Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

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March 25, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

It’s no easy task to round out a pitch-perfect trilogy of films. Just ask Francis Ford Coppola. The same problem confronted South Korea’s Chan-wook Park when, with two vengeance-themed films to his credit – 2002’s Boksuneun naui geot (aka Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) and 2003’s Oldboy – he found himself looking for the perfect closer. Granted the problems here were a little different then those that confronted Coppola and The Godfather, especially since Park’s films were interconnected only by theme and not by narrative. The 2005 finale, Chinjeolhan geumjassi (aka Sympathy for Lady Vengeance1), is something of a mixed success. It certainly brings some new and interesting elements into play, but it also troublingly loses its own way here and there, falling prey to the very pitfalls its predecessors worked so hard to highlight.

Like Dae-su Oh’s fifteen-year term in Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance begins with the release of the protagonist after a lengthy period of incarceration. In this case, that protagonist is Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee), and her thirteen-year stint inside was the result of a conviction for the kidnapping and murder of a young boy, Won-mo. Showing us a crime that shook the nation, the early sections of the film bring us on a whirlwind tour of Geum-ja’s trial, sentencing, and time in prison. Young, beautiful, and so naïve, she becomes a model inmate, helping all around her through good deeds and positive thinking. This earns her the nickname ‘Kind-Hearted Ms. Geum-ja.’ With her time served, Lee is released and it is immediately apparent that her magnanimous ways in prison do not fully represent her. Calling in favours from those she befriended in prison she sets in motion a grand plan to gain revenge against the man who forced on her the blame for the murder he committed, taking away her life and own child in the process.

Lady Vengeance is, in many ways, more concerned with salvation than vengeance. The two are inextricably entwined as Geum-ja seeks to re-establish relations with her estranged daughter, now living with adoptive parents in Australia, whilst also repaying the vile Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi) for his past crimes. Rife with religious imagery – communion rituals, bread and even various bands of disciples that centre around Geum-ja – the film expresses the difficulty of overcoming the will for vengeance and of the inherent uselessness of the act. Greeted upon her release from prison by a Catholic priest (Byeong-ok Kim), Geum-ja is offered a plate of white tofu to eat, a symbol of cleansing the soul. Having impressed the preacher with her pious ways, she now simply tips the contents of the plate onto the ground before telling him, to his horror, to leave her alone. This woman is not yet ready to be absolved of her sins. Vamped up in red eye-shadow and high heels, her outside reflects the turmoil that resides within.

Only through vengeance can she satisfy her emotions, but when her plan finally comes together, Geum-ja realises something: Won-mo was not an isolated murder. Finding a keepsake of the boy’s attached, among others, to Baek’s phone it becomes apparent that he is, in fact, a serial killer. If part of Geum-ja is a monster, surely she pales into insignificance compared to this man. Recognising that more lives than her own have been ruined by Baek’s treachery, she takes a most unusual step: she involves the parents of each of his victims in her vengeance. She will no longer be the one to kill Mr. Baek; her vengeance is given away to those he directly bereaved.

Arguably the busy pacing of the first part of the film, tossing us from the past to the present and following the travails of various different characters, serves as a pointer to the unsure state of affairs Geum-ja finds herself in. As she settles on what she must do, the film slows down, allowing for longer, uninterrupted shots and sustained atmospheric exercises that are more reminiscent of Mr. Vengeance than Oldboy’s high gloss. Even with this reading, the problem remains that Lady Vengeance can’t help but feel messy and clamorous. Especially as its ideas often interrupt or usurp that which was established by the rest of Park’s oeuvre.

Presented within the film as the aggregate of many other perspectives, Geum-ja is a complex and difficult character. Held together by a voiceover that seems to belong to no one, she is unveiled through testimonies from the preacher, her fellow inmates, the detective who arrested her, the baker who now gives her employment, and her estranged daughter. It’s fitting that at one point, an image of the protagonist is projected over the static-filled screen of a television. However, certain elements of Geum-ja are far less nebulous. In a wonderful flashback, we see her as a pregnant teenager after an affair with a school-teacher, none other than the Mr. Baek she now seeks to destroy. Her back-story seems easy to grasp: an unplanned pregnancy, a dependence on a cruel man, and her subsequent martyrdom for his sake.

What is more complicated is working out just how sympathetic the figure we see before us is. Though her hatred of Baek is understandable, her kindness to the other prisoners becomes more and more visibly manipulative and superficial as the film passes by. We must ask if she was ever ‘kind-hearted’ as she aided some and hurt others. We are invited to examine Geum-ja’s vendetta against Mr. Baek, but she also committed murder, while in prison, offing a cruel bully nicknamed ‘The Witch.’ While Park manages to insert comedy into the most barbaric of sequences, it is inappropriate that The Witch’s death is played for comedy. She meets her end through a three-year session of the kind-hearted Geum-ja slipping bleach into her every meal. The Witch herself is a wholly undeveloped and vile caricature – a fat lesbian who ate her husband because he cheated on her, she now preys on other women within the walls of the prison.

