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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Through a friend's recommendation, I decided to watch Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) today, the last in Park Chan-wook's "revenge" trilogy, following Oldboy (2003) and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002). I have seen Oldboy, and thought it was a great film, a complete mindtrip with a messed-up ending. Lady Vengeance, while being brutal in nature, differentiated itself by combining the brutality with a wry sense of humor, different for a horror film based on a revenge plot. I have not seen Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, so I don't have any comparison.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance follows the story of Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae), an ex-convict wrongly imprisoned for the death of a five-year old boy. She had been a young girl at the time, and the story was a media sensation, so she was imprisoned for 13 years. For her duration, she plotted her revenge on the real murderer. But because she had been a model prisoner, with a kind, giving demeanor, she was released early, and thanks to her good deeds for former prisoners, whether it be donating a kidney or poisoning the prison bully, she had a network of support in order to find the killer. And shedding her innocent appearance, Geum-ja dons red eyeshadow (a stunning color scheme against her pale skin and black hair), pumps, and form-fitting dresses, becoming "Lady Vengeance."

What I truly enjoyed about the film was its dark sense of humor alongside the theme of revenge, regarding Geum-ja's former prisoners. There is a robber couple, whose female half laments that "they should have couples' prisons!" to which her mate responds, "Then it would be paradise, not jail!" A bullheaded inmate who uses a meek woman as her "prison bitch" gets her rightful comeuppance. A former prisoner now creates statues of a woman holding the decapitated head of her man, a popular item for order, with pictures included to design a particular man's face. The scenes are shot and edited in a colorful manner, jumping from present to past in a bizarre manner, a radical change from the solitude and morose air that was Oldboy.

The introduction of Geum-ja's daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), adopted as a baby from an Australian couple after Geum-ja's imprisonment, is also unintentionally funny as a pest to her biological mother, tagging along with her and adjusting to life in Seoul and the Korean language after having grown up in Sydney. There is a particularly wonderful scene in which Geum-ja and Jenny are saying goodbye to one another, while a voiceover translates their words between Korean and English. It was really quite inventive, and a bridge between a mother and daughter's language barrier.

A minor nitpick is while the daughter is supposed to be Australian-raised and cannot speak Korean, a Korean actress was chosen for the role, with accent and fluency in the language, so the casting choice didn't make sense. I suppose it was easier to find a local actress than look for a Korean-Australian child actress, but it still stuck out. But a freeze-frame of Jenny's method of convincing her parents to let her go to Seoul via threat of suicide was hilarious in a sick and bizarre manner.

What was unique about the film was that while Geum-ja finds the killer (Choi Min-sik, the hero of Oldboy), she doesn't handle him the way the viewer would think. After the build-up for her quest for revenge, it at first seems like it's too soon for her to find and capture the killer. But when uncovering a disturbing past about him, she takes advantage of it to exact a more sinister, yet fitting revenge. Part of her revenge plot involves a scene detailing his crimes that most likely will be left out of the upcoming American remake of this film (starring Charlize Theron), or heavily sanitized. However difficult this portion of the film was to watch, I was glad it unfolded that way, and became a deeper film overall than just one woman's quest for vengeance.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a very interesting film, not because it raises any questions about revenge and its consequences, but because it is able to take dark material seriously, yet treat other scenes with a knowing humor that undercuts the brutality. It has a magnificent color scheme, and isn't bound by its horror genre to be gloomy and disturbing. It is available on Netflix, and is definitely worth seeing.

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