"Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" has the most beautiful opening credits of any film in our recent memory. A stunning sequence of red and black on white that combines glimpses of the film’s motifs of baking, blood and symbolic, kabuki-esque make-up, it’s a striking contrast to the abrupt, in medias res kickoff of 2003’s "Oldboy," the second installation of the revenge trilogy "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" concludes. But then, unlike "Oldboy" and its antecedent, "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," which featured men raging and plotting against and torturing other men, this film is centered on a woman.
"Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" is a better film than "Oldboy," which cemented director Park Chan-wook‘s reputation internationally â€” "Oldboy" was flawed, hugely enjoyable and often brilliant, but part of its success was based on its exploitation appeal (and it really cornered the market in on-screen consumption of live ocean life). There’s a disturbing bit of animal slayage in "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" too, and, while there’s less violence, there’s still plenty, but the operatic sense of grand guignol froth that "Oldboy" worked itself into is nearly gone â€” "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" reaches for something elusive, greater and unhappier.
Our heroine is Lee Geum-ja (an amazing Lee Yeong-ae), who, as a pretty, silly 19-year-old girl, was convinced to take part in the kidnapping of a young boy, ostensibly to collect a ransom from his wealthy parents. Her partner Baek, the man she lived with ("Oldboy"’s Choi Min-sik), kills the boy, and she’s forced to take the fall for it. While serving her 13-year sentence, she develops a reputation as a devoutly religious, angelic helper of her fellow inmates. As soon as she gets out, she begins calling in favors from those she helped while in prison, and embarks on the plan for revenge she’s been dwelling on for over a decade.
When Park plays virtuoso, he can bring a tear to our eye. For the introductory half-hour or so, as in "Oldboy" (Are you getting the sense that we haven’t gotten around to seeing "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" yet?), he out-Tarantinos Tarantino and out-Finchers Fincher with dazzlingly quick, clever sequence on top of sequence. It’s astonishingly vivid, funny and vital, and while there’s no way to he can maintain it, the film always drags a bit when he settles into the meat of the story.
Geum-ja is one hell of a post-feminist icon, if you’d want to see her that way. Uma never had it so good â€” Geum-ja makes herself into a paragon of Korean womanhood, demure, beautiful, impossibly sweet, with a serenely symmetrical oval face that, as Park well knows, resembles that of a complacent madonna. She’s also capable of terrible acts, like gradually feeding a bullying fellow inmate bleach for years, even coming in to spoon feed her poisoned meals on her sickbed, smiling all the while. For Geum-ja, her great act of revenge is less an act of fury (though that’s certainly there) than an act of atonement â€” she must make amends for the horrendous thing she took part in, and the only way she sees to do this is to find Baek and kill him. The film is refreshingly free of sisterhood â€” despite the constant undertone of rage in Geum-ja’s backstory and the flashbacks of the lives of the women she shares a cell with, this isn’t a tale of downtrodden females uniting to take down an oppressive male force â€” the women are shown being anywhere from completely cruel to merely uncaring to each other, and Geum-ja just as clearly sets out to use them.
The Korean title to the film, "Chinjeolhan geumjassi," translates to something like "The Kindhearted Miss Geum-ja," but there’s something appropriate about the English choice of "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" â€” Park, for all his bleak assessment of human nature, has a seemingly infinite capacity for compassion for his characters nevertheless. They destroy others; they destroy themselves; they commit terrible acts of violence and malice; and yet he refrains from judging their actions. We don’t think we’re spoiling anything by saying that the last we see of Geum-ja, her face is immersed in a cake. Considering all that it means in context, it’s a desperate, strange and moving image. And a weary and gentle voiceover tells us, as the camera pulls back, that, despite all she’s done, some unidentifiable "I" likes her anyway…as, invariably, do we.
"Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" will be released in early 2006 by Tartan Films.