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In accordance with the acclaim of recent South Korean cinema, Sympathy
for Lady Vengeance is just one of three films from that country featured at this
years New York Film Festival. Director Park Chan-Wooks 2002 Sympathy
for Mr. Vengeance and 2003 Oldboy,
together with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance make up Parks Vengeance
Trilogy, which he only opted to do after he got tired of people complaining about Oldboy
also being a revenge-minded movie. So then he gave them a third one.
As the title indicates, this time the protagonist is a woman. Lady Vengeance opens with Lee Geum-Ja (Lee Young-Ae, Joint Security Area) leaving prison after thirteen years of incarceration. Put there after she confessed to killing a five-year old boy, she was a cause celebre for being a stunningly beautiful nineteen year old at the time. Now, she seeks revenge against the man who was behind her prison sentence, one Mr. Baek (Choi Min-Sik, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War).
Lady Vengeance lucidly jumps back and forth in time to lay down the ingredients that go into Geum-Jas master plan. Making notable contributions are her former fellow inmates. In prison, she was known as Kind-Hearted Geum-Ja, and made many colorful allies through her generosity. Kim Yang-Hee (Seo Young-Joo) was a prostitute who had a prison affair with her. When Woo Si-Young (Kim Bu-Seon, A Moment to Remember), a vicious bank robber, was dying, Geum-Ja saved her life by giving her a kidney. Oh Su-Hee (Ra Mi-Ran) was an adulteress forced into sexual slavery by a brutal woman who killed her husband and his mistress and then ate them. Geum-Ja delicately intervened and rescued Oh.
While setting up her machinations, Geum-Ja gets a job at a bakery whose owner, Mr. Chang (Oh Dal-Su), was once inspired by Geum-Jas astounding pastry skills when he observed her in prison. His nineteen-year old assistant, Geun-Sik (Kim Shee-Hoo), is attracted to Geum-Ja for other reasons. Then the reintroduction of Geum-Jas thirteen-year old daughter, Jenny (Kwon Yea-Young), into her life creates further delays in her plans.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the flashiest, funniest, and most baroque of the Vengeance Trilogy. It is also the most simpleminded and, despite that, eventually the most muddled. For the most part, Park keeps the genre action moving at a rapid-fire pace while tossing in everything from slapstick to extremely dark comedy to surrealistic moments like Geun-Jas face literally glowing or her dream about Mr. Baek with the body of a dog. The music by Cho Young-Wuk and Vivaldi is very effective at sustaining the enthralling and playful mood.
If the film continued in this manner, Park would have ended up with something perhaps too similar to Oldboy or Kill Bill. So when the penultimate moment with Mr. Baek comes, Park takes a risky left turn, and the final third of Lady Vengeance goes into unexplored territory, something of a critique of capital punishment, a black comedy Dead Man. This is more admirable in theory than execution, but then Parks aspirations go even further, which is when he mars his film with a pretentious ending aimed at the spiritual. As has been the case with all his films, the higher Park reaches, the further he has to fall. Hes a great genre filmmaker, but not a skilled poet.
- George Wu