Witchfinder General: dark and serious low-budget exploration of corruption, abuse and violence

Michael Reeves, “Witchfinder General” (1968)

Loosely based on the exploits of the English 17th-century witch-hunters Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, this movie is a dark low-budget exploration of personal corruption, abuse and violence in a society wracked by civil war and the collapse of political stability and law and order. Hero and villain alike are undone by taking the law into their own hands, no matter how justified the reason may be. In the year 1645 Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) roam eastern England hunting out witches in various villages: their techniques include brutal torture to induce false confessions of men and women accused of witchcraft. They ride toward a place called Brandeston and a trooper come from there, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who has just visited his fiancee Sara (Hilary Dwyer) and her uncle John Lowes (Rupert Devies) the village priest, shows them the direction. Once there the witch-hunters round up Lowes and others accused of witchcraft, throw them into jail and torture them sadistically. In spite of Sara’s attempts to save her uncle, he and the other accused are executed and Hopkins and Stearne move on.

Marshall returns to Brandeston, learns from Sara what has happened to her uncle and vows to hunt down Hopkins and Stearne. From this moment on the movie becomes a cat-and-mouse game in which Marshall risks his career – and possibly his life – pursuing the witch-hunters who in turn plan to trap Marshall and Sara by accusing them of witchcraft. The double plotting sounds very silly but the serious tone of the movie, the level of credible violence that has occurred by this point in the film and the depth of characterisation make the second part of “Witchfinder General” no laughing matter and indeed quite powerful as viewers are left to wonder how intense and melodramatic the climax will be when Marshall and Hopkins confront each other.

Though made for commercial purposes on a small budget, the film has excellent production values: the cinematography is good with long stationary shots that take in wide swathes of peaceful countryside with historic buildings that give the movie a distinctive English flavour, and the few bright colours of the film which tends towards dark colours and shadows hold up well after over 40 years. The use of long static shots gives the film a staged look which may well be the intention – the Puritan rulers of England from 1649 to 1660 closed down all theatres – though there is one excellent scene in which Stearne stumbles into a forest after taking a bullet in his arm: anticipating his pain, the camera pans away from him to the forest background while he extracts the bullet and screams, then pans back to him. Reinforcing the film’s commercial intent, the music soundtrack is very dramatic, overbearing and old-fashioned in style with melodies straight out of American horse operas: the association with Westerns may be deliberate as here, the government as represented by Marshall and Hopkins are routing out elements hostile to it just as the US government routed out and shoved indigenous Americans into reservations two centuries later.

For a highly melodramatic plot in which screaming is an unfortunate constant, the acting is restrained and well done with notable performances from the male leads. Price is grim and implacable as Hopkins yet commanding, charismatic and not above exploiting Sara when she offers sexual favours or cheating on others including his assistant. Russell is suitably nasty as the vicious  Stearne. Ogilvy acquits himself well in the meaty role of Marshall and his final scene is a surprise shocker. The main characters are delineated in detail so that though they commit unspeakable atrocities, viewers at least understand their motives, however gross they are, and can indentify with them: Hopkins and Stearne are unlikeable but we all know of people who would behave in similar ways in similar contexts.

The film doesn’t attempt to explain witchcraft but instead focusses on the accusations, the use of torture and particular torture methods by witch-hunters and the punishments they carried out. For all that there is a theme of how witch-hunts (figurative as well as literal) can occur in insecure societies and how some individuals can use violence, ignorance and belief in rumour for selfish personal reasons. Torture and violence take a toll on people’s psychology, corrupting and degrading them as a result. Viewers may feel relieved that the movie versions of Hopkins and Stearne are punished for exploiting people but Marshall gives up his humanity and is no better than his enemies. No-one can feel happy about his fall from grace and the hint that the social and political situation in England at the time, stressed by the voice-over narration at the movie’s start, is in part responsible for Hopkins and Stearne being able to flourish and create havoc is strong. In spite of the film’s age – the acting, the film’s style and even some accents can appear old-fashioned to modern audiences – the intended message is as important as ever and is more so in an age of continuous war across western Asia and northern Africa, ongoing global economic crisis that slowly grinds people into poverty and a cowed news media peddling propaganda, scare stories and lies, all of which surely benefit political and economic elites who are careful to hide their motives and interests.

The real-life Matthew Hopkins was much younger than the man who appears in the film and assisted John Stearne who was originally a landowner and farmer. Hopkins died from pneumonia in his late twenties in 1647 though there has been an intriguing rumour that when general opinion in England turned against him, he emigrated to the Plymouth colony in eastern North America and instigated witch-hunting activities that led to the Salem witch trials.

True Grit (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen): revenge film plays straight and narrow with problematic heroine

Joel and Ethan Coen, “True Grit” (2010)

Adapted from the 1968 novel of the same name by Charles Portis, “True Grit” can be read as both a revenge film, in which a girl seeks justice for the murder of her father, and a coming-of-age film where the girl’s quest for her father’s murderer has certain life-long consequences. It’s a likeable film with lovely prairie and snow country scenery which pays homage to the Western genre with a solid story driven more by its flavoured and eccentric dialogue and the quirks of its main characters than by action, but it appears small in its scope and ambition. Perhaps the Coens, in trying to be true to the novel in spirit if not in its details, and perhaps wishing also to respect the 1968 movie version that starred John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby in the main roles, opt for a straight and conservative interpretation of the novel with some humour and much attention to the characters’ mode of speech and their dialogue. This prevents any examination of the central character Mattie Ross’s motive for pursuing her father’s killer Tom Chaney and why she desires Old Testament “eye for an eye” justice for him.

It seems unbelievable that a 14 year old girl should take it upon herself to hire a US marshal and go after her father’s killer, even in the days of the so-called “Wild, Wild West” but this is the central conceit of the novel and the two movies based on it. Perhaps the decision to make more of the Rooster Cogburn character and less of the teenage girl in the 1969 movie was a better one: at least the story would have been more credible with Wayne garnering most attention as Cogburn and Darby as the girl trusting in his judgement and skills. The 2010 film now revolves completely around Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the aggrieved youngster, who doggedly raises the money needed to hire the old alcoholic and vicious US marshal Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and makes sure he sticks to the “contract” they supposedly agreed on, to the extent that she buys a horse and follows him very closely into Choctaw Indian country where Chaney (Josh Brolin) is hiding out with an outlaw gang led by Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). A Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), is also on Chaney’s trail but for different reasons. LaBoeuf and Ross clash and quarrel early on as a result: Ross simply won’t allow Chaney to be punished for killing another man, she wants him punished for killing her father. Why that should be so isn’t explained or pursued in the film; is a farmer in Arkansas any more important or special than a Texas senator? This simply speaks for an unpleasant and unimaginative character in a teenage girl, and the fact that Cogburn and LaBoeuf allow Ross to accompany them, rather than tell her to jump into the nearest snake-pit and let them sort out Chaney their own way, is a strange quirk that turns out to be one of many in the plot. Perhaps the novel in its own way is a comic undermining of assumptions in traditional Western literature and films, in which women and children knew their place (and that place was strictly in the men’s shadows), and the Coens, in following the novel closely, failed to capitalise much on the novel’s subversions.

The threesome travel both separately and together in tracking Chaney and there are some comic episodes, such as a cornbread-shooting competition between Cogburn and LaBoeuf to see who is a better shot, and oddball characters such as the boarding-house madame who snores loudly and hogs all the blankets, and a lone rider (Ed Corbin) wearing a bear’s head, followed by a horse carrying a corpse. The tension builds steadily and satisfactorily to Ross’s encounter with Chaney in a stream, at which point the drama, spiced with a little comedy from a minor character in Ned Pepper’s gang, kicks into efficient, no-nonsense action. This culminates in Cogburn’s challenge to the whole gang, at once serious and yet hilariously ridiculous: Cogburn riding full-tilt at the foursome with reins in his mouth and firing two guns, and managing to shoot all four of them, killing three, without suffering any injuries – hell, even his hat doesn’t blow off. The true climax comes soon after with Ross and Chaney again facing off against each other and this time, Ross gets her justice at last but with the recoil from the rifle (funny, Cogburn didn’t have that problem with the two firearms) throwing her into the, uh … nearest snake-pit.

Although the film is very neat and compact in its telling, its close attention to the quest of Ross, Cogburn and LaBoeuf allows for no examination of Ross’s character and motivations, or indeed of why Ross, as a mature woman 25 years afterwards, revisits this particular episode of her teenage years and why she holds it in such high regard to the extent that she has Cogburn’s remains interred in her family cemetery. What does she remember of Cogburn and LaBoeuf’s personalities? Does she remember them for being the first people to treat her as an adult and an equal? Is she grateful to Cogburn and LaBoeuf for getting her out of the snake-pit? If she had managed to catch up with Cogburn just before he died, what would they have talked about of that adventure? Why does she even want to see him again? Unfortunately the voice-over narrative, delivered by Elizabeth Marvel, doesn’t reveal anything of Ross’s reasons for wanting to see Cogburn again and the actress herself, playing the mature Ross, portrays her as an unpleasant and priggish spinster stereotype. It’s perhaps just as well that Cogburn dies before seeing her again as no doubt she probably would have demanded that he compensate her for killing her mount Little Blackie when it collapsed all those years ago.

The film’s thrust treats the relationship between Ross and Cogburn as strictly business-like and allows nothing deeper to develop between them: Ross as the substitute for the child Cogburn lost when his wife left him, and Cogburn as the father Ross lost. An opportunity is lost to make something more out of these two characters which might justify the tenderness Cogburn displays towards Ross when she is bitten by the rattlesnake. The Ross character remains one-dimensional while Cogburn, as portrayed by Jeff Bridges, emerges a complex character, one obviously liking his alcohol and not averse to bending the truth when it suits, yet brave, loyal and respectful of Ross’s precocity and stubbornness.

“True Grit” might have been a much better film if the Coens had deviated from the novel’s epilogue and portrayed the mature Ross as a changed and mellow character reflecting on how much her desire for vengeance and the adventure changed her life for better and for worse, and how life can dish out the worst tragedy at the moment of greatest triumph, demonstrating perhaps the pitiless nature of an uncaring universe; and if a father-daughter relationship had been allowed to develop between Cogburn and Ross so that both become better people at the end. Ross would come to appreciate that great qualities can exist even in the most “sinful” of men and Cogburn would find the family he had lost all hope of ever having. “True Grit” could have been as much a coming-of-age story about both Ross and Cogburn as a purely revenge quest for Ross and a test of reputation for Cogburn.

Dororo: a fun escapist samurai-fusion film let down by cheap effects

Akihiko Shiota, “Dororo” (2006)

Based on the original manga by Astroboy creator, Osamu Tezuka, “Dororo” is a fun and entertaining escapist fantasy adventure about two wanderers, Hyakkimaru and Dororo, in a post-apocalyptic Japan. Curiously this Japan resembles pre-Tokugawa Japan in its culture and politics: the country has been split up and is ruled by warring clans each eager to wipe out the others and reunite the land by force and tyranny. Leader of one such clan, Daigo Kagemitsu (Kichi Nakai), is so keen to be the first Great Unifier since Ieyasu Tokugawa that he readily enters into a Faustian pact with a group of demons at a temple: the evil ones demand the body of his first-born son as payment. When the child is born, the demons seize and dismember him, leaving behind bare scraps of flesh held together by the baby’s spirit. Daigo Kagemitsu forces his wife to abandon the child and she does so tearfully, sending him off in a basket to drift down a fast-flowing river.

