Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Starring – Lee Yeong-ae, Choi Min-sik, Kwon Yea-yeong and Kim See-hoo
Written by Park Chan-wook and Jeoung Seo-gyeong
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Now the undeniable creative leader of the Korean film movement of the last decade is by far and away Park Chan-wook. Starting with 2000’s JSA: Joint Security Area, director Chan-wook has delivered diverse and ground-breaking films like the three films that make up the Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), I’m a Cyborg but that’s OK, and Thirst. Even though the Toronto Korean Film Festival wrapped over a week ago, I would like to use the background of the TKFF to talk about my two favorite Korean films of all time, Old Boy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.
Lady Vengeance starts with the release of Lee Geum-ja, after 13 1/2 years in prison for the kidnapping and murder of a young boy. Upon her release a preacher (Kim Byeong-ok), who she has been working with during her incarceration, meets her in front of the prison with the traditional present of a block of tofu. The tofu symbolizes a “white life” or not breaking the law again after her release. Geum-ja promptly dumps the tofu on the ground and walks away. You see, Geum-ja has been the perfect inmate for a reason, because it has served her plans for revenge to have everybody she helped inside help her execute her plan. Forced to take the blame of the kidnapping/murder by the devious Mr. Beak (Min-sik), Geum-ja was also forced to leave her newborn daughter behind as well. We see a series of flashbacks to prison sequences where we see how Geum-ja earned the nickname “The Witch” in prison; she dispatches one abusive inmate over a series of years in a very deliberate and methodical manner. Each of the inmates she helped in prison will now play a part in her grand master plan to exact her revenge. After tracking her daughter down to Australia where she was taken after adoption, we are introduced to the precocious Jenny (Yea-yeong) who ends up demanding to go back to Korea with her mom, complicating things further. While filled with cameos from actors that have been in both of the two prior Vengeance movies (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy), Lady Vengeance keeps ratcheting up the suspense until the surprising and extremely effective ending.
This truly is a fantastic film. Lee Yeong-ae is mesmerizing on-screen, her performance is flawless as the wronged Geum-ja. She dominates the screen whenever she is on it and in one second can be flat-out mean then angelic a mere second later. Wook-park’s strongest female protagonist, which is saying something as he forms female characters very well, Geum-ja is a brilliant character whose story is truly compelling. Of course Geum-ja needs a strong protagonist to make this story work, so Wook-park goes to the big gun and brings in the incomparable Choi Min-sik. I have said this many times to friends and others in conversation and will state it here and now in print, Min-sik is Korea’s version of Robert Deniro circa the Mean Streets through Goodfellas era. Yes he is THAT good and he immediately elevates everything he does, more to come on him in my Oldboy review. The rest of the cast also does admirable work in spinning a fascinating tale that never ceases to surprise. Wook-park’s direction is masterful and his story building expertise is on full display.
After the Masterpiece that is Oldboy, Lady Vengeance could have been a letdown as so many follow-ups are. Instead we are treated to a completely different tale that manages to more than hold in Oldboy’s shadow. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is an absolute must see.
Till Next Time,
Movie Junkie TO
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