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In the company of vengeful women

There seems to have been almost a consensus that the third of Park Chan-wook's famed Vengeance Trilogy is the weakest of the three. I say 'almost' because it definitely has its supporters and a few even regard it as the best of the bunch. I'm prepared to concede that it lacks the sheer inventiveness and pace of Oldboy and the purity of vision of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but it still wipes the floor with most revenge themed films from the West in recent years (I'll make an exception for Gasper Noé's extraordinary Irréversible). And if it trips up just occasionally, it still packs the sort of punch that should keep the Mills and Boon brigade at a comfortable distance.

After two films in which males characters go head-to-head on the vengeance trail while the women get caught in the flotsam, it's certainly refreshing to see a female character take centre stage with a plan every bit as patiently thought out as the one in Oldboy. The difference here is that the purpose of her quest is not held back for climactic revelation – 38 minutes in and she spills everything to a co-worker she's brought home for emotionless sex. Mind you, that's 38 minutes of small clues and gradual revelations – it takes a while to realise that Lee Geum-ja, young child murderer turned model prisoner and impossibly angelic Christian, may have reasons beyond sociopathy for her intended actions.

There's a strand of jet-black humour running throughout the whole Vengeance Trilogy, but Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan geumjassi, aka Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) opens on what for my money is the funniest image I've yet seen in a Park Chan-wook film, as a Korean Christian group all dressed in Santa Claus outfits stomp their feet against the cold and at the moment of Geum-ja's release burst into exuberant, tambourine-slapping song. Their wide-eyed, page boy-haired leader then offers his morally transformed disciple a plate of pure white tofu, a traditional meal for those turning their back on the sins of their past. Geum-ja sullenly tips it to the floor and tells him to go screw himself. It's hard not to like her from the off.

A dual-timeline narrative then unfolds. Geum-ja meets up with her ex-cellmates (textually identified by name and time served) and calls on favours accrued during her jail time, where she ended the reign of terror of the cell's queen bitch by tripping her on soap and then feeding her poison, something we learn about through extended flashback. For some, the requests are cheerfully undertaken – the doting husband-and-wife bank robbers who build a gun from Geum-ja's plans – while for one the required task is considerably more unpleasant. A level of intrigue is provided by this approach, but there is little of the storyline mystique and cat-and-mouse game-playing that made Oldboy such an intellectual rollercoaster ride. Geum-ja has only one purpose, to hunt down a man named Mr. Baek and kill him, a desire visualised in bizarre dream sequence in which Geum-ja drags a dog-man mutation of Baek strapped to a sledge, then stops to blow his brains out through his rear end.

All, however, does not run as expected, as Geum-ja's curiosity over the fate of her young daughter temporarily sidetracks her to Australia. Considerably more surprising is how quickly she nails her prey, leaving you wondering just where the hell the film will go from there. It's from this point that Park begins firing on all cylinders in a supremely uncomfortable final act that, with some disturbing home video footage providing seeming justification for a particulary grim undertaking, the moral and emotional consequences of committing we are then confronted with. It's a darkly superb sequence, exemplified by a corridor shot in which a line of people sit waiting for... no, you need to see this to appreciate it.

There's no doubt that the film is more obviously playful than its predecessors and although this doesn't always come off – as with the frankly clunky idea of spelling out words in the clouds for Geum-ja's daughter Ma-nyeo – there a moments when the wit is purely and delightfully cinematic, most memorably when Ma-nyeo blackmails her way to Korea in three static shots, a sequence that almost looks lifted from Kitano Takeshi (whose editing style, it should be noted, Park has expressed admiration for). A number of almost throwaway ideas are also memorable, my favourite being the artistic ex-cellmate who makes a living creating small sculptures of vengeful women holding a man's severed head, whose face she will tailor to the client's wishes.

As ever, the lead casting is deliciously off-the-wall, with the icily unemotional Geum-ja played by Lee Yeong-ae, an actress known for her beauty (she has the curious nickname 'The Oxygen Woman') and famous across Asia for her lead role in the long running Drama series The Jewel in the Palace (Dae Jang-geum). She was chosen by Park in part because she was the last person that other filmmakers would have cast in the role, and he equates it with the idea of seeing Audrey Hepburn playing a vengeful killer. As the object of Geum-ja's vengeance, Choi Min-sik clearly relishes playing the bad guy, and the supporting roles are all memorably performed, notably Kim Byeong-ok's dedicated, despairing preacher and Ko Soo-hee's prison cell bully Ma-nyeo, an experienced theatre actor in her first film role. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Memories of Murder star Song Kang-ho has a cameo role as a hired goon that's so brief and darkly lit that you'll have to be sharp to spot him.

As the rejected symbolic purity of the opening tofu returns as falling snow and a white cake to be gorged, there is a sense of failed redemption that falls some way short of the gut-punches delivered by Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, an ending that although appropriate for this story has clearly not sat so well with some of the trilogy's fans. Certainly the symbolism here is a little heavy-handed, especially following on from a bathroom-based spiritual encounter that spells out things that may have been better just suggested. But these are small uncertainties in an otherwise fine film that, while inevitably overshadowed a little by its pitch-perfect predecessors, is still a stylish and blackly humorous tale of revenge, consequence and moral and ethical self-destruction that provides a the Vengeance Trilogy with a fittingly idiosyncratic final salvo.

sound and vision

It seems a little peculiar that the most recent film in the Trilogy should have the weakest transfer, but such is the case here. Framed 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is clearly an NTSC to PAL conversion, but unlike the one on the Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance disc, the image has suffered a little in the process. Contrast is variable, better in brightly lit scenes than at night, and there are times where, even allowing for the film's use of specific hues in set design and filtration, the colours do not look quite true. Sharpness is also a notch short of ideal, but again this can vary depending on the contrast.

The expected three soundtrack options of stereo 2.0, 5.1 surround and DTS surround are all on offer, but are all surprisingly flat, having none of the in-your-ear wallop of the DTS tracks on the previous two films. Front separation is sedate at best and the surrounds rarely have much to say. It doesn't detract from the film, but is a little surprising.

extra features

Director Interview (42:11)
As with the director interview on the version of Oldboy found in The Vengeance Trilogy set, the interview here is conducted through an interpreter, so we effectively have twenty-one minutes of material delivered twice, once in subtitled Korean and then again in English. The questions are quite good, though, and the answers sometimes illuminating.

Original Theatrical Trailer (1:46)
A UK trailer that tells you up front what's going on between Geum-ja and Mr. Baek, which somewhat spoils the surprise if you want to go in not knowing. I'd give this a miss until after the film.


Although just falling short of the standard set by the first two instalments of the Vengeance Trilogy, Lady Vengeance is still absolutely worth your while, for its initially playful approach, for its characters and oddball elements, and for the way it provides you with motivation for vengeance then confront you with the realities of actually carrying it out. Tartan's DVD is not all it should be, with a disappointing transfer and little in the way of extra features, at least compared to the Oldboy double disc set.

Lady Vengeance
[Chinjeolan Geumguemjassi]

South Korea 2005
115 mins
Park Chan-wook
Lee Yeong-ae
Choi Min-sik
Kim Si-hu
Kwon Yae-young
Nam Il-woo

DVD details
region 0
2.35:1 anamorphic
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS 5.1 surround
Director interview

release date
8 May 2006
review posted
13 January 2007

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Lady Vengeance – The Vengeance Trilogy Edition
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance – The Vengeance Trilogy Edition
Oldboy – The Vengeance Trilogy Edition

See all of Slarek's reviews