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Review: ‘Lady Vengeance’

The Concluding Chapter In Park Chan-wook’s Revenge Trilogy

Above: "Lady Vengeance" concludes Park Chan-wook's revenge cycle of films.

Aired 3/8/13 on KPBS News.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando recommends seeing Park Chan-Wook's Revenge Trilogy this weekend at Reading's Town Square Cinemas before seeing his first American film "Stoker" when it opens next week.

Transcript

If the person who said “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” had met Geum-ja, he might have revised his sentiments and said “hell hath no fury like a woman seeking revenge.” Geum-ja is the main character in “Lady Vengeance,” (playing Sunday March 10 at Reading’s Town Square Cinemas as part of the Park Chan-wook Retrospective) and she’s hellbent for revenge in this concluding chapter of Park Chan-wook’s deliciously twisted South Korean Revenge Trilogy. If you thought Uma Thurman was on a roaring rampage of revenge in the Kill Bill films, then fasten your seatbelts for “Lady Vengeance.”

To recap the revenge trilogy so far, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” is the most mature, controlled and emotionally resonant work. It offers a revenge tale ironically fueled by good intentions gone horribly wrong. “Oldboy's” audacious take on revenge has a protagonist that attains tragic stature, like some shaggy King Lear undone by his own foolishness. In both films, Park lets the rage and pent up frustrations of his characters explode into horrific violence. The ferocious brutality links the films to Asian Extreme Cinema, yet the richly textured emotions lift them to the level of Greek tragedy and tinge them with overwhelming sadness. There are no conventional heroes and villains in Park's films, just frustratingly complex human beings who seem victims of both fate and their own follies.

With the new “Lady Vengeance,” Park once again dazzles us with his cinematic craft. Every scene, every frame reveals meticulous control and design. As with Park's “Oldboy” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” his new film may send some fleeing for the exit because Park unapologetically puts you through the grinder. He's not interested in making films that don't provoke a strong response. He forces us to consider a world where good intentions go awry, decent people do bad things, and fate deals cruel cards. But even at their darkest moments, Park's films find surprising and heartbreaking shreds of humanity. He takes us someplace dark, rivets us to the screen, and then provokes and disturbs us with his masterful manipulation of our emotions. He also provides overarching themes about suffering, revenge and redemption, moving the films from the impossibility of salvation in “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” to the religious iconography and hope of redemption in “Lady Vengeance.”

The Catholic-looking poster art for "Lady Vengeance."

“Lady Vengeance” opens with Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae re-teaming with Park after “JSA”) being released from prison after a 13-year stint for kidnapping and murdering a preschooler. Flashbacks reveal that she was looked upon as a saintly figure during her tenure in the female prison. But we also discover that her kindness had a lethal edge. Once out, though, she sets about an elaborate revenge plot that prompts us to re-evaluate our initial opinion of her and her crime. The target of her revenge, we eventually discover, is kindergarten teacher Mr. Baek (Choi Min-shik, the victim and vengeance seeker in “Oldboy”), whose history with Geum-ja is only gradually revealed. I don't want to give away too much but suffice it to say that things are rarely what they seem on the surface in a Park film, and the fate awaiting Mr. Baek is particularly nasty as it awakens a desire for revenge that lurks inside anyone who's been wronged or suffered.

Henry Sheehan, a film critic at KPCC-FM, is a fan of Korean cinema and of Park Chan-wook in particular. When asked about these New Wave Korean films he says, “It’s amazing the corners they turn and corners you don’t even think are there. And they’re not purely plot points but they also completely change attitude toward characters. I mean it’s almost like these people read their Aristotle and know that for drama to be worthwhile you have to have a change of perspective at regular intervals.”

Sheehan says that the words that comes to mind when talking about current Korean cinema are “ferocity and energy, and you do have this feeling of great amounts of checked energy finally being unleashed, and when you have pent up energy it’s very hard to let it seep what it mostly does is it explode.”

The theme of revenge maybe especially potent for Korean audiences, says Sheehan, because of the country’s history and a sense that “Korean people didn’t have chance to get revenge on those who repressed them. So there is certainly a lot of anger in these films and these films are about to where to put that anger. And anger might also be about the fact that things didn’t improve as much as people had hoped once change came.”

Park Chan-wook's “Lady Vengeance”(unrated but for mature audiences only) isn't as overt or over-the-top in its anger as either “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”or “Oldboy”It has an emotional quality that's more subdued and somewhat tinged with guilt, yet ultimately it's as powerful as its predecessors. If you have a taste for revenge or just a taste for wickedly well-done filmmaking, help yourself to a serving of “Lady Vengeance.” You won't be disappointed.

I will be hosting a retrospective of all three of the vengeance films this weekend in anticipation of the release of Park's first U.S. film, "Stoker" on March 15.

Companion viewing: “Kill Bill” (both volumes), “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy”

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