Judge Joel Pearce didn't think vengeance was ladylike until he saw Yeong-ae Lee in action.
"Did you find that bastard yet?"
Chan-wook Park is one of the few directors who has never disappointed me. Each time another one of his films comes out, it defies my expectations while simultaneously blowing me away. He manages to do it again with Lady Vengeance, a worthy third chapter in his vengeance trilogy. This one is not to be missed.
Facts of the Case
Geum-ja (Yeong-ae Lee, JSA) is out of prison after 11 years, and she's looking for revenge. You see, she was framed for the kidnapping and murder of a young boy, and took the rap to protect the life of her own child. Now, she is consumed with thoughts of revenge against the man that set her up. She has built up a strong network of ex-con women, all of whom are eager to get in on the action. But even Geum-ja has no idea where this plan of hers will lead.
Calling Lady Vengeance Chan-wook Park's masterpiece is a statement I don't take lightly. After all, his breakthrough was JSA, one of the best political thrillers I have ever seen. After that, he delivered Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which brilliantly redefined the revenge genre. I hardly have to mention Oldboy, the second film in the series and a one of the most exciting visual treats in years. With Lady Vengeance, he has once again demonstrated his ability to impress completely. This is one of the best films to be released on DVD this year.
Even though each of the three films in Chan-wook Park's revenge trilogy is designed to stand alone, it's important to see Lady Vengeance for where it fits into the series. The revenge genre is certainly not new. We all have an inborn desire for vengeance when we are wronged, and we get a visceral satisfaction from seeing an evil person receive punishment for his or her actions. With Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the revenge genre was turned on its head. We felt sorry for the object of wrath, but also for those seeking revenge. The visceral satisfaction was taken away from us. Oldboy gave us back our visceral enjoyment of revenge taken to its logical extreme. It was just as harsh, though, as the revenge took place on a downward spiral of total self annihilation. The ending is satisfying in the same way that a Greek tragedy is satisfying: Our hero finally reaches the absolute depths of human experience he has been moving towards from the beginning. And, like a Greek tragedy, the worst details take place off-stage.
Absolute horror is where Lady Vengeance begins. Through this third film, we are taken past the logical extreme of vengeance, into a strangely stylized world where the revenge is so fitting that it no longer satisfies. Geum-ja's revenge is planned so carefully that she doesn't feel any emotion over her victory, and neither do we. Where Oldboy ends with a bang, Lady Vengeance ends with a still, quiet contemplation of how its characters are affected by this story of revenge. Because of this, fans of Oldboy who want another slice of the same pie may leave disappointed, but it's more likely they will be blown away again by Chan-wook Park's ability to deny our expectations and deliver something more. This film deconstructs our own desire for vengeance. After all, that's what we've come for, just as it is Geum-ja's goal. The closer we get to that revenge, the more we learn about the man who is supposed to die. We look forward to his gruesome fate. But then, when the time for revenge actually arrives, the film starts searching for our breaking point. Not our breaking point in terms of absorbing gruesome images, but our breaking point in terms of our understanding of revenge and our patience for it.
Stylistically, Lady Vengeance lives up to its predecessor. The film has a completely unique visual style, almost reminiscent of Wes Anderson's ability to put dozens of interesting details into a static frame. Chan-wook Park's camera motion is brilliant as well, with long horizontal sweeps that reveal much more than physical reality. The style here, though, is inextricably tied to the story and the characters. While in Oldboy it often felt that Chan-wook Park was just showing off, the aesthetic of this film is critical to the way we understand it. Geum-ja's beauty is integral to the story, and the film is shot in a way that places her in context.
As in the rest of the trilogy, Lady Vengeance has some spectacular performances. Yeong-ae Lee has the difficult job of juggling this complex character over a span of 13 years and several severe shifts in personality. There are a quartet of core stereotypes that women have played in the history of drama: the saint, the whore, the mother, and the witch. Geum-ja has a chance to personify each of these stereotypes, but rather than simply offer another delivery of the classic role, she exemplifies each one of the archetypes. Lee handles every twist and turn of this complex role with ease, mesmerizing us as we wait to see where she will take us next. Choi Min-sik delightfully underplays his role as the sleazy antagonist here, as do most of the other members of the supporting cast. This is Geum-ja's film, though, and we are never allowed to forget it.
All of this leads to an ending that is as challenging and frustrating as it is beautiful. We are left to puzzle over the tale of Geum-ja's redemption, if that is indeed what she has found through her vengeance. Images from the film remain in mind for days afterwards, as only a great film can accomplish. I have not even begun to explore the religious imagery and symbolism in the film, which is a fascinating and complex exploration of Catholicism.
Tartan has done a fine job with this DVD release as well. Horizontal movement sometimes reveals some jitter in the video transfer, but it's easily one of the best I've seen from Tartan Video. With such unique cinematography, such a clear transfer is both critical and appreciated. The sound transfer uses all channels, though it is often a front-heavy film. There is quite an array of special features here, including three commentary tracks. Two are in Korean, subtitled in English. The other is with film professor Richard Pena. The three commentary tracks give us a wide range of perspectives on the film, which is worthwhile when it comes to complex films like this. A translated interview with Chan-wook Park reveals more about some areas of the film. There is also a production featurette, allowing us to see some of the shooting and development of the film. Although this is not the best stocked special edition around (and it would have been nice to see the director's color fading version included), Tartan has taken an unusual level of care to assemble this package.
Whether or not you love Oldboy, this film is a cinematic masterpiece that really deserves to be watched and appreciated by as wide an audience as possible. It is darkly funny, deeply moving, and thoughtful enough to spark contemplation and discussion long after the credits have rolled. In other words, Lady Vengeance is the kind of movie that doesn't come around nearly often enough.
Whatever Chan-wook Park has up his sleeve for us next, it can't come soon enough. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Director Interview
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