One of my favorite movies of the last two years is Oldboy, from Korean director Chan-wook Park. Oldboy is the middle film in his “revenge trilogy,” which ends with this week’s release of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. (The series began with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance in 2002.)
Naturally, I had high hopes for Lady Vengeance. It isn’t as good as Oldboy, but it’s interesting and appealing in the same sort of ways — it’s cruel and gory, yet it’s also thoughtful and artful.
R for strong violent content, some involving children
Geum-ja (Yeong-ae Lee) is being released from prison today, after 13 years. She was doing time for the kidnapping and murder of a little boy. And although the film doesn’t reveal the plot in a straight line, we learn that Geum-ja was not technically guilty of her crime, although she wasn’t entirely innocent, either.
Geum-ja is well liked in prison, and she makes many friends. She is capable of murder, as we learn, but she is very sweet. As with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, there is an intricate plot, and I won’t unweave it here. Suffice it to say that the story leads to a horrifying conclusion having to do with revenge and/or justice, depending on your perspective.
Without revealing too much, it’s safe to say (and worth noting) that the conclusion begins with a choice between justice and revenge. The choice is made, but Park cleverly shows us that either choice can be equally horrifying. After all, what is the death penalty? It’s civilized people telling the condemned — often for a very long time — that we’re going to kill them, and that we’re going to feel good about it.
The IMDB lists 13 films under Park’s direction, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance illustrates his experience. The movie is well polished in every respect. Color, texture, and composition enhance the story with every scene. For example, as Geum-ja is released from prison, she is offered tofu, the whiteness of which, we are told, represents purity and atonement (she spits on the proffered symbol). The last shot of the film brings us back to this opening idea, both in the plot and in the visuals. The sound effects, some of which are more felt than heard, add greatly to the mood of the film.
Oldboy is still a better film. It had a grandness about it that made it stand out. It felt like Shakespeare or opera; it was larger than life. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is good and it still earns its recommendation, but it lacks the power and punch I found in its predecessor.