Yeong-ae Lee as Geum-ja Lee
Min-sik Choi as Mr. Baek
Byeong-ok Kim as Preacher
Dal-su Oh as Mr. Chang
Il-woo Nam as Detective Choi
Kwang-rok Oh as Se-hyun’s Father
Tony Barry as StepFather, Australian
Anne Cordiner as StepMother, Australian
Su-hee Go as Ma-nyeo
Bu-seon Kim as So-young Woo
Shi-hoo Kim as Geun-shik
Seung-Shin Lee as Yi-jeong Park
Mi-ran Ra as Oh, Su-hee
Yeong-ju Seo as Kim, Yang-hee
Ji-tae Yu as A grown-up Won-mo
Directed by Park Chanwook
Vastly different in tone from “Oldboy,” if only because of the gender of the lead, Park Chanwook’s follow-up is often too odd and disjointed for its own good. It’s only saved by a third act that mixes Park’s trademark brutalism with some truly heartfelt moments.
After spending over 13 years in jail for kidnapping and killing a young boy, a crime she didn’t commit, Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee) swears to get revenge on the man who framed her, creating an elaborate plan with some of her fellow inmates to capture him.
After “Oldboy,” I thought I had seen everything, but South Korea’s Park Chanwook constantly surprises with unique sensibilities that place him somewhere in the realms of eccentric genii like David Lynch and Peter Greenway. Unfortunately, both those filmmakers often stray too far from “the norm” to find any mainstream success, and with “Lady Vengeance,” Park doesn’t exactly bend over backwards to retain the Western fans he found in the past year.
This time around, Mr. Park has a woman as the lead, immediately giving the film a different tone that plays off the adage about “a woman scorned.” When Geum-Ja Lee, the film’s semi-protagonist, gets out of prison, she refuses the tofu–a symbol of rebirth–offered by the sleazy preacher who greets her, accompanied by a full band. You see, when Geum-Ja was just 19 years old, her newborn daughter was taken away from her, and she was forced to confess for a crime she didn’t commit, the killing of a 5-year-old boy that has haunted her ever since. In prison, she was forced to kill in order to survive, turning her into a much harder person. The only thing on Lee’s mind for those thirteen years was getting out and getting revenge on the man who got away with murder. Wearing dark red eyeliner and sporting a rebuilt vintage gun, she turns to her former cellmates for help with her plan while working a day job at a bakery, where she confronts the detective who jailed her despite questioning her guilt.
After an hour of set-up, the film starts to get rolling when Geum-Ja goes to Australia to recover her estranged daughter, raised in the Outback without knowing a word of Korean. Here’s where Park pulls out all of his tricks to win you over, turning the movie into a heartfelt story of redemption and forgiveness between mother and daughter. After capturing the man who tormented her as a teen, Lee begs her daughter’s forgiveness for abandoning her, forcing her hostage to translate at gunpoint. It’s one of those classic Park Chanwook scenes that’s almost impossible to describe, even harder to imagine, and yet, it still works.
Visually stunning with a gorgeous baroque score, Park fills every beautiful frame with loads of symbolism and the type of physics-defying camera angles that only he can pull off. Still, Park’s tastes continue to veer so far outfield that few viewers will be able to watch this movie, and think, “Oh, yeah. I know exactly how that is.” It makes it blatantly obvious that Park has little interest in appealing to anyone even remotely familiar with the “mainstream.”
Some scenes make the viewer so uncomfortable it’s hard not to laugh, and it’s equally hard to adjust to some of Park’s more jarring technique of repeatedly flashing back to Lee’s time in jail, where she was considered an angel by all of her cellmates, except an obese bully known as the Witch, who forces women to perform sexual acts on her. Fans of ’70s women-in-prison exploitation films should at least appreciate those scenes. However difficult it tries to be, “Lady Vengeance” is a movie that certainly gets better, or at least easier to follow, with repeat viewings.
Park could not have picked a finer lead actress than Yeaon-ae Lee, better known for playing less vicious roles in her home country, if he had tried, although her character is the type of role that American actresses like Laura Linney and Julianne Moore would have killed for. She brings all of the viciousness and brutality one might expect from a Park Chanwook anti-hero, but in what almost seems like a dual role, her younger self puts on a sweeter and more innocent façade that is quite a counterpoint to her older and more weathered persona. Still, there is a softer and more feminine aspect to Geum-Ja that makes it easy to understand her inclination towards vengeance.
“Oldboy” fans will be pleasantly surprised seeing that film’s lead, Min-sik Choi, return in the very different role as Lee’s subject of scorn, Mr. Baek. He gives just as memorable a performance in the role of antagonist-turned-victim, with plenty of other familiar faces from Park’s stable of collaborators.
Without wanting to give anything away, it’s hard to talk about Lee’s dramatic method of revenge, getting the families of Baek’s young victims into the act. Park Chanwook fans certainly won’t be surprised or disappointed, though others might be shocked or disturbed. The epilogue that follows is a bit of a letdown, lessening the impact of what happened previously and overstaying the film’s welcome. Certainly, the movie would have been helped greatly with a bit of reediting to make the film seem less disjointed.
The Bottom Line:
Needless to say, Park Chanwook may forever be an acquired taste, though there’s a certain charm to “Lady Vengeance” that enriches with age. As with his past films, “Lady Vengeance” is probably like nothing you’ve seen before, but as always, you’d have to be pretty sick and twisted to really get off on it.