Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy is more than just a lust for blood. If anything, the blood lust is often undermined by the themes of each film. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is just as much about empathy as it is about revenge. And Oldboy is heavily laced with ideas of forgiveness. And following this subtle trace, Lady Vengeance is about atonement just as much as it is about revenge.
When Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) finally is released from prison, thirteen years after being confessing to the murder of a child, she’s greeted by a priest who offers her up a white cake which he says is a symbol of purity, a promise to renounce sin and begin a good life. Lee blows him off. She is out for blood. Once home, she paints her eyelids red, tainting her pale, white face.
Her plan is precise, mechanical and calculating. Her thirteen years of imprisonment left her enough time to work out every detail. And yet, as distant and cold as she is, she can’t help but embrace her softer emotions. When she commissions for a gun to be made, she adds unnecessary flourishes to the gun. “Things should be pretty,” she says, when asked about the ornate handle of the gun.
Later, she makes lover to a young coworker. And her plans for revenge take a back seat when she begins a quest to find her daughter. While Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy involve characters who completely lose themselves in their drive for vengeance, Lady Vengeance is more about Lee finding herself and rebuilding her life after her years of imprisonment.
Vignettes of her prison life show the two sides of this conflicted woman. On the surface, she’s a benevolent figure that cared for many inmates through their roughest time. However, she also becomes infamous for killing one of the meanest and cruelest inmates in the prison. She’s both a saint and a sinner to the women of the cell block.
Even though it’s not nearly as violent as Oldboy or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the amount of grueling and gut-wrenching imagery in this film is overwhelming on an emotional level. At times, the film teeters on the edge of masochism, but then one realizes that this is Lee’s attempt at atonement and if she derived pleasure from it, the act would no longer penance for her sin.
Lady Vengeance is possibly the pinnacle of Park Chan-wook’s visual style. The bizarre, dreamlike aesthetic coupled with the unsettling realism blends perfectly into the psychologically fragmented and compromised protaganist. And the cinematography of Chung Chung-hoon is simultaneously soft and harsh. It’s more than just fantastic eye candy, but a convergence of ideology and image.
While the entire trilogy is strong, Lady Vengeance stands out as the most sophisticated and nuanced of the three films, in part because of its purity. It’s the most straightforward, but also the most compromised of the three films because the character’s goal is counter to her intent. And this, in essence gets to the core problem of vengeance and perfectly capstones off a fantastic trilogy of compromising and provoking films.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing