Revenge has long been one of the exploitation genre’s favourite topics, but few directors have explored the subject with such dedication as South Korean maverick Chan-wook Park. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is Park’s third revenge movie (fourth if you include his entry into the Asian horror anthology Three... Extremes), following 2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and 2004’s Oldboy, completing this loose trilogy in slow-burning style.
Yeong-ae Lee plays Geum-ja, a woman in her early 30s who is released following a 13-year stretch in prison for the kidnap and murder of a small child. It quickly becomes evident that Geum-ja was not in fact the killer – despite her confession to police – the real culprit being a school teacher called Mr. Baek (Oldboy star Choi Min-sik). With the help of the women she befriended in prison, Geum-ja puts a plan of revenge into action.
Park’s previous film, Oldboy, was a visual, visceral tour-de-force and sensibly the director doesn’t even attempt to make Sympathy for Lady Vengeance its equal in terms of outlandish style and impact. The film has a steady, surprisingly funny build up, as in flashback we trace Geum-ja’s years spent in prison, and the rebuilding of her life on the outside. One by one, her cellmates are introduced, and in every case we see how she helped them – donating a kidney to save a life, poisoning a fearsome bull-dyke who had made a timid newcomer to the prison her sex slave. Each of these women are now called upon to play a part in Geum-ja’s vengeful scheme, from building her an ornate gun to securing her a job as a baker’s assistant.
Yeong-ae Lee, also seen in Park’s debut JSA, follows in the grand tradition of such vengeful ladies as Lady Snowblood, Kill Bill’s The Bride and Ms.45’s Thana, in her iconic look and silent, burning determination. Pale-skinned and marked by striking red eye shadow and a clad in a long, black coat, Geum-ja seems both fragile and ruthless, a dichotomy increased when she locates her daughter Jenny, now 13 and living in Australia. Jenny was the pawn in Mr. Baek’s scheme to force Geum-ja to confess to his crime, and she now becomes swept up in her mother’s wrath.
The first half of the film, while certainly entertaining, in general adds nothing more to a genre Park seemed to largely exhaust with Lady Vengeance’s predecessors. Luckily the director is too smart to lead his audience in the same direction again, and provides a clever twist that actually sees Geum-ja take a back seat as revenge is finally unlashed upon Mr. Baek. At this point the film becomes more a meditation on the morality of revenge and vigilantism, showcased in a gripping 30-minute sequence that rivals anything in Park’s filmography. Stylistically, Park moves into more familiar territory here, as his camera tracks down rooms and glides through walls, and while not exactly graphic, this section of the film demonstrates why suggestion will always be a more powerful cinematic tool than simply showering the audience with gore.
If the film falters, it’s in the last ten minutes – Park seems to reach a natural end, but yet adds a perfunctory coda that strives for some redemptive, almost mystical tone that he never quite achieves. Still, it’s a small misstep, and otherwise this is a intelligent, unsettling film, and Park deserves much credit for not simply repeating himself. He’s certainly now 'done' revenge and it’ll fascinating to see him move into other areas, but this trilogy remains at the peak of recent Asian cinema.
Controversial Korean director with a strong visual sense. Made his debut in 2000 with the powerful political thriller JSA, which dealt with the divide between North and South Korea. Follow-up Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was a gruelling tale of revenge, and Park contributed to the human rights anthology If You Were Me. Oldboy was another acclaimed revenge movie, while Cut was Park's entry into the Asian horror anthology Three... Extremes. In 2005, Park completed his 'revenge trilogy' with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. He received mixed reviews for I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, with his modern day vampire story Thirst seen as a major return to form. His first English-language work was the reserved horror drama Stoker which he followed with arthouse hit The Handmaiden.