The baby is found by a sorcerer who painstakingly sets about reconstructing the tiny body using the remains of children killed in past wars together with various prostheses that include swords hidden in the boy’s new arms. Scenes of the reconstruction look amusingly (and intentionally) like their equivalents in old Frankenstein movies: the sorcerer distils the life essence of the dead children amid a collection of boiling potions in glass containers all joined together with transparent tubes and he uses magic that resembles electricity to animate the body parts. The boy, wrapped in bandages, floats in a soup of life-sustaining liquid. The process has to take a long time as the boy needs bigger parts and prostheses as he grows up. The sorcerer takes time to educate the boy as well. On reaching the age of 20, the boy (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is as ready as can be to take on the demons which is just as well as the sorcerer conveniently gives up the ghost and commands Hyakkimaru to destroy his life-work so that it should not fall into the wrong hands for evil purposes. Hyakkimaru burns the sorcerer’s house and life-work and begins his odyssey around Japan in search of the 48 demons who took his original body parts.

He acquires a side-kick, Dororo (Ko Shibasaki), who, on seeing him despatch a spider-demon in short and spectacular FX-enhanced order at a tavern, becomes curious about him and learns of his history from the time the sorcerer found him from a mysterious lute-player (Katsuo Nakamura) who happens to be the sorcerer’s friend. Dororo is a teenage thief, orphaned at an early age and commanded by her mother to suppress her gender identity by impersonating a boy; the girl desires revenge upon the Kagemitsus for destroying her family and community. Together Hyakkimaru and Dororo – incidentally, they acquire their names as nicknames, their real names being unknown – cross the length and breadth of a scenic and beautiful wild countryside (the movie having been filmed in New Zealand), killing the various demons who were part of the group that negotiated with Daigo Kagemitsu, in order to recover Hyakkimaru’s physical inheritance piece by piece … until they come to the lands of the Kagemitsus where Daigo Kagemitsu’s son and heir Tahomaru hears of Hyakkimaru’s arrival and seeks him out, inviting him to come and meet his parents …

The screenplay is better plotted than I expected: Hyakkimaru and Dororo could have spent the entire film chasing and killing rubber monsters and CGI ghouls with Dororo falling in love with Hyakkimaru along the way and Hyakkimaru unable to reciprocate until he has regained all his body parts. The showdown with Daigo Kagemitsu could have been shelved for a sequel but “Dororo” chooses to meet this head-on with a revelation that the demons handed Daigo Kagemitsu a dud deal, taking the first-born son’s physical being and going to town on that with some el-cheapo cheesy Godzilla cast-off costumes and computer effects that are irregular in quality, but most of all failing to deliver all of their client’s enemies to him in good time.  Yet Daigo K never appears to want his child back or at least take the contract to the relevant Department of Fair Trade. The movie can appear rather uneven: in its early scenes and the later scenes where Hyakkimaru confronts his father, the movie adopts a serious and drawn-out (maybe too drawn-out for fans of action) tone, and in other scenes where the two young ‘uns confront and kill demons, it’s quite flippant and the demons are more cartoonish than terrifying, but the screenplay holds up in spite of the changes in approach. I guess the emphasis is that the business of killing demons is secondary to Hyakkimaru discovering his true heritage and what it means to be human, and on how Dororo copes with finding out that the man she is following is the son of her family’s killers and whether her thirst for revenge is fulfilled.

