By Andrea Meyer
Park Chanwook makes violent movies. His recent project was a revenge trilogy about wronged characters setting in motion intricate, gruesome retribution upon those deserving cads who have done them wrong. In “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002), an unemployed man wreaked vengeance on his former boss. In the Cannes Film Festival-winning “Oldboy” (2003), a businessman imprisoned for no apparent reason upon his release seeks justice from the man responsible. Park’s latest, “Lady Vengeance,” takes a feminine look at eye-for-an-eye themes.
Beautiful, frosty Lee Geum-ja takes the fall when Mr. Baek, a schoolteacher she used to pal around with as a pregnant teenager, kidnaps and kills a child. After 13 years as an exemplary prisoner who pretends to be reformed God-fearing innocence incarnate Geum-ja lays the groundwork for an elaborate revenge plot that enlists the help of many of her former fellow prisoners, one of whom has gone so far in her devotion to marry Baek (“Oldboy” star Choi Min-sik). Her scheme is not as simple as hunting the man down and putting a bullet through his head Geum-ja’s painstaking and very painful punishment is so over-the-top, you don’t know whether to laugh, cry or throw up.
While revenge has been Geum-ja’s all-consuming preoccupation for 13 years, complications arise when she is reunited with her daughter, Jenny, who was put up for adoption when she went to prison. This is where female vengeance differs from the male version while the homicidal ice queen is obsessed with carrying out her bloody revenge on Baek, she also finds emotions bubbling up that she thought she had repressed, and, in spite of herself and her circumstances, wants to be a loving mother to Jenny. In working through these conflicting drives, Geum-ja becomes more than just the sum of her bloodlust. She becomes a fully-realized woman whose viciousness and vulnerability are justified and even compatible in a person battling to create a life after going through hell.
But first she wants to force the asshole responsible for her imprisonment to go to hell, too.
Park very consciously chose to make this hero in the third film in his revenge trilogy a woman, believing it would add a more emotionally dimensional, even hopeful, element to the films. “There’s a saying in Korea that once a woman has set her eyes on vengeance then snow will fall even in June,” the director said when he was in the States for the New York Film Festival. “People thought it would be more cruel, more violent. They were thinking she was going to transform and be the angel of vengeance, but I didn’t use a female lead because women are more vengeful rather the opposite. I felt like only a woman would have certain virtues that this character needed.”
For audiences back in Korea, part of the film’s great success was due to casting. Park’s Lady Vengeance is played by Lee Young-ae, the country’s screen sweetheart. She has become famous playing the beloved palace chef on “The Jewel in the Palace,” one of the most popular TV shows in Korea. For “Lady Vengeance,” Lee both casts aside her angelic looks and reputation and uses them as a foil to the horrendous acts that her character commits.
“As a star she had really only been doing a certain kind of role,” Park said. “She herself wanted a change so she came to me, who’s known for making such violent films. She was ready to take this on so I didn’t have to do anything special to get a certain type of acting out of her. Rather, she would actually take it a step further sometimes, startling me, and I would find new chilling aspects to her that I wasn’t expecting. There is a scene where she is cutting off a man’s hair with a knife and the editor came to me and said, ‘Something was wrong with the film,’ because her movements were so fast. But that was in real time. She’s so crazed and moving so fast that the editor thought the speed of the film was different. Also Min-sik Choi, the actor whose hair was being cut off, said he had never felt more frightened in his acting career. He was convinced that this knife was going to go into his head.”
While Americans are accustomed to slasher fare and such directors as Quentin Tarantino have introduced us to a certain grotesque, at times cartoonish, violence that is largely inspired by Asian directors, we still squirm when it comes to watching these grueling, visceral acts. Even though we love it, as evidenced by the popularity of Japanese horror films and their American remakes, Americans still sometimes play the prude when faced with splattered blood, which makes Park a little defensive. “As I make more and more films and the more interviews I’ve given, I get asked a lot of stuff like ‘What kind of dreams do you dream?’ ‘How were you brought up?’ and ‘Is there something that happened in your life that makes you burn with such vengeance?'” he said, when asked if he’s in therapy. “Sometimes I feel like I’m being interrogated by an FBI serial-killer profiler, so I just want to say that nothing in my films is personal. I take nothing from my personal life.”
When it comes to creating films of great brutality, Park takes his role very seriously. “When I think of these scenes, they don’t make me happy or anything like that,” he said. “I don’t feel overly thrilled. But when it comes to portraying such cruel violence, I do feel a sense of responsibility. I ask myself if this violence is justified. If I feel satisfied that it is justified, it’s only then when I will put theses scenes in.”
“Lady Vengeance” opens in New York on April 28th, with more theaters to follow (official site).