Sympathy for Lady Vengeance: disturbing film about vengeance and how it distorts humanity in a warped society

Park Chanwook, “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (2005)

“… Lady Vengeance” is the third of South Korean director Park Chanwook’s revenge-themed movie trilogy that began with “Sympathy for Mr Vengeance” and continued with “Oldboy”. Both the second and third films in the trilogy are in line for remakes by Hollywood (because as we all know, American and Australian audiences hate reading sub-titles and don’t understand movies where everyone looks foreign), demonstrating that across the world, revenge is a popular theme for drama. As you’d expect, “… Lady Vengeance” or just “Lady Vengeance” as it’s sometimes called follows the standard revenge-story format: the protagonist has been wronged in the past, spends some time in a state of suffering and on release from that suffering plots and carries out the revenge against the villain. Usually for some reason the law is of no help to the protagonist so s/he must operate semi-legally or illegally and consequently exerts considerate effort to achieve the goal. Once the revenge is complete, the drama ends but often at this point the real curve-ball is thrown at the audience: does the hero get any real satisfaction out of carrying out the revenge?

Consider the case of Lee Geumja (Lee Yeongae) who has spent the past 13 years in jail for the kidnap and murder of a small child called Wonmo.. Flashbacks in “Lady Vengeance” show Lee was blackmailed by the real murderer Mr Baek (Choi Minsik, who played the avenger in “Oldboy”) who threatened to kill her baby daughter if she didn’t admit guilt. Lee is arrested, charged and given a long sentence in a women’s jail. During the 13 years, Lee becomes a kind-hearted ministering angel to her fellow prisoners, performing many good deeds which include killing the prison bully with poison. After her release, Lee plans and carries out her revenge against Baek by calling in all the favours she’s done for various ex-convicts. She also tracks down and is reunited with her daughter who has been adopted and named Jenny by an Australian couple in the meantime.

Once she’s found Baek and taken him to an abandoned rural school-house, Lee discovers she hasn’t the heart to kill him outright. On discovering his mobile phone is festooned with various small trinkets, she realises he’s a serial child murderer who has lured children to him using their toys. With help from Baek’s estranged wife, she sets about tracking down the identities of the dead children, locates their relatives and brings them to the school where she informs them of Baek’s crimes and lets them decide what justice Baek deserves. They decide as a collective what to do and carry out the gory deed. With Baek out of the way, Lee and the relatives take a group photograph that implicates all of them in their crime and they all swear not to report one another to the authorities. They go to the cake-shop where Lee has been working since leaving prison and hold a birthday celebration ritual that allows them all to remember and let go of the deceased children and move on (?) with their lives.

Sorry I had to tell the story but the point of “Lady Vengeance” isn’t whether Lee succeeds or not in her vengeance – the film’s English title implies she does succeed – but in whether the relentless planning and pursuit of Baek makes Lee a better or worse person than he is and forces the audience to decide if she deserves compassion and sympathy for what she does. The film makes plain that Baek is a menace to society but the fact that he’s been able to commit heinous crimes around the country without arousing suspicion suggests that the law, and society in some way, lacks power or the ethics to deal with his kind of criminal. Perhaps Geumja is indeed justified in resorting to extreme measures to stop and punish him. At the same time the emotional and physical toll of her revenge is just as extreme; after Baek is gone, Geumja seems to become a mere shell, perhaps no longer able to relate to her daughter (who eventually returns to Australia with her adoptive parents), and this psychological emptiness is the true horror of what Baek has done to the woman.

The film is presented in a visually gorgeous and artistic way that creates a clinical distance between the characters and the audience. Nearly every scene is a tableau where action and dialogue happen to be staged. Scenes are filmed at unusual or awkward angles so as to become abstract: stairways appear as geometrical formations, a bathroom becomes an architectural fantasy and snow country is a backdrop for a painting of dog-paw patterns or curves created by sleds. The whole film has an unreal, staged quality where beauty exists everywhere, masking or denying life with all its horrors and untidiness, and even street scenes look artfully designed. The apartment Lee lives in, decorated in lurid black-and-red tiger-stripe wallpaper, seems devoid of passion even when passion occurs within its walls. You’re looking at a society of fragmented art-gallery scene puzzles whose citizens have to find the joins to make sense of the world they live in and of themselves as permanent residents.

Geumja herself, from the time she leaves prison to just after the cake-shop celebration ritual, wears highly stylised, minimal war-paint that masks and maybe eventually denies an inner emotional repression or turmoil; on taking the make-up off, she becomes drained of all colour and is as bland as the tofu cake, representing goodness and purity, that she ends up bashing her face in and trying to suck up, to ingest the goodness that perhaps she realises she lacks. One assumes that when Jenny returns to Australia, Geumja will find a new place and wardrobe that will be as washed-out as the tofu cake. There could be hope in that cake; possibly Geumja is ready to be truly good as opposed to pretending to be good and doing good while in the slammer.  There may be redemption or there may be a bland, slightly saccharine-sweet tofu-cake sort of life, empty of true passion and feeling, in a society that abandoned her and those lost children in the first place. A scene in the bathroom near the end, in which Geumja has a vision of a grown-up Wonmo (Yu Jitae who appeared in “Oldboy”) stuffing a cork into her mouth, suggests there is no redemption, at least not of the inner psychological sort, and her future life will be emotionally sterile.

Lee Yeongae’s acting as Geumja is very controlled and restrained right up to the last few scenes where her beautiful luminous face breaks into something that’s half-sorrow and half-happiness – it’s hard to tell and the ambiguity is deliberate – and it’s only really in the last scene with the tofu cake that Lee really lets rip with emotion for what she has lost and what perhaps lies ahead. Choi Minsik offers excellent support as the boorish, animalistic Baek who reveals little emotion and remorse right up to his last moments of torture and suffering and eventual death.

There is a feminist aspect to “Lady Vengeance”: most female characters in the film are clearly on Geumja’s side and offer help and advice on how to go about capturing Baek. The male characters who support her are passive and follow her instructions: for example, the police detective who arrested her over a decade ago is reduced to a tea-lady role at the school where Lee informs the relatives of the dead children of what happened to them. Of the characters who support Baek, all of them are male, among them the Christian who tries to persuade Geumja not to give up the good-girl attitudes and behaviours she acquired during imprisonment. This implies that institutions in Korean society that are supposed to be morally and spiritually uplifting and protective of vulnerable people are in fact supporting corruption and evil.

This can be a disturbing film that calls into question the nature of vengeance and what it can do to people who have no choice but to carry it out under conditions that drain and distort their normal human development and relations with others in a warped society that denies its most vulnerable members (like young children and naive women) proper justice.

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