Shibasaki and Tsumabuki do the best they can with their one-dimensional characters: Shibasaki’s Dororo comes across as a stock jester or clown character in the vein of similar characters in other Japanese samurai movies though the acting involved is substantial and Shibasaki does a convincing job throwing jokes, tantrums and tomboy bluster; while Tsumabuki’s Hyakkimaru has an uphill battle demonstrating an increasing capacity for feeling, empathy and humour when he has to acquire humanity bit by tiny bit. After all, by the time he’s resolved his issues with Dad, he’s only halfway to full humanity with 24 more jigsaw puzzle pieces to collect. No wonder then that he appears robotic throughout the film and only seems to become a bit human at the end. There are hints in “Dororo” that acquiring humanity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and that becoming human means becoming vulnerable to wounding, both physical, mental and emotional; it would have been good if Shiota had played up that angle more so that the whole business of tracking down the demons and killing them, one by one, just to get your body parts back, one by one, becomes more complicated on an existential level. Particularly also if you decide to bring some futuristic neo-Buddhist beliefs about the relationships between material desires and the nature of suffering into the picture: the more human you become, the more subject to desires you also become, and the more likely you will sin and cause other people to suffer.

Combining manga and various movie references, sci-fi, fantasy, martial arts, Japanese folk mythology and some old-fashioned story-telling with flashback sequences and a bit of philosophising about family members sticking together, “Dororo” juggles its influences and the genre-mixing fairly well to deliver a fun light-hearted ride at least. The major complaints I have are that the special effects and the CGI work aren’t of consistent quality and often look cheap, especially when the rest of the film looks good and sometimes even majestic, and the various demons Hyakkimaru meets tend to be animal and plant spirits rather than real demons straight out of people’s worst nightmares: we have the spider-demon, the tree-demon, the lizard-demon, the moth-demon, the fox-demons … all not terribly original and restricted in their roles as particular animals and plants. Sure, some can morph into humans but they don’t morph into anything else to make life more fun for themselves and extra difficult for everyone else. The futuristic world created for Hyakkimaru and Dororo should look more of a pastiche of different cultures, past and present, within and outside Japan, than it does. Armchair experts in mediaeval Japanese culture and history would recognise a great deal borrowed from Japan’s Sengoku warlord period (about 1450 – 1600) which preceded the Tokugawa shogunate; the film looks like one of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai pictures remade on a budget. The one part of the film that’s truly cosmopolitan and outstanding is the music soundtrack which features considerable bluesy-sounding flamenco-style guitar music.

If a sequel to “Dororo” gets off the ground, I’d expect a bit more character development and maybe some delayed teenage angst on Hyakkimaru’s part as he acquires more human feelings and emotions, and maybe questions whether it’s really worth his while getting all his body parts back. Reading some of the comments on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) though, I found one which stated an sequel is not likely as the estate of Osamu Tezuka does not like the film and has refused permission for sequels. I have never seen the manga but apparently the film makes drastic changes to the original manga story – to take two examples, the manga Dororo is a young preteen boy, and the tone of the manga itself is more serious than that of the film – and possibly it is changes such as these that the estate objects to. For the time being anyway, manga fans and the general public alike can enjoy the film as a post-modern samurai-fusion flick and if some people are inspired to read the original manga, that will be a bonus.

Ye Yan aka Legend of the Black Scorpion aka The Banquet: Chinese adaptation of “Hamlet” is Much Ado About Nothing

Feng Xiaogang, “Ye Yan” aka “Legend of the Black Scorpion” aka “The Banquet” (2006)

Source: www.chinese-embassy.org.uk

An adaptation of William Shakespeare’s famous revenge play “Hamlet”, this lavish Chinese swords-n-somersaultery production is more aptly if cruelly summarised with the title of another of the Bard’s plays: Much Ado About Nothing. Artier-than-thou cinematography, hammy slo-mo marital arts aerobatics and clever computer animation that can make a cast of hundreds and thousands out of a few actors and flicks ketchup blood into graceful arcs of abstract-art paint bulk up a soap opera plot that becomes yet another chapter in ancient Imperial China’s history of political intrigue, skulduggery and assassinations. The pity of Chinese history operas like this one is that they tend to reinforce a view of Chinese politics through the ages as very personal and dynastic, revolving always around clashes of personalities, ongoing vendettas and disputes, and don’t admit any possibility for political change brought about by social, cultural or technological changes within Chinese society or outside, bar the odd barbarian invasion from north of the Great Wall. In this respect, the films have a very limited and quite conservative viewpoint.