From a feminist perspective – a viewpoint that comes to the fore with the director’s later film, Bakjwi (aka Thirst)2 – it’s problematic to see that every woman behind bars is there because of a relationship with a man. They are all victims of the violence, the dispassion, or the deceitfulness of men. It’s difficult to discern if there’s a specific agenda behind this point. Throughout Park’s other films women tend to be engines of inadvertent destruction. Granted that may have more to do with the male-centric nature of Park’s previous films, and indeed the history of drama in general, than any critique of women themselves. In western drama the female tends to provide a dramatic fulcrum for the destruction of men largely because females have traditionally been relegated to secondary roles. When Eve plucked the forbidden fruit the damage was incalculable.

Sticking to basic gender constructs, perhaps the most cogent facet concerning this film centering on a woman rather than a man is that women traditionally have been classified as creative rather than destructive societal forces – crudely put, life-givers rather than life-takers. If Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy are forged in the masculine and conclude with total destruction, albeit with some wiggle-room in the case of the latter, then Lady Vengeance is the only film that breaks free to focus on the cost of personal redemption. Beyond this, the portrayal of gender in Lady Vengeance does not yield much fruit, other than to say it relies heavily on predetermined sketches – butch lesbians and cruel femme fatales. If Geum-ja seeks control over the man that wronged her then her relinquishing of that control mirrors Dae-su’s horrific revelation, albeit with a far lower physical cost than he incurred. Likewise, as her vengeance is inflicted and she recognises the hollowness of it all, she assumes shades of Oldboy’s Woo-jin, another architect of an elaborate revenge, but again she moves through her revelation rather than letting it crush her.

Another thematic issue is in the portrayal of Mr. Baek. If Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy carefully stacked their decks to balance the supposed ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ until we realise no such distinction is applicable, no such care is taken here. The character of Baek is unashamedly psychopathic and cruel. Working as a teacher, he kidnaps children from other people’s classes, collects a ransom and then murders them. When asked why, he responds that he hates children and wanted to buy a yacht. It’s as simple as that. It’s unclear if this is a gross misstep on the part of Park or if it is the final step in his thesis on the futility of vengeance to offer us a character that’s genuinely irredeemable and ask the audience to participate in his defence. Whether or not this is the case, Geum-ja herself morphs more and more into the villain with her self-serving and manipulative ways. In one of the film’s cruelest strokes, she shows the parents video recordings of their children’s final minutes to court favour for her “munificent” act of foregoing personal vengeance and handing it instead to them.

The sequence that unfolds this element of the storyline is played for great drama by Park. Reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s M and its famous ‘kangaroo court’ finale, the various parents involved, accompanied by Geum-ja and the detective who supervised her case, discuss the righteousness of an unofficial capital punishment. This sequence could not be seen to endorse the death penalty or vengeance as a whole, but even as it cleverly unveils masked hypocrisies reminiscent of those explored in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, there is an unfortunate air of construction and inevitability. As one poor family remarks to the clearly well-off grandmother of another victim that they suffered terribly both financially and emotionally, the grandmother counters with the story of the full devastation her grandchild’s murder caused3. The parents let their base urges take hold, and directed by Geum-ja, they quickly agree to participate in the murder of Mr. Baek, each one taking a turn to inflict pain upon him. Though Lady Vengeance is easily the least explicitly violent of the trilogy, its underlying ideas easily make it the most unsettling.

Though the film again tells us that vengeance is a mindless and useless act, it spends a lot of time building a convincing case for it. Were it just Mr. Baek as an irredeemable antagonist, it could be seen as an interesting structural element or, as mentioned before, perhaps a test for those who have stuck with Park throughout his trilogy. However, with the murder of The Witch glossed over almost entirely, it’s very difficult to discern just what we’re supposed to be taking from this exercise. Becoming even more disorienting than a similar ploy used in Oldboy where the audience suddenly realises Dae-Su’s quest for vengeance is actually just a facet of Woo-jin’s grander scheme, perhaps what is intended here is for the audience to realise the frivolity of most everything that came before the crucial finale.

In a weak attempt to mark their revenge as a celebration the group gather to eat a cake, a decadent, sweet thing. As they eat, the parents’ consciences needle them and the practicality of getting their stolen money returned can’t help but surface. Meanwhile Geum-ja finds herself standing with her daughter in an alley as snow begins to fall. Holding a white cake, a recapitulation of the tofu brick that opened the film and an alternative to the cake the parents feasted upon, she realises that she feels no better for having ended Baek’s life. With her daughter tilting back her head to catch snow on her tongue, a clear nod to the Catholic communion, Geum-ja buries her face in the cake realising that she is only now ready to seek salvation. The rest was all posturing – the clothes, the make-up, the revenge itself. The question then is, does the cake absolve her of her sins or does it simply mark the true beginning of a long and arduous mission back to humanity? Whatever the case, it is a troublesome conclusion to a film that otherwise takes such care in creating detailed accounts of so many other events. Although it nearly fits, it seems to strike the wrong note.

