Revenge has a distinctly female face in South Korean helmer Park Chan-wook’s darkly humorous “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” the much-awaited third seg in a trilogy on retributions that match the shocking original crimes. Like “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002) and “Old Boy” (2003), “Lady” is a wildly inventive, highly cinematic director’s showcase that looks likely, at least in the West, to enthuse fans of Asian — especially Korean — genre movies more than general auds. But that’s so long as no one goes expecting a slam-bang femme avenger a la “Kill Bill” or some kind of “Old Girl.”
Though “Mr. Vengeance” flopped on Korean release, “Old Boy” was a brawny hit, with some 3.2 million admissions (around $23 million). Given pent-up expectations, “Lady” looks set for a boffo first weekend on its July 29 local opening but could lack legs against subsequent competition. Pic’s first offshore play will be at the Venice fest in early September; in general, Euro auds and critics look more likely to welcome this “Lady” than North Americans.
One potential problem in the West is that “Mr. Vengeance” — still the most accomplished movie of the three — is relatively little known. “Lady” contains elements of both that and “Old Boy,” while retaining its own, very distinct flavor, and in that respect is a clever and largely satisfying conclusion to one of the most original trilogies in mainstream cinema.
However, auds familiar only with “Old Boy” will not only miss several in-jokes but also will find “Lady” too much of an adjustment.
Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae, lead actress in Park’s DMZ drama, “JSA”), a poised, willowy woman in her early 30s, is released after 13½ years in stir for kidnapping and murdering a 6-year-old boy. Kooky tone of the movie’s first half — enhanced by the classical-flavored score — is set by a welcoming choir dressed as Santa Clauses outside the prison.
She’s also greeted — with a traditional plate of white tofu, meant to “cleanse” an ex-prisoner — by a nutty preacher (Kim Byeong-ok). Said preacher, like Geum-ja’s cellmates, fell for her angelic demeanor, during both her trial and imprisonment. (Pic’s Korean title translates as “The Kind Miss Geum-ja.”) As Geum-ja hooks up with her previous cellmates for an as-yet undisclosed plan of revenge, film cross-cuts between that and her time inside.
Geum-ja’s helpers include a bank robber (Kim Bu-seon), whose garage mechanic husband helps her build an ornate double-barreled gun; and a woman (Ra Mi-ran) whom Geum-ja saved from a fat bull-dyke (Go Su-heui). Prison flashbacks are laced with a mordant humor that often tips over into pure laffs.
Outside jail, Geum-ja stays with a punky ex-con (Seo Yeong-ju), who had a crush on her, and sets about seeking spiritual “atonement” for her crimes — the most immediately “female” aspect of the plot — at the same time as planning her revenge. Complex plot starts to take shape after the first half-hour, as Geum-ja bumps into the cop (Nam Il-woo), who arrested her but never believed her confession, and tracks down in Australia the now-13-year-old daughter she was forced to give up. The target of her revenge finally swims into sight almost an hour into the picture: kindergarten teacher Mr. Baek (Choi Min-shik, the prisoner in “Old Boy”), whose crimes are gradually revealed.
Using a different writer than the other two segs, the script’s psychology doesn’t bear close examination and, like “Old Boy,” owes more to Asian manga than anything more real.
Film’s second half is considerably darker than the first, and sensitive viewers may find the blackly humorous approach to horrific crimes — as well as the film’s very un-Hollywood (but very Korean) lack of redemption, guilt or compassion — an emotional turn-off. Overall, pic has far less on-screen violence than either of the preceding segs, though what’s happening off-screen in the grisly final section is made pretty clear.
With one exception, performances are all aces on a slightly stylized level, and casting is first-rate. Choi, especially, carves a portrait of unrepentant evil that’s remarkable considering his limited screentime, and among the large supporting cast Nam stands out as the wry cop.
It’s only Lee, in the title role, who doesn’t quite measure up: though always respectable, and sometimes just right, her Geum-ja lacks that extra something a more experienced actress could have brought to the role.
That lack is most notable in the final section, when the focus swerves away from Geum-ja to the relatives of Baek’s victims. Their ensemble is the pic’s highlight; but the film’s dramatic arc, till then centered on Geum-ja, never quite recovers from this jolt to its structure. And Lee’s screen presence isn’t strong enough to help it do so.
Widescreen compositions are a treat throughout with detail in every part of the frame. Color palette by d.p. Jeong Joeng-hun (“Old Boy”) is the most varied in the trilogy. Actor cameos include Song Kang-ho and Shin Ha-gyun (stars of “Mr. Vengeance”) as kidnappers, and Yu Ji-tae (Choi’s co-lead in “Old Boy”) in a surprise near the end.