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movie review: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

April 11, 2006

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (The Kind Hearted Mrs Geum-ja)
Tartan Films
Dir: Park Chan Woo
Lee Yeong-ae
Choi Min-sik

Park’s last crimson art-house marvel, Oldboy, Cannes runner-up, sparked an ill-conceived attack on the film’s fans from New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, whose opinions on the movie (hated it) ran secondary of importance to sticking it to some bloodlusting cult of juvenile fanboys who get wood at the sight of a splatter pack exploding on screen. Though I didn’t find her issues compelling evidence for a dismissal of Oldboy (loved it), I agreed with what was implicit in her diatribe, that those fanboys who giggle at beheadings and such are annoying. Apparently, they annoy Park as well. He believes a viewing of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance to be penance for those who loved Oldboy only for the more outré elements. Certainly those who rush towards celluloid violence with dick in hand will find the new film a buzz rape.

The kind hearted Ms Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) begins the film on lock down, on her last day, back story presenting her as the unjustly imprisoned patron saint of women convicts. However, when she hits the street we learn Ms Geum-ja ain’t nuttin’ ta fuck wit as she delivers a pimp slap to her devoted fans. Geum-ja is less kind hearted, exchanging favors for good will, than she is an embittered ex-con, conniving to get payback on Baek (Choi Min-sik of Oldboy), the man responsible for her being up in the bing. As she sets about her plan, her true nature unfolds and Park really challenges the audience to continue sympathizing with cold hearted woman.

Park’s strong formalistic bent, his aesthete’s eye for beauty, his humanist’s desire for transcendence are the winning parts of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The dank atmosphere he creates is often undercut by vivid swaths of red at night and intense sun lit moments, suggesting the pulsing light within the broken black coal of Geum-ja’s heart.

Though neither as visually stunning as Oldboy or viscerally shocking as Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Lady Vengeance is actually more risky than the predecessors. Park could have easily had Lee swinging blades and popping caps left and right, striking with great vengeance and furious anger, one upping Uma Thurman’s Bride and satisfying fanboy desires. Park clearly wants to challenge our predilection for sympathizing with protagonists who go about the act of revenge of the violent sort. However, by presenting Geum-ja as the not-that-innocent victim who is really "teh bitch," he ironically ends up increasing the identification of her character with those who he wanted to challenge. Still, with the cinematography and direction in service of theme and not the converse, Park proves Dargis wrong about him, he’s much more thoughtful a director than he’s given credit for.

Lee and Choi, performances are pitch perfect. Lee never goes through any obvious transformation as we uncover her character’s truths, she remains as distant and melancholy at the beginning as at the end, and her work is all the more effective for maintaining the strangely beguiling distance. Despite Park’s prowess, it is on your engagement with Geum-ja the work lives or dies. If you find her simply either the victim or sadist, meaning is lost. Choi, who is little seen until act three, is so matter-of-fact nasty it’s scary. Assault is just something you do before breakfast.

If there’s anything lacking with Lady Vengeance, it’s Park’s desire to serve us with a summons for being so enamored with his other revenge flicks. The conclusion seems a forced into the plot, though it certainly fits thematically. Park, I’ve been with you all the way, I knew you weren’t all about mayhem for mayhem’s sake, and yeah, eye for an eye leaves us all blind. So in the end, I started to feel like I sat through a boring lecture I’d heard before even though I thought the subject needed to be heard. That said, I loved the path to the lecture hall, one I’d gladly take again.

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