A Review of Lady Vengeance

I did a review of Oldboy a while ago. I had meant to start reviewing the other parts of the famous “Vengeance Trilogy.” And now, I am. Perfect timing too – it is a sort of Christmas movie, in the sense that it begins with a group of people dressed as Santa Claus singing.

Most people only think of Oldboy when they think of Chan-wook Park. That is understandable, as that opus to violence and vengeance still remains his best work. Still, there is a lot to like about the other films in the trilogy, even if they tend to repeat themselves. But then, Lady Vengeance demonstrates a great amount of skill and intelligence. If it is a director repeating himself, well…obviously there was still more to say.

The plot is very simple describe, but plays in a much more abstract manner. Here goes: a woman named Geum-ja Lee has been in prison for the past thirteen years. She was accused of kidnapping and murdering a young boy in a very high profile crime. However, this was a con – the real murderer, a schoolteacher named Mr. Baek had kidnapped Lee’s new born daughter and made her confess to the crime. Of course, she is released, reconnects with her daughter (who has been living in Australia with a foster family) and tries to exact revenge against the man who framed her using several connections she gained in prison to achieve her goals.

I really only have one complaint about the film – the first act is quite difficult to follow. I was not sure who certain characters were or what purpose they served. Most of this has to do with the different structure the director chose for this film. Unlike Oldboy, where some of the most memorable sequences came right at the beginning, Lady Vengeance decided to spread the story of Lee’s imprisonment in several places, slowly painting a complete picture as time progressed.

This was a rather curious choice, I felt. The strength of putting all those scenes together is that audiences are allowed to empathize with the plight of the protagonist. When Oh Dae Su emerged, he was a changed man, and the audiences felt that and understood his methods. Here, Lee’s release is the first scene of the film. We do not know what her plans are until the film is well under way, and it takes a while to explain exactly what her experience in jail was like. It gave people very little time to understand who she is and what she was trying to accomplish.

Basically, about half way through the film, I thought that this may be a weaker entry of the trilogy. It was not about redemption, or finding happiness, as Oldboy had been (albeit in a very bizarre way). It was more about frustration and about how maybe, just maybe, it is not worth it in the end. Surely, that cannot be the point of something referred to as the “Vengeance Trilogy?”

How naive I was. Because that was exactly the point.

The final act is brutal, unflinching, and positively brilliant. I really do not want to give away the ending, but by the time the film had finished, I understood what the film had been up to all along.

The basic theme of the film becomes exactly how vengeance, ultimately, is not satisfying. Lee will never be able to be with her daughter again (that is made clear) plus the actual vengeance is depicted as being nerve wracking and traumatic rather than satisfying.

It is so different from the usual levels of violence depicted in any sort of media. Vengeance is used, almost, as a way to make sure that justice is served. We cheer for  meat-heads like Steven Seagal, because we have been programmed to do so. Sometimes, we fantasize about it ourselves.

That is what shocked me about this film. It was all about the journey, and I had the audacity to try and question it. What is wrong with me?

Besides, even if the first act is hard to follow, it is filled with many beautiful images. Park has always been a master of scene composition. Some moments (especially of Lee’s dreams) reminded me of items that normally would not exist outside of a film by Buenel (please just imagine the accent over the ‘n’). They make little sense by themselves, but they help audiences enter Lee’s mind. Besides, many of the images in her dreams were used to great effect later.

The entire film is like a giant puzzle. Maybe the pieces don’t make much sense on their own, but then, when they are put together, it can be a thing of great beauty.

My only thought now is that I want to watch the film again. One of the things that I like most about films is when they surprise you. This one managed to keep surprising me until the credits rolled, in ways I did not think were possible.

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