Lady Vengeance

Year 2005

Yeong-ae Lee as   Geum-ja Lee
Min-sik Choi as Mr. Baek
Byeong-ok Kim   as Preacher
Il-woo Nam as   Detective Choi
Director - Chan-wook Park
Screenwriters - Chan-wook Park
  - Seo-Gyeong Jeong  

Lady Vengeance or, as in the trailer, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, is the story of a woman who went to prison for a crime she didn't commit and, once released, she gets her revenge. Duh, duh, DUH! Or does she? This is the third film in director Chan-wook Park's Vengeance Trilogy. The first was Sympathy for Mr. Vegeance followed by Oldboy. In all three, there's the theme of revenge. Each time it's handled slightly differently. Because Oldboy was better than Sympathy for Mr. Vegeance, I had hopes that Lady Vengeance continued Chan-wook Park's growth. It's a mixed result.

According to the fanboys (Oldboy? Fanboys? Nevermind.), as can be seen on the cover above, this is "A MASTERPIECE" (All caps, but at least there aren't any exclamation points.) It's got more stars than Patton. Four here, five there, and, look, another four over there. From publications like The Times (Who? Or The Whos?), Uncut (Who?), and Loaded (As in drunk?) come these sterling symbols of distant suns. Is that four out of four stars? Five, six, seven, or ten stars? Who knows. Like a cartoon character that's been bonked in the head, it's got stars!

A woman spends thirteen years in jail for a murder she didn't commit. The movie begins with her getting out of prison. Through a series of flashbacks, we find out how, while still in prison, she laid the groundwork for her revenge. We also see her prepare for the revenge. Then, we see the initial plan change as a major discovery changes Geum-ja Lee's (Yeong-ae Lee) plan. Chinjeolhan geumjassi

Now I don't speak Korean, and this is a Korean movie with English subtitles, but I wonder if there's some wordplay involved between the title of the movie and the main character's name. The movie title when translated from Korean to English comes out as Chinjeolhan geumjassi. The main character's name is Geum-ja. Coincidence? I think not. But then, I don't know for sure.

Chan-wook Park, or Park Chan-wook as it's pronounced in Korean, is a stickler for details. Sometimes he's so attentive to details that the movie suffers. More on this later.

A lot about this movie shows the growth of Chan-wook Park as a director. The scenes are well constructed. The action is well choreographed. The images are memorable. It's really the visual and stylistic work of someone who knows and is comfortable in their craft. Heck, there's even some humor. Out of prison, a Christian Preacher (Byeong-ok Kim) offers to continue to mentor Geum-ja. A book she happens to have for other reasons is a book on dharma, a Buddist concept. To get rid the Preacher, she shows him the book and says, "I've converted."

The director doesn't think much of Australians, it seems. There's an Australian couple in the film and they're loud, boorish, clumsy, drunks. Not exactly moving away from a cheap stereotype.

It does hint at Park's biggest failing, though. He doesn't have the talent to write an entire movie. Lady Vengeance is a series of events that are supposed to come together by themselves. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. When Park tries to put a twist on simple things, they often fall flat.

Geum-ja, to prove she's a killer, poisoned a person in prison by putting bleach in their food. That's believable. But in the movie, it took her three years to kill the person that way. Uh, what? How could she feed this person bleach in her food for three years? In one scene, the victim sees Geum-ja spray bleach on her food and doesn't question Geum-ja. Oookaaay. I didn't realize that it took three years to kill someone via bleach poisoning, either. I can't imagine that it does. Seriously. It's chlorine and if it didn't kill you at once, your body would get rid of it. Maybe it slowly erodes you from the inside out? No hint of that in the movie.

On a side note, this is how arsenic poison can work. Your body doesn't get rid arsenic. You'll turn green thanks to arsenic poisoning, but if ingested in small doses you won't die. At least not immediately. Constant ingestion of even small amounts of arsenic are cumulative. Once you take in enough, you will die, even if it takes years. This doesn't work for bleach, though.

