Living Well Is Not an Adequate Revenge

Film: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Year: 2005
Director: Park Chan-wook (also co-writer)

Q: “What do you get when you cross Choi Min-sik’s head with a stuffed dog’s body and the slats of a rocking horse?”
A: “Nightmares. Nightmares for everyone. Endless nightmares.”

Between the years 2002 and 2005 AD, thrillmeister Park Chan-wook released a bloody slew of movies known collectively as the Vengeance Trilogy. Its constituent flicks are 02’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 03’s Oldboy, and 05’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (in some circles titled only Lady Vengeance). The trio have no apparent narrative convergence, but are packaged together for their shared fixation on thematically dense vendettas and gut-churning violence. In perpetrating them, Park worked shoulder-to-shoulder with some of South Korea’s top cinematic artists and earned himself a global rap as a filmmaker of sick vision and slick execution.

Mr. Vengeance, a jet-black comedy about a kidney deal and a kidnapping gone grotesquely wrong, is very good. Though it comes close to overplaying its brutality at times, the infraction is more than made up for by the craftiness of the plot and the camera’s wonderfully unsettling patience. Its follow-up, Oldboy, about a man who is imprisoned in a hotel room without explanation for upwards of a decade, is better yet. This is a film I would recommend (to the unsqueamish) above many others. It takes its brutality much farther than Mr. Vengeance, to grosser and better-choreographed limits, but affixes it to a meticulous, ingenious script and a depth of humanity that makes Crime and Punishment look like Clifford the Big Red Dog. Moreover, it has the priceless fortune of being anchored by Choi Min-sik, one of the ROK’s acting elite, whose performance somehow manages to capture and stream believably between the loudest, howling heights and most stolid pits of despair. Oldboy is a great movie.

Why, then, is Lady Vengeance such a disappointment? Much of the core crew with whom Park collaborated on Oldboy returns. Even Choi Min-sik appears again, this time playing the object of vengeance: a schoolteacher who coerced a pregnant former student (Lee Young-ae) to help him kidnap a toddler, then sent her to prison for thirteen years in his place after he smothered the kid. But where Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy were superbly paced and highly inventive takes on the revenge thriller—reimagining not so much the traditional morals of revenge tales but the level of complexity and detail administering them—Lady Vengeance is a butterfingered mess that offers no discernible spin on the genre other than to argue that vengeance is maybe sometimes worth it. Maybe. Like many aspects of the movie, its stance is unclear.

Granted, the picture does not slip into simplicity. The plot is probably just as bulky as either of its predecessors. But it is also much harder to follow, with scenes that are weakly tacked together as if by an overzealous and corner-cutting cobbler, or sandwiched into one another with little regard for temporal logic. There is a voiceover narration that runs suicides between superfluity and being our only means on Earth of making sense of the story. Characters are introduced and given concrete exposition, then thrown away as if the movie forgets to find a purpose for them. The pacing opens at a sprint and slows to a wheezing crawl as the story progresses—which squares well with an alleged version of the film that gradually fades from color to black-and-white across the whole duration—so that, while the scenes toward the back end are the most watchable, they are far less thrilling than they might have been if we were actually on board when the movie set sail.

All this could be overlooked, however, if only the main character were not so utterly untenable. Lee’s Geum-ja seems to recede farther from our grasp the more she is obviously meant to be securing our affection. From the very commencement of the film she is chock-full of contradictions, some of which are acknowledged—such as her dual jailhouse nicknames: “The Witch” and “Kind-hearted Geum-ja”—but most of which are stifling. At times she seems genuinely saintly, and at others frigidly uncaring, with no rhyme or reason to the flop. These inconsistencies are not issues within the movie, which can always be thematically juicy, but in the movie’s construction. They are not served up in an arrangement that empowers us to parse the varying degrees of truth and come to know Geum-ja better. And if we are to believe what the narration tells us (if we are not, then may God save me), there are definitely varying degrees of sincerity to her persona that we should be aware of.

I see why the “sympathy” part is commonly omitted from the title. Mr. Vengeance—truly the Lady’s better half (or better third?)—fosters our sympathy by committing time to its characters, observing their grief and even their goodness before heading off to the races and hoping that we’ll place our bets where it wants. Oldboy achieves the same effect by stripping its characters (mainly Choi’s Dae-su) to such base states of desperation that we cannot help but identify with him on a purely animal level. The scene where Dae-su interacts with another human being for the first time in two Olympic cycles—warily sniffing at him and caressing his face in the manner of apes—is touching, disturbing, and endearing all at once. It supports the creation of a character we can latch onto. We understand, very basically, his thoughts and feelings in this moment, and that understanding adds to how much we care about and for him. And when he turns totally apathetic to his man Friday’s personal troubles the next minute, we are able to follow that transition because it happens on a juncture that the movie has been crafting within us all along.

By contrast, watch the scene in Lady Vengeance where Geum-ja travels to Australia to reunite with her long-lost daughter, renamed Jenny, and whiles away the night pounding goofy juice with the adoptive parents while Jenny tries to watch TV in the next room. Inherent comedy gold aside, what does it tell us about Geum-ja? That she doesn’t really have much interest in seeing her daughter? Then why has she journeyed so far for exactly that reason? And if she really is so heartless, then why should we back her pursuit of atonement? Rather than drawing us nearer to the heroine, a scene like this alienates us. This is, unfortunately, the pattern throughout Lady Vengeance—an immovable rat’s nest at the end of an otherwise impeccably groomed trilogy.

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