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One of the keys to the sneaky emotional power of Park Chanwook’s “Revenge Trilogy” (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) is the distance he keeps from his characters. All three films center on characters of complex morality, doing things that are foreign and often shocking to most viewers. Park, however, refuses to either judge or endorse their choices. Instead, he simply records events as they happen, allowing his characters and their actions to speak for themselves.
Such is the case with Lady Vengeance, Park’s follow-up to the showier Oldboy, the film that won him not only the Director’s Prize at Cannes in 2004, but also instant world-wide regard. The film is the story of Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae), a lovely young woman who, while still in her teens, was forced by an older man (Oldboy's Choi Min-sik) into confessing to a brutal child-murder she didn’t commit. Through her 13 years in prison, she was revered by her fellow inmates for her kindness, and known to the outside world for her great piety; upon her release, however, Geum-ja coldly begins calling in favors from her former cell-mates, and sets in motion a plan for revenge that has been in the works for all those long years in jail.
Though her saintly behavior in prison earned her the nickname “Angel,” it is a very different Geum-ja that appears in the outside world. Finally free to orchestrate her revenge, Geum-ja views those around her as no more than potential distractions, or tiresome wastes of time. When her former friends dare detain her with hugs or questions, her face assumes a bored, irritated expression. It's as if she’s calculating how much longer she will have to wait for satisfaction because of the time wasted on conversation.
The combination of Geum-ja’s coldness and Park’s aforementioned distance creates something like a layer of frost over Lady Vengeance, making it difficult for Park neophytes such as myself to gain access. For American audiences accustomed to visceral thrills with their stylistic flash, Park’s approach is confusing -- we’re witnessing astonishing, bravura filmmaking, but we’re left outside, observing rather than feeling. At first, his style is blinding, offering strange juxtapositions (singing Santas greeting ex-cons outside of a prison), impossible fantasies (the murder’s head on a sleigh dog’s body) and stunning compositions (there are more hypnotic patterns on display in Geum-ja’s tiny apartment than appear in the entirety of most films) in place of human identification. We don’t know what to make of Geum-ja, and are left with little choice but to identify with her former cell-mates, all of whom are turned off and troubled by her lack of emotion.
The film’s emotional thaw comes near its midpoint, when Geum-ja locates the daughter she was forced to give up for adoption when she went into prison. When she finally meets the girl -- Jenny, having been adopted by an Australian family, speaks no Korean and is just as ferociously determined as her mother -- Geum-ja experiences unexpected twin pangs of love and guilt. When Jenny manipulates her guardians into allowing her to travel back to Korean with her mother, Geum-ja feels herself losing control -- not only of the situation, but also of her emotions. This crack in her armor allows audiences for the first time to see her has a three-dimensional human being, very different from the woman who thus far had been either a saint or an emotionless stone. Interestingly, it is only once we achieve this emotional breakthrough with his protagonist that Park’s visual style becomes more restrained. And, suddenly, instead of just watching the film, we are experiencing it.
As Geum-ja gradually brings her plan for vengeance to its fruition, she meets a surprising obstacle, and turns in an unexpected direction to exact her revenge. The revelation of the means to her vengeance is one that be won’t spoiled here; suffice to say that the last 30 minutes of Park’s work are astonishing in their grace and beauty. His confidence in himself as a filmmaker allows him to slow down just when everyone else would be speeding up; to show restraint when others would be at their most flamboyant. The results are breathtaking, and so unexpectedly lovely that they’re hard absorb all at once.
As in the previous installments in the Trilogy, there are moments of extreme, calculated brutality in Lady Vengeance, but none of them are without consequence. In every case, Park chooses to show the build-up to the violence, as well as how it affects those who witness and commit it, instead of the bloody moments themselves. In other words, had Park made Reservoir Dogs, there would have been no ear-slicing on screen, and the event would have had an impact that reached well beyond sadistic pleasure. There is none of that gleeful malice to Geum-ja. As played by Lee Young-ae, she often seems very small on screen, and very self-contained. Her perfect, oval-shaped face portrays a serene purity, even when she dons the red eye shadow she hopes makes her look like kind. Park cast Lee partially because she was known and loved in Korea for her innocent, wholesome role in the TV series The Jewel of the Palace, and he wanted her to play against both her looks and reputation. In this Lee is a complete success, so much so that she doesn't so much play against those traits than she molds her character around them; suffice to say that every emotion, from stone-faced disregard to small, private agony is completely convincing on her face, even when only her eyes are visible.
If Park has a reputation in mainstream American, it’s as a director of daringly violent and dark revenge fantasies, a description that calls to mind both the all-encompassing, thrilling bloodshed of The Wild Bunch and the sadistic torture of new American horror films, like Hostel. Lady Vengeance, though, possesses a subtlety and tenderness that are totally unexpected, and make one realize that Park is done a great disservice by the facile assumptions we make about him and his work. Miles away from the cliched violence we expect based on too-brief summations of his career, Park instead offers complexity and nuance, and an understanding of his characters -- however outrageous they may appear -- that puts him on a higher ground than most other directors working today.