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Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)
9th Feb 06
Sent to prison at for 13 years for her part in the kidnap and murder of a child, 19-year-old Lee Geum-Ja discovers that her accomplice Mr. Baek is actually responsible for her incarceration and has betrayed her. While in prison, she makes good use of her time, befriending some usefully deadly inmates and preparing for her revenge…
It took a little while for Park Chan Wook to cement his reputation in the UK as - potentially - the most exciting talent to emerge from the new strain of brutal Korean cinema. His breakthrough feature, Joint Security Area (JSA) was a box office smash in his native country but in the West passed under the radar of all but the most committed Korean film fan. A muscular, politically explosive military thriller, it remains a very solid commercial debut, but hardly an indicator of the cinematic path Park was about to take. His next feature, the comically horrific revenge fantasy Sympathy for Mr Vengeance caused more of a stir, alerting jaded thrill seekers to a hot new talent. But it was Cannes 2004 and the patronage of a certain moon-faced ubergeek that provided the launch pad for Park big time.
With his thrilling Oedipal mind-fuck Oldboy, Park had arrived on the international scene, making off with the Grand Prix award for his troubles. Rapturous festival receptions ensued, including an opening night at last years London FrightFest in which Park introduced the flick by saying he hoped that after the screening ‘when people think of Korea they will think of OldBoy’. Chances are he probably didn’t get that many calls from the Korean tourist board after that statement.
Pretty much everyone at the time agreed that Park’s film was by far the most interesting of the festival. What was unclear (at least to me at the time) was that Oldboy was actually the second part of a loosely connected trilogy that had commenced with Sympathy, and was to culminate in another revenge flick – this time with a female lead. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wondering if this was Parks’ payback to QT for the Cannes kudos.
So is Sympathy for Lady Vengeance Parks’ Korean Kill Bill response? Just another movie about a wronged woman, exacting bloody and elaborate revenge on her male betrayer? Or is it simply ‘Oldgirl’ - a law of diminishing returns follow-up that tries to outdo its whacked out predecessor? It’s actually none of these. Parks’ fourth film is as calculatingly cruel as SFMV and as baffling as Oldboy, sharing the same strengths and weaknesses as both but hinting at an emotional resonance that suggests that his real masterpiece is still to come.
Y’see I have a confession. I recently watched OldBoy again and, for me, second time around - stripped of its immediate shock value and jaw-dropping denouement - it packed much less of a punch and seemed to have less going on in its head than I had imagined. So I approached SFLV with guarded caution. The style over content criticisms levelled in some quarters at OldBoy looked as though they might apply again here. Those who found that film's dizzying flights into Manga-style incomprehensibility will be on no safer ground, with Park throwing in some startling images, including an absolute humdinger involving a dream sequence and a dog with a human face. What’s different this time is that the bizarro imagery and set design seem more logically at one with the narrative. There aren’t as many spectacular moments but the ones that do resonate are in keeping with the film’s tone, something that wasn’t always the case with the pick’n’mix aesthetic and wild Fincher-esque stylisation of Oldboy.
Lee Geum-Ja (Lee Young-ae from JSA) is released from jail after serving 13-years for an appalling crime, the kidnapping and murder of a small boy. We learn that not only was she wrongfully imprisoned but she was also forced to give up her baby daughter for adoption (echoes of Kill Bill). Park employs a complex cross-cutting narrative to tell of how Geum Ja befriends various inmates and endears herself to even the hardest nuts inside, gaining a reputation as a kindly figure (The films Korean title translates as "The Kind Miss Geum-ja”)
This is to serve one purpose only of course, for her to gain their assistance in helping her carry out an elaborate revenge plot against the man who betrayed her Mr. Baek (Old Boy himself Choi Min-sik,).
For the opening hour SFLV’s fragmentary, elusive narrative is as exhilarating as it is exhausting and when things start to piece together in the more melancholic second act you’re glad for the breather. It’s in this more contemplative section that Parks’ true intention for this closing chapter emerges, with SFLV being less about revenge for revenge’s sake and more about the possibility of salvation or redemption, and whether after such acts of brutality it can ever truly be attained.
SFLV retains Parks’ jet-black gallows humour sensibility, another of the traits that make his films so distinctive and for some unpalatable. There are some amusing vignettes, particularly in the prison section, involving Geum Ja’s motley bunch of helpers and some laughter in the dark moments in the most seemingly inappropriate places – all intentional of course. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Parks’ work will know the drill. Hate and revenge - the uglier aspects of of human nature - are Parks’ bread and butter so there should be no surprises that when Geum-Ja goes about exacting her revenge. Park delivers the goods in thrilling, comically amoral fashion.
And what of Lee Young-ae herself? While her performance is perfectly adequate for the material and she’s come on as an actress since JSA it’s fairly low-wattage for the most part. Unlike those other scorned heroines in western revenge flicks, her vengeful lady seems a little unspectacular when compared to the scorching white-heat intensity that say Zoë Tamerlaine brings to Ms 45, Christina Lindberg in They Call Her One Eye, or even Uma in KB 1 and 2.
It’s noticeable too that, while still packing an emotional wallop, SFLV is somewhat more restrained than either of its predecessors. Anyone looking for the visceral immediacy of OldBoy is going to come away disappointed, firstly by the film’s relative lack of action, but maybe also by the fact that the second half of the film - traditionally the part where the ante is upped so to speak - strays into more philosophical territory.
For me SFLV is further proof that Park has got a really great film in him. While there has never been any question that technically he is the leader of the Korean pack and a cinematic artist of the highest order (the film looks exquisite - Park collaborating again with Cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hoon) with SFLV he has moved one step closer to matching that visual bravura to a work that is as emotionally satisfying as it is thrilling. When he does that is going to be a very special film indeed.
Versions The upcoming Korean DVD (released in December) will carry both versions of the film: the full colour version, and the one which gradually turns into black and white over the course of the movie.