In a film filled to bursting-point with ideas, it is useful to comment on the busy aesthetic that accompanies this project. It is no surprise to find that Lady Vengeance is replete with beautiful visual details, clever and surprising CGI effects, and pitch-perfect production elements, including another exceedingly lush musical score. In the lead role, Yeong-ae Lee excels, carrying the bulk of the film even as the preponderance on slick presentation borders on the intrusive. Meanwhile a backing cast made up of familiar faces from Korean4 (and in Tony Barry’s case, Australian) cinema also play their parts with assurance to complete the deal.

Delving further into raw aesthetics, an unusual element is the colour scheme. There’s no doubt, in terms of visual design and set decoration, this film could easily bear comparison with the lavishness of Visconti’s Il gattopardo (aka The Leopard). The textures, colours and designs that adorn the walls and props in every shot suggest a dedication to surface that finds connections with Geum-ja’s own personality. As she is merely a working surface to so many people who project their own ideas onto her, then she too is obsessed with details, remarking, as she hands over the schematics for her incredibly elaborate revenge weapon, that things, “must be pretty.”

It’s worth nothing that Park’s preferred version of the film drains out all the colour as it proceeds until it exists only in black and white with only a few key items maintaining their hue, such as the marble that serves as a memento of Won-mo. Shifting from black and white to colour is nothing new for Park and can be found as a formal element in both his earliest available short film, Simpan and his contribution (N.E.P.A.L.: Neverending Love and Peace) to the omnibus feature, Yeoseot gae ui siseon (aka If You Were Me). Originally he wanted to use a chemical treatment in post-production to gradually drain the colour from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but cost precluded such an exercise. The idea remained on the backburner until this film came out, although he again found it impossible to complete the effect in time for the film’s theatrical release. For home viewing, we can now watch the ‘Fade to White’ version which completes the director’s vision. Though it’s an interesting visual idea, this technique would have made more sense in the unrelentingly grim Mr. Vengeance.

It is interesting to watch the colours grow increasingly faint as the kangaroo court sequence wears on until, by the time Baek has been dispatched, nothing but monochrome greets our eyes. It’s a trick that comes with positives and negatives. It stands alone as an interesting stroke and certainly doesn’t distract or detract from the film’s core ideas. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the whole film was consciously composed for colour shooting and so details are lost, particularly the iced cake served up for the revenge party – its slick surface under the soft lighting easily reminding us of pooling blood.

Finally, the dedication to black and white remains in place until the end credits, undermining the positivity of the ending. While Mr. Vengeance genuinely does descend deeper and deeper until only the end credits can release us, Lady Vengeance does not follow such a straight-forward path. The leeching colours make sense only up until a certain point. Once that point is reached, it is distracting that the world is devoid of colour while the protagonist finally finds her salvation. The ‘purity’ of a black and white world might play into the film’s varied religious overtones, or indeed ally it with Wenders’ Der Himmel über Berlin (aka Wings of Desire), but it is out of place given how the set design remains so lavish.

Lady Vengeance proves problematic because the excellence of the two features that preceded it raised lofty expectations. It finds new ground to tread, but with the basics so perfectly covered, it becomes too wrapped up in surfaces to fully convince. Park himself said that, “there are no clear paths in this film,” a quality that may stand as much as a strength as a weakness. For those who vilified the film for endorsing capital punishment and sexism5, the ending must have held no weight; while for those who argue that the film is entirely successful6, a few leaps of faith are required to tie together the disparate threads. It may not shine as brightly as the first two installments of the trilogy, but if they were so tightly constructed as to utterly convince, then the value of Lady Vengeance is the room it leaves for inquiry. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy represent Park’s book of evidence but it is Lady Vengeance that stands as the real conversation piece.

1 With regards to the title, poetic liberties have been taken in selling the film internationally. Just as Boksuneun naui geot’s title was altered to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a poetic statement on the film’s theme that distances itself from the biblically themed Vengeance is Mine, which serves as a more literal translation, Chinjeolhan geumjassi was morphed to either Sympathy for Lady Vengeance or simply Lady Vengeance depending on territory. The literal translation of the film’s title is Kind-Hearted Ms. Geum-ja, a reference to the name the protagonist earned in prison for her good behaviour.

2 It’s worth nothing that Lady Vengeance marks the first collaboration between Park and scriptwriter Seo-gyeong jeong who would go on to contribute scripts to Park’s next two features, Saibogujiman kwenchana (aka I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay) and Thirst.

3 In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, one of the excuses Yeong-mi uses to convince Ryu that kidnapping President Park’s daughter is okay is that he is clearly very wealthy and the money won’t mean much to him. Later events show this to be entirely misguided. Further cementing connections between the two films, Yeong-mi’s speech about there being ‘good kidnappings and bad kidnappings’ is duplicated verbatim as Geum-ja explains how she was duped into becoming Baek’s accomplice.

4 Lady Vengeance manages a veritable cornucopia of cameos from those who have appeared in Park’s previous features. If you’re looking for a challenge, try spotting them all.

5 A viewpoint noted and also defended against in Steve Erikson’s excellent piece here

6 Richard Peña, film program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, provides a glowing summation of the film, citing it as one of the best of the decade, throughout the course of an audio commentary he recorded for the Tartan, and subsequently Tartan/Palisades, DVD and Blu-Ray release of the film in the U.S.

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