Then there's this gun thing. While in prison, Geum-ja befriended an old female spy. The spy gave Geum-ja a book. Within the book, the one on dharma, are the plans to build a contraption than can fire two bullets. Why not get a real revolver? "It has to be special."

There's a lot of this nonsense. Geum-ja did special things in prison to accumulate favors for her master plan. What were these favors? Spoilers now. She bathed a mentally deteriorating woman to get the plans for the gun. She slept with an abused hooker to have a place to stay when she was released. She killed a bully with slow bleach poisoning so that the bullied girl would meet Geum-ja's intended revenge victim, marry him, get raped by him whenever he wanted, and get beaten up by him for his amusement. Geum-ja befriended another of the bully's victims to gain her friendship so that this second bullied woman's husband would make that nutjob of a gun for her. I got confused.

My point is that none of these things matter. Need a place to stay? Rent an apartment! Need a gun? I'm sure there are plenty around. Find out who the killer is? She already knew. Why did her plan include having to get her "friend" married to the murderer? But, it's all part of Geum-ja's carefully laid out revenge. Or vengeance. Or something.

Then there are scenes that don't make sense. The Preacher pops in and out. At one point, he sells the murderer Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi) photos of Geum-ja and the murderer's wife talking to each other. How did the Preacher find Mr. Baek? I mean, if the Preacher can find Mr. Baek and knows that Mr. Baek is up to no good, then I really want to know why Geum-ja's friend was even included in the plot. She's not necessary.

Unless of course Guem-ja's friend has her own case of Lady Vengeance regarding Mr. Baek. But if she hadn't gotten involved with Guem-ja, she never would have met Mr. Baek and her need for vengeance would never have materialized. This is just another example of Park introducing side issues that have no place just because he thinks they're clever. I think they're dumb.

There are other unnecessary and distracting aspects to the film, but let's focus on the good stuff.

The film maintains a coherent mood. From the beginning to the end, the colors, angles, dialog, and music combine to make a whole. Colors are very symbolic with Park. White, whether it be tofu or snow, represents purity. Red, whether it be blood or eye shadow, represents hatred and Vengeance.

There aren't too many plot holes. Why did Guem-ja take the rap? It's explained. Why did she maintain her silence? It's sort of explained.

One thing I haven't done is talk about the last third of the movie. Guem-ja's plans are altered when she makes a critical discovery. Immediately after that, over a half-dozen new characters are just plopped into the movie as well as a few old peripheral characters suddenly become pivotal. Good luck keeping track of who's who at this point. This last third of the movie is so complicated that it could have taken hours to be effective. But since the revelations are whipped through in about twenty minutes, the movie loses its potential punch and effect. It almost succeeds in doing what Park intended to achieve, but without fleshed out characters, there's less pathos generated than there should have been.

Before giving a summary, I've got to mention Parks' reuse of things. For brevity, let's call Sympathy for Mr. Vegeance V1, Oldboy V2, and Lady Vengeance V3. In V1, kidnapping played a role, as it does in V3. In V2, someone goes away for years and then gets revenge, just like in V3. In V2, the protagonist is their own judge, just like in V3. In V1, there's a family connection. In V3, one guy wants to be Geum-Ja's little brother. In V1, there's the whole expensive hospital aspect, just like in V3. In conclusion, V3 is a composite of V1 and V2 from a female perspective as filtered through the eyes of a male.

Still, it's watchable and much better than most movies I've seen. It just doesn't hit the heights I'd have expected from the guy who directed Oldboy. But then, he really didn't write Oldboy. Park is an excellent director, but only a slightly better than average writer.

No nudity, blasphemy, or profanity. The disdain Park displays regarding the Preacher character shows Christianity in a poor light. There's a bucket of blood so there's blood. But there's no gore, despite scenes where gore would have been expected being devoid of it. There's not even any tension in those scenes. There should have been. The main character, Guem-ja, is either angelic or a sociopath. "Modern liberated" women feel admiration for homicidal maniacs if they're female, so some women may actually like this movie because of the "strong female" in the leading role. Other women may like this as a work of art with its images, music, and mini-morals. But if a woman hates blood, or ready subtitles, she'll dislike this movie.

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