Big Atonement For Big Sins: Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (2005)

It is all but official; Park Chan-wook is the auteur to be admired most amongst the South Korean directors.  With a broad global following and a clear aesthetic, it is hard not to love everyone of this magnificent filmmakers works.  Between the sheer abrasiveness of Oldboy and the minimalist brilliance of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance Park knows what he is doing when it comes to releasing socially pertinent thrillers that beg for continual revisiting.  His work Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is not his best work in my opinion, but it is certainly superior to most other films with similar concepts and certainly stands on its own as one of the best movies of 2005.  Between the on-point acting delivered by a slew of well-known Korean actors and the experimental filming, it is a profound study of redemption and an interesting reflection on women’s power within contemporary Korean society, and as has been the case with many of Park’s works, it raises far more questions than answers, never leaving the viewer with complete certainty of what actually occurred within the dense narrative, furthermore, as the commentator on the bluray noted, it has one of the best endings to a film in the past decade, something I agree with wholeheartedly.  Essentially, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, causes me to drive home a point that I have said with just about every Korean film review posted her on my blog, they simply excel at genre films, particularly those relating to the horrific and the vengeful.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, like Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, focuses on an individual obtaining justice for a wrong enacted on them, always relying on methods outside of the law in order to obtain revenge.  In the case of this film, the focus is on Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae) a woman who has recently been released from jail after being incarcerated for the murder of a young boy.  While in jail, Lee made a reputation for being both incredibly kind and completely indifferent to destroying an individual who harmed her, as evidenced by her killing a sexually abusive inmate through months of slowly poisoning her food, of which she volunteered to feed to her.  This reputation also causes Lee to gain a large amount of respect from the inmates who are let out after their sentences are completed.  Through their assistance, Lee is able to plan a revenge on Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik) a teacher, who viewers come to discover is actually responsible for a series of child murders and blackmailed Lee to take the fall for him by threatening to kill her own daughter.  Besides planning on asserting revenge against Baek, Lee also attempts to reunite with her daughter who was placed in foster care in Australia, making for one of the more hilarious sequences within the film.  Furthermore, Lee takes up a relationship with her coworker, a young man who is eerily close to the age of the boy she murdered.  After undertaking the kidnapping of Baek with the help of his current partner, whom he is abusive to, she takes him to a dilapidated school and ties him up with the intent of shooting him with a gun.  However, upon discovering that he is indeed responsible for multiple murders, Lee calls upon the parents of each child to collectively exact revenge upon Baek.  In perhaps the most gruesome moments of the film, Lee and the others take a variety of weapons to Baek, killing him and then burying him in a hole behind the school.  This is all done under the watchful eye of a detective who accepts that their actions are far more fruitful than anything the bureaucratic system of law could provide. The film then comes back to Lee as she interacts with her daughter and young lover, she offers a white cake to her daughter to eat as snow falls on her and the others, signifying perhaps forgiveness or the dismal coldness of her future.

Park Chan-wook gained recognition as a film critic before becoming one of Korea’s most well known directors.  This fact helps to explain the non-linear narrative of Park’s films, particularly the clear fact that they lift from some of the world’s best directors, a bit of Hitchcock here, some Kurosawa there and a complete control of his works, much like Orson Welles.  While Park does borrow from some of the greats he certainly brings his own flares to the table, particularly in his approach to themes of revenge and redemption.  Rarely, if ever, is there a completely perfect character, even the protagonists within Park’s films possess their own problems.  For Lee, it is a clear inability to accept her own past and obtain self-esteem that troubles her, something that she never fully deals with, as is apparent when she refuses to taste the white cake at the end of the film, instead she simply slams her face into the cake and begins to sob, perhaps hoping that by throwing herself into something will help to provide her with the answers she so desperately seeks.  This desperation clearly influences her actions throughout the film, whether it be her desire to travel to Australia to see her mother, or to pour hours a day into obtaining a lavish fire arm with the intent of killing Baek.  It is almost as though Lee seeks validation for her own personal wrongs and expects everyone to simply adhere to them; this is at least the case with her relationship with the younger man.  Park is careful though not to completely lose the viewers by making his characters completely nonredeemable.  Whether it be Oldboy, Lady Vengeance or Mr. Vengeance the characters have moments of realization, all be it brief, that help them to accept the absurdities acted upon them, for Lee it occurs when she is able to shoot the already dead Baek, even if it was an act of frivolity, it displays Lee obtaining control her life again, something powerful and evocative and it is completely acceptable, because Park has asked us from the onset to have sympathy for Lee’s desire for revenge, and to some degree redemption.

Key Scene: It is most certainly the group revenge scene, try watching it without grimacing…I dare you.

This is one of the more well-known of Korean films on a global scale, the bluray looks fantastic and apparently possesses a fade to black and white version that I cannot wait to check out.  Park is a director to share with friends and well worth getting a copy of to watch repeatedly.

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