Beneath the layers of fairy floss, the plot hews closely to the original play: the Old Emperor is deposed and murdered by his brother (Ge You) who then claims the throne as Emperor Li and takes the Old Emperor’s widow, Empress Wan (Zhang Ziyi), as his wife. Originally Empress Wan was the Old Emperor’s foster daughter whom his son, Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu), was secretly in love with but when she grew up, the old guy made her his wife which led to the Prince fleeing the palace to reside in southern China, studying music and dance. On hearing of his father’s death, cad though he was, the Prince returns at once to the Imperial Palace, thwarting an assassination attempt launched by Emperor Li on the way. Once back at home, Wu Luan rekindles his dormant romance with Empress Wan and becomes emotionally tangled with a lady-in-waiting Qing Nu (Zhou Xun) who is engaged to marry him. The Prince also sets about investigating his father’s death and discovers the horrific way in which he died and who killed him. Staging a play at Empress Wu’s second coronation as empress proper, Wu Luan exposes Emperor Li’s role in the murder, and for that he is banished under heavy guard, among whom the Emperor has planted assassins, to the northern lands of the Khitan people. Wu Luan evades death and exile thanks to Qing Nu’s brother who had previously been sent to a distant province as governor. In the meantime, Empress Wu plots with Qing Nu’s father, the grand marshall, and her brother to bump off Emperor Li.

Feeling secure in his position, Emperor Li holds a banquet at which Qing Nu and a troupe of masked dancers (with Wu Luan hidden among them) perform a sad love song. Just before performing the song, the Emperor offers a goblet of wine to Qing Nu which she accepts – and which neither of them knows has had a secret ingredient added by the Empress herself, who looks on in horror as Qing Nu gulps down the lot …

The utter wipe-out which follows in which only the grand marshall survives is at least true to the play though Empress Wu proves to be more Goneril than Gertrude overall. For those who don’t know, Goneril is the oldest daughter of King Lear in the Shakespearean play of the same name who kills her younger sister Regan with poison and helps to cause the downfall of her entire family. At the end of the film, we don’t know who’s in charge of the empire and must assume that warlords are going to fight over who’s going to be the next lucky Emperor to preside over a new lot of squabbling and scheming relatives. Like any other self-respecting soap opera, the script introduces new twists and turns up to the end but says nothing original or new about the nature of revenge or how it can backfire on those who take it up. Those wanting to understand more about “Hamlet” because they’ve got to write essays on the play for final school exams won’t find any new interpretations of its politics.

The action actually bogs right down during the drawn-out fight scenes so the film flows less well than it should. The artistic presentation is more a cumbersome burden than an asset for the skeletal plot which goes into detailed overdrive only during the last 30 minutes. With the exception of lead actor Zhang, the actors have little to work with on their characters and their efforts are uneven: Ge is convincing enough as the suave, conniving Emperor Li and Zhou is touching as the innocent Qing Nu but Daniel Wu as the Prince seems a bit one-dimensional compared to Ge and Zhang. Zhang as Empress Wu is miscast: she looks too young and bland, and her voice is too youthful and sweet, for her to be convincing as a duplicitous Empress. I really think the role should have gone to an actor of the calibre and experience of Gong Li, Maggie Cheung or Michelle Yeoh; it’s a bit creepy as well to have the Empress Wu married to the Old Emperor, in love with his son and then married off and also warming to the Old Emperor’s brother!

Lovely to look at but all those special effects and the colour can’t cover over a skimpy story that adds nothing new to the audience’s understanding of revenge and how it undoes everyone caught up in it, and which manages to turn the politics of “Hamlet” into a soap opera about dysfunctional families.

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.