“Lady Vengeance” – A.J. Hakari

Lady Vengeance arrives as the grand finale to one of the most intriguing cinematic trilogies in recent years. Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park’s meditation on the revenge theme, which began with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and continued through Oldboy, now winds down to a close with this tragic tale of a wronged woman on a quest to reclaim the life that was stolen from her. But although it’s a thematically-similar story to its brethren, Lady Vengeance is stylistically in a league of its own, finding the meat of its plot by taking a somber and artistic approach in highlighting the consequences, both good and bad, of seeking to right a past wrong no matter what the cost.

 

Geum-ja (Yeong-ae Lee) was a 19-year-old girl in a tight spot. Pregnant and with no game plan to follow, she turned to a former teacher, Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi), for some much-needed help. Instead, he ended up forcing Geum-ja to take the fall for a kidnapping that resulted in a child’s death, holding her newborn daughter hostage to make sure she took the blame. But thirteen and a half years later, Geum-ja is finally being released, emerging from prison hell-bent on making up for all those years that were taken from her. Calling upon favors owed to her by former fellow inmates she made friends with in the clink, Geum-ja embarks on the first stages of a complex plan not only to track down the double-crossing Mr. Baek but also to find her daughter, who was put up for adoption shortly after Geum-ja’s imprisonment. The deeper she delves into her quest for vengeance, the more Geum-ja begins questioning herself and her methods, pondering how much of an emotional shell she’s become and how far is too far, even as the full extent of the tragedy at hand slowly starts to unfold.

 

Anyone looking at the plot synopsis for Lady Vengeance and having visions of another Kill Bill: Vol. 1 dancing in their heads will be in for something of a disappointment. This film is closer to Kill Bill: Vol. 2, centered more on exploring its themes through dialogue, character introspection, and a visual sense of style — as opposed to bloodletting at the hands of a badass heroine. Lady Vengeance is a very delicate and dark entry into the revenge genre, not so much concentrated on delivering nonstop thrills as on providing an artful meditation about the themes it confronts. The whole film is about second-guessing and being stuck in an awful place in which doing something that a character feels needs to be done will lead to her deliverance from having been betrayed as well as her descent into becoming a soulless vessel. Yeong-ae Lee delivers a fine, carefully-constructed performance as Geum-ja, torn between fulfilling a personal vendetta that’s been in the works for years and not becoming a monster herself. Geum-ja begins the film as a rather cold, single-minded character (earning the trust of others in the name of helping her own quest), but as she re-discovers her daughter and moves closer to getting Mr. Baek right where she wants him, the character opens up and starts questioning herself, and Yeong-ae Lee’s performance moves perfectly in sync with this arc.

 

Not being the sort of picture to rely on fast-paced action as much as on aesthetic traits, Lady Vengeance does run into an occasional moment causing the film to drag. For example, the movie features a strange tendency not to provide the viewer with enough material to keep the story moving. It also spills secrets earlier than it should. And Chan-wook often finds himself with nothing to do but wait until the rest of the scene slowly plays itself out. Also, the validity of some of the directions the plot takes is debatable, and Min-sik Choi (who portrayed the tortured antihero of Oldboy to perfection) plays the nefarious Mr. Baek in such a low key, it’s hard to buy the fact that this guy is really as cold-blooded as we are led to believe.

 

If Lady Vengeance’s aim was to resonate with moviegoers longer than your average Steven Seagal vehicle, then I have to admit Chan-wook Park hit his target just right. Although the results aren’t as awe-inspiring or as memorably stylish as the others in this unofficial trilogy, Lady Vengeance still emerges as one of the most thoughtful and intriguing foreign imports in recent years.

 

Rating: ★★★☆

 

-A.J. Hakari

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