Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan geumjassi) first published by EyeforFilm
Vengeance always begets more vengeance. Park Chan-wook never intended that the bleak social commentary of Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and the Oedipal extravagance of OldBoy (2003) should be conceived as related projects, but after Korean journalists hounded him over his new-found obsession with violent revenge, he made a flippant remark about plans for a trio of films on the theme, and so the idea for his quirky post-modern fairytale Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan geumjassi) was born – a trilogy-closer with ambitions to square the endless circle engendered by acts of retribution.
After spending 13 years in prison for a ruthless child abduction and murder that in fact she did not commit, angel-faced Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) emerges a changed woman, hell-bent on executing an elaborate revenge-fantasy upon the real culprit, the school teacher Mr Baek (Choi Min-sik). Immediately she begins setting things in motion, assisted by the many inmates she has befriended over the years, but her plans become complicated as she attempts both to rebuild a relationship with her 13-year-old daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), and to start a new one with naïve baker’s assistant Geun-shik (Kim Si-hu). Torn between her desire for bloody vengeance and her need to atone, Geum-ja is tormented almost as much as her victim will be; but even if she never quite attains the satisfaction she craves, she is certainly headed down a twisted path of redemption.
If Lady Vengeance self-consciously reintroduces actors (Song Kang-ho, Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Lee Seung-shin) and motifs (a kidney transplant, an imprisoned protagonist, key scenes in a school classroom, a snow-set finale) that were prominent in Park’s two previous revenge films, at the same time it seeks to temper their masculine aggression and resolve the conflict at their heart by introducing a main character who is female, maternal, and racked with guilt for what she has done and what she intends to do. And if all this sounds a little too much like Kill Bill, the absurdity of Tarantino’s slickly eroticised avenger is also exposed here, as Geum-ja declares grotesquely to a bewildered Geun-shik: “I’m planning to kill another person… Do you think I’m sexy?”.
In a sense, the story told in Lady Vengeance is as old as time, but Park gives it a refreshing dynamism by incorporating a menagerie of rich characters and a diabolically convoluted series of flashbacks, colour codes, dream sequences, ghostly visitations and false trails. One moment it is a women-in-prison flick, the next it is a satire of bourgeois manners, now it explores the conflict between Buddhism and Christianity, and next it compares the notions of individual and collective punishment. In this way the plot always seems to move in the direction least expected, and the viewer’s desire for retributive release is, like Geum-ja’s, built up only to be repeatedly frustrated by all manner of confronting complications, some surreally funny, others truly shocking. For in Lady Vengeance, revenge is ultimately a shabby, sordid business that leaves everybody soiled and in need of purification – or at least of a (tofu) pie in the face.
Park may direct with a hyperkinetic zeal that borders on self-indulgence, but the result is something beautiful, riveting, intelligent and surprisingly responsible. It is certainly a fitting conclusion to the best revenge trilogy since Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and, in what probably ensures its status as a classic, it is a film whose Byzantine structure will leave you wanting to see it again… and again… and again…
© Anton Bitel