I wrote about Chan-wook Park’s Old Boy (2003) the other day and mentioned it was the second installment of the director’s The Vengeance Trilogy. In Old Boy, Park explores questions like: how much is knowing what you’ve done (or are doing) part of the torment and to be considered in judgement; and who do you blame? How responsible are you for the ramifications of an act done in ignorance or youth? Just a few of many. The plot is a tight one, and yet Vengeance is allowed its many nuances. Lady Vengeance reminds its audience that there is still more on the subject to be explored; or of interest enough to examine more closely. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the final installment in the trilogy, is about a young woman Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee) who was sent to prison for the murder of a little boy, a crime she did not commit. 13 1/2 years later she is released and she is prepared to carry out her vengeance on the man who forced her to confess to the murder.
While Guem-ja Lee is innocent of murdering the boy, the story isn’t about an innocent young woman. Guem-ja was without social blemish before entering prison, though she was young and in a difficult spot. [Like Old Boy, the narrative, though sympathetic to the protagonist, it remains fairly objective.] When you are shown Guem-ja in prison and after you see a young woman who smiles rather satanically over her ruse as an angel, as the “kind hearted Ms. Guem-ja”*. And Guem-ja is done with the ruse. Yeong-ae Lee plays a woman wronged and a woman tormented to an exceptional degree. That she carries off the characters courage and very sharp intelligence is remarkable. Chan-wook Park’s films, while gorgeously rendered, rely on the best from his cast, and most particularly his central character. Yeong-ae Lee shines…or is it a piercing dark glimmer.
A straight-forward tale of a young woman wrongly accused who hunts down the true murderer and satisfies her vengeance is complicated by the fact that Guem-ja is guilty of more than just taking the rap for the murderer; though that in itself becomes enough. Guem-ja had an infant daughter with whom she loves and is curious about, and so follows up on her welfare. You meet a girl who admits to her own anger at having a childhood with her birth mother stolen. And you realize that the film has a lot to do with stolen objects, moments, people–not just the one boy, not just the one young woman.
Guem-ja’s plan for vengeance is beautifully complicated. It is evident the planning began very early on. We learn about the years of incarceration via the characters (a released) Guem-ja introduces us to. The screen prints names and statistics and runs a sequence for further explain how they know Guem-ja and why they are beholden to her. Their stories, as they come, create a linear passage of their own; the story is mystery enough without complicating the narrative with a jumbled timeline. The film eventually coalesces into the present with only a few necessary flashbacks waiting upon our meeting the Detective who never believed Guem-ja Lee’s confession, and upon finally meeting the murderer himself. Guem-ja Lee is going to kill him, and we know how. But not everything has been revealed. There is something Guem-ja Lee and the Detective didn’t know.
The last portion of the film is so unexpected and yet holds incredible relevance to the whole. Whose responsibility is it to carry out vengeance? To what extent did the murderers actions reverberate? Can anything recover the loss–especially of that quality called innocence. and of that thing called ignorance. While the film is uncomfortable and has its fair share of flinching violence (primarily of the sexual kind), the last bit is bloody, and well–you learn that the kidnapper taped his victim making a ransom plea to mommy and daddy before killing him and sending the tape for monetary gain as well. The however brief moments are awful–and unfortunately it was likely necessary–only to make real what seems so very not real, an effort to remove the “I can only imagine.”
No one really seems to know what they are getting into when mixing themselves up with Lady Vengeance. And you see why some can’t help but be beholden to her. They found themselves in an untenable place, much like Guem-ja Lee was, and the pact made becomes bloody and risky. But what of the outcome? We learn of the different prices paid–how deserving were they?
Healing is never really a promise, but the ending does lend itself to hopefulness, at least for Guem-ja Lee. I’m not sure if we were meant to ever forgive her, or whether we are even meant to have a say; which I find a beautiful aspect to the narrative.
* the translation of the Korean title, 친절한 금자씨, Chinjeolhan geumjassi (per wiki)
Note: Lady Vengeance is an installment, not a sequel; a companion thematically, but otherwise its own. This is important because the Min-sik Choi who was Dae-su Oh, the central character in Old Boy, is not Dae-sue Oh in Lady Vengeance. He is someone completely other as Mr. Baek. If you watch both you will see just how good Min-sik Choi is at his job.
If you had to go with one out of The Vengeance Trilogy, I would recommend Old Boy because you at least think you are having a good time for most of the film; you know, until the real horror sets in. But I do have yet to see Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002).
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Produced by Cho Young-wuk,Lee Chun-yeong,Lee Tae-hun
Written by Jeong Seo-kyeong, Park Chan-wook
Starring Lee Yeong-ae, Choi Min-sik
Music by Choi Seung-hyun
Country South Korean
Korean w/ subtitles
112 minutes, Rated R.