Review: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance [2005]

Dir. Park Chan-Wook

Cast: Lee Young-ae, Choi Min-sek, Byeong-ok Kim, Su-hee Go

Park Chan-Wook is most categorically a member of an intimate 'Modern Hollywood' collective, that comprises such cinematic prodigies as Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers, thanks to the fact he directed the noughties most prototypical revenge melodrama, Oldboy. This hypnotic, pitch-black drama gave audiences a protagonist in a jet black suit who conducted all manner of felonious physical barbarity on his adversaries. The fact that Oldboy was a foreign language, eastern themed film only embellished its perceived coolness. Here was a film that could have been formulated explicitly to amass the reverence of the genre connoisseurs.

Sympathy For Lady Vengeance is a follow up of sorts to Oldboy and the third installment in a trilogy that originated with 2002's Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, another heart-stopping thriller in which every single camera angle took the viewer by surprise. Whilst Sympathy For Lady Vengeance has associations to both of the earlier films, it is correlated particularly analogously to Sympathy For Mr Vengeance and, as in that film, revolves around a very aberrant kidnapping that leads to appalling consequences.

The film opens with a middle aged woman being liberated from prison, the viewer is then presented with a sequence of flashbacks to explain who she is and how she came to be incarcerated. We discover she is Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae), and that she was convicted 13 years previous for abducting and murdering a five-year-old boy. To divulge anymore of this back story would ruin the film, but suffice it to say that Geum-ja wasn't perpetrating this deed alone, and she has spent her time in prison fashioning her revenge on her original partner in crime.

Summoning determined levels of attentiveness from its viewers, Lady Vengeance juxtaposes time based flashbacks and fantasy sequences, as it manifests Lee Geum-ja's prison-bound history, and the scheming and rationalizing entangled in her new-found liberation. In the jail segments - as obscure as they are enthralling - she tenders herself to making friends and winning over people. She does whatever it takes to secure the loyalty of her fellow inmates, with Lee Young-ae iniquitously exaggerating the stereotypical subservient Oriental woman, western cinema-goers have come to expect. But once she's served her time, she reinvents herself as a ruthless, stiletto-heeled avenger, recruiting her former cellmates to facilitate her in the realisation of her retaliatory plans.

The meticulousness of Park's approach to movie-making takes this from an everyday revenge story and turns it into a ravishingly elegant cinematic experience, that's even more accentuated and stylised than it's predecessor. Every shot is perspicaciously constructed to elicit specific emotions in the viewer and every edit is an exercise in teasing abscission. Lady Vengeance is envisioned and storyboarded with such microscopic attention to detail that, with its spookily sublime heroine, it bears a closer resemblance to the haunting, fantasy-driven endeavors of Jean-Pierre Jeunet than the brazen ferocity of Tarantino.

The first two thirds of Lady Vengeance tears through so much material that at times it can prove almost too fast to assimilate all the information the viewer is lavished with, the last third can seem frustratingly drawn-out in comparison. But Park knows his audience and his story, and the conclusion is gratifying in its equivocalness, much as life sometimes offers no easy solutions, so Park presents us with no simple finale, allowing us instead to formulate our own opinions. Having started Lady Vengeance as a homage to the kind of labyrinthine payback plot seen in Oldboy, he ends it by dismissing such simple fantasies. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a valiant, confrontational and, at times, enchanting film, that solidifies Park Chan-Wook's position as one of modern cinema's great auteurs.

Verdict: See it twice.

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