lady Vengeance.)
   Director Park Chan- Wook is a celebrity in South Korea. He’s also a star of the international film festival circuit, where Oldboy, the gripping second movie in his revenge trilogy, won Cannes’ grand jury prize in 2004, but his films are hard to find in American theaters. In fact, both Oldboy and the director’s own favorite, Joint Security Area, are being remade in Hollywood for American audiences, which means the originals probably won’t play here at all except on DVD. And that’s a shame, because Park’s elegant, intelligently told tales are made for the big screen, simultaneously visceral and dreamlike.
   Fortunately, it may not be too late to see his latest. The last and best of Park’s increasingly complex revenge movies, which started with 2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance recently played in New York after making the festival circuit (I saw it at last fall’s New York Film Festival), and with a little luck it should show up before long at Montgomery Cinemas.
   A feast for the eyes, Lady Vengeance gives your mind plenty to chew on as well. "In my films," Park told The New York Times Magazine, "I focus on pain and fear — the fear just before an act of violence and the pain after. This applies to the perpetrators as well as the victims." But his movies are not voyeuristic or sadistic, like so many of the extreme slasher movies currently elbowing past one another in the multiplexes.
   Instead of reveling in pain and fear, Park reveals the psychic damage they do. When he shows someone being tortured — though thankfully, the worst of the violence in Lady Vengeance is committed off-camera — you feel the full, awful weight of the deed.
   The title character of Lady Vengeance is Lee Geum-ja (played by popular Korean star Lee Yeong-ae), a delicate-looking beauty with a spine of steel. We first see her in a prison of the kind found in Susan Hayward movies, populated by cruel, conniving dominatrixes and their cowed victims. Geum-ja floats above the fray, ingratiating herself to her cellmates by helping the weak beat back the bullies.
   When she gets out, the movie shifts emotional gears. We see the calculation behind Geum-ja’s kindness as she coolly executes a complicated plan for revenge on the man responsible for her prison term (played by Choi Min-sik, the star of Oldboy), enlisting the help of each of her grateful ex-con friends in the process. Then she decides to involve a crew of ordinary, law-abiding middle-class citizens and the gears shift again.
   I can’t say much more without giving away key plot points, but much of the motivation for Geum-ja’s revenge is provided by an absent daughter who, like the daughter of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill’s Bride, was taken from her by the man she wants revenge on. The similarity is so striking that I found myself comparing the two movies afterward — and thinking that Lady Vengeance makes Kill Bill look like kid stuff. And I loved Kill Bill.<</i>br>
   The head of the Cannes jury that awarded Oldboy the Grand Prix, Tarantino was one of Park’s first and loudest Westerners, who’s one of the directors the discriminating pop-culture magpie has borrowed from. But where Tarantino is content to play artfully orchestrated riffs on the grind house movies of his youth, Park has more on his mind.

   A former philosophy student, Park didn’t make revenge movies just to get off on the adrenaline rush. He wanted to explore the toll vengeance takes on the avenger — the way it turns victims into victimizers and makes people do things that will haunt them forever. Taking revenge, he told the London Telegraph, is "the most foolish thing you can do. Revenge will do nothing to bring back what you have lost. It’s quite a simple concept, even children understand it, but adults, and sometimes even whole states, seem compelled to engage in these acts of vengeance."
   Park is also a former movie reviewer, which may explain why he’s always analyzing his own work. As he told one interviewer: "My films are stories of people who place the blame for their actions on others because they refuse to take on the blame themselves. The fact that people have to resort to another type of violence in order to subjugate their initial guilty consciences is the most basic quality of tragedy characteristic in my movies thus far."
   True enough, but it doesn’t come close to capturing the sheer visceral pull of a movie like Lady Vengeance. With its gorgeous cinematography, cleverly constructed plot, bold use of color, and with signature scenes that burn into your memory like so many still photographs, this haunting morality tale is one of the most engrossing movies I’ve seen in the past couple of years.
Rated R for strong violent content — some involving children — and some sexuality.