Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Lady Vengeance / ***½ (R)

Geum-ja Lee: Yeong-ae Lee
Mr. Baek: Min-sik Choi
Jenny: Yea-young Kwon

Moho Films and Tartan USA present a film directed by Chan-wook Park. Written by Park and Seo-gyeong Jeong. Running time: 112 min. Rated R (for strong violent content – some involving children, and some sexuality).

There is a recurring shot in the new Korean film “Lady Vengeance” that makes a definitive statement about the choice to lead a life based on revenge. A road runs along side a large stone wall; the first time we see this shot is just after Geum-ja is released from prison after 13 years for the kidnapping and murder of a little boy. She has just made herself up for the first time since being imprisoned and found herself a handsome pair of red heels. Despite her age, she is a striking vision of beauty contrasted against the drab color of the stone wall she passes.

Geum-ja (Yeong-ae Lee, “Joint Security Area”) is setting into motion a plan to seek revenge against the man actually responsible for her accused crime, Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi, “Oldboy”). In order to execute her master plan she needs to utilize the network of friends she made in prison, each with their own small part to play. Her red eye shadow is a stark contrast to the meek character she seemed to embody while incarcerated. During her imprisonment she became known by two names, “The Kind-Hearted Geum-ja” and “The Witch”. “You’ve changed,” utters more than one of her former acquaintances.

The second time we see the stone wall is during the last paces of her plan. This time the scene takes place at night and a couple of unforeseen elements have just crossed her path. The Kind-Hearted one deals with these two men with extreme prejudice, employing possibly the coolest looking custom made handgun ever designed for a film heroine.

This scene brings to mind a similar one in another of director Chan-wook Park’s films, “Oldboy”, in which the hero makes his way down a hallway in hand to hand combat against a dozen or so adversaries. Despite the action-thriller nature of these two scenes, both are handled with the utmost realism of execution. Both sequences are done with minimal edits, although the “Lady Vengeance” scene is much briefer. In each scene you can see the physical toll taken by the protagonist, and even sense the underlying psychological toll. Both characters act with a deliberateness that later, when they have actually attained their respective goals, fails them. These are not your typical Hollywood action heroes, but something more intelligent, despite the base motivations involved.

The last time we see the stone wall, the nature of the film’s action has been greatly changed, from one of vengeance to a more fulfilling version of closure. The primary reason for the shift in theme is the fact that much earlier in the film Geum-ja had been reunited with the child she bore just before her incarceration, Jenny (Yea-young Kwan). Jenny had been adopted by an Australian couple whom Geum-ja sought out upon her release. There is a darkly humorous shot of Jenny holding a knife to her own throat as her adoptive parents cower in fear when she demands to return to Seoul with her birth mother.

Back at the wall during a snowfall, Geum-ja offers her daughter a life lesson before she returns to Australia. “Be White. Live white. Like this,” Geum-ja tells Jenny, handing her an ivory-colored cake. Like most parents, the best advice she can give is based upon her own mistakes. But like that recurring stone wall, Lady Vengeance can never be white. It is only through her daughter that she will obtain her own redemption.

“Lady Vengeance” is the final film in a trilogy of revenge movies by Chan-wook Park. The first film in the series, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”, was less cohesive than the later two installments and the hero gains far less sympathy. The second in the series was “Oldboy”, which earned the number one spot on my 2005 top ten list. All three films contain scenes of drastic brutality juxtaposed against images of rare beauty. Park has the ability to find and illuminate the beauty in every piece of dirt and grime in the world his heroes inhabit. It’s as if the anger that they feed on to survive prohibits them from truly seeing the world around them. This is the great and powerful irony at the heart of Park’s complex vision.

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