Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sympathy For Lady Vengeance

Park Chan-wook's Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (2005), the third film in his Revenge Trilogy, is a strange and beautiful thing. Vengeance, so common in movies, is unsympathetic and awful in real life, but I think its existence in the realms of fiction provides some sort of catharsis for people in their lives of quiet and ordinary desperation.

Lady Vengeance stars Lee Young Ae as Lee Geum-ja, a woman who has been wrongly convicted of the murder of a child who seeks revenge on the real murderer, who has ruined her life, and the lives of the families of the children he has killed. The story is slowly pieced together through stunning and often hilarious imagery. We watch flashbacks to Geum-ja's time in jail as she garners a reputation for extreme kindness as she helps her fellow prisoners, gaining their trust and putting them in her debt as she poisons a brutal prison bully and even donates a kidney. Upon her release, she calls in the favors she is owed - she needs money, a place to stay, a job, weapons. She has dropped the sweet facade she manufactured and is a creature of pain bent on revenge. We see her dreams of revenge and they are shocking and surreal.

One can't help but compare Park's film to the Quentin Tarantino epic, Kill Bill, as they were filmed at about the same time. Both are about a young woman who is seeking bloody revenge on an older male authority figure and her search for a daughter she has never met. But where Tarantino's film (which I enjoyed) is nearly entirely a complex and magnificent exercise in genre, Park's is something much stranger. There's a nearly operatic sense of grief and loss in it, and where Tarantino's film ends with what must be called a happy ending as Uma Thurman happily drives into the sunset with her daughter, in Park's film there are no such simple endings. Geum-ja knows she's turned into a monster and her daughter has been adopted by an Australian couple who are the only family she knows.

Not to say that many of the pleasures of this film aren't ones dripping with a pop sensibility, because they are. But bubbling underneath it is terrible loss, a strange melancholy. It's lovely, really.

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