THN’s Korean Cinema Style Week 10: Park Chan Wook – Lady Vengeance

Lady Vengeance MAIN BWNext year will see three of South Korea’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors present their English language debuts. Kim Jee Woon, Park Chan Wook, and Bong Joon Ho have already proved themselves in their homeland, and here at THN we are taking a look back over their past efforts. We continue to look at the films of Park Chan Wook, join us each week over the course of the next few months as we explore The Land Of The Morning Calm.

Director: Park Chan Wook

Year:  2005

Cast: Lee Yeong Ae, Choi Min Sik, Kim Shi Hoo, Kwon Yea Young, Kim Byeong Ok, Nam Il Woo,

Plot:  A woman serves 13 years in prison after confessing to the murder of a young boy. But is everything as it seems?

We often think about actors being typecast, and how some struggle to break from the norm. But we don’t always think about directors and the risks they run. Some directors jump into films against audience expectations, such as John Hughes taking on ANNIE. Something that makes Park Chan Wook such a brave director is how he delved into his Vengeance Trilogy. Directing three stories in a row dealing with revenge may seem excessive, but the fact that the films share a similar theme but are handled in completely different ways just shows what a thoughtful perspective Park towards his theme. Trilogies such as this are much more fascinating than continuous stories, as they create a more complete exploration of thought provoking subject matter.

LADY VENGEANCE really does feel like the experimental younger sister of her predecessors. But what can one expect from the film before watching? Obviously the main difference here is taking on a woman’s perspective of vengeance. Will it be that much different? One thing I know for sure is that women really know how to hold a grudge, even when they have seemingly gotten over it. But surely women aren’t as violent or cruel. So this will be an easier watch I’d imagine.

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If SYMPATHY FOR MR VEANGEANCE was the cruel and bleak first instalment, with OLDBOY exploring the entertainment and satisfaction of revenge, then LADY VENGEANCE is all about the planning and gradual release of heavy burdens. It’s also the more artistic of the three, as Park looks towards stunning visual imagery more so than he has done before. This is notable in the opening credits, where washes of looks like blood is revealed to be the application of make-up. Being familiar with Park’s previous work, I was immediately thinking of blood and chaos from the outset, but LADY VENGEANCE likes to take its time.

Like Oh Dae Su in OLDBOY, our protagonist, Lee Geum Ja (Lee) is imprisoned for over a decade. Unlike Dae Su, Geum Ja knows the exact reason for her imprisonment and goes to your regular prison. Geum Ja has confessed to the murder of a little boy. Imprisoned at the age of 20, the media and public are fascinated by the beauty this murderous woman possesses. However, as you can imagine, Geum Ja is not responsible for the crime, but has taken the fall to protect her infant daughter. Upon her release, Geum Ja sets about taking revenge on the real culprit with the help of some very dedicated friends.

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While in prison, Geum Ja makes a name for herself among the other inmates. She is kind and caring and looks out for each of her cellmates. These cellmates are introduced to us back in the real world, and flashbacks reveal their connection to Geum Ja. Each one owes Geum Ja for something she did for them while serving time in their overcrowded cell. Geum Ja has brought together her very own band of women who help in ways such as making a very specific gun, and going so far as to track down the real culprit and shacking up with him. This just goes to show the loyalty these women feel towards Geum Ja, and how her presence is almost intoxicating.

Geum Ja then travels to Australia to find her daughter who has been adopted. Her daughter convinces her adoptive parents to let her visit Korea and the two travel back. These scenes give us a peak at the normal life that Geum Ja may have had if not for her tragic past. In flashbacks we discover that Geum Ja was a very confused young girl who became pregnant at a very young age. She went to live with her teacher, Mr. Baek (Choi), who forced her to partake in kidnapping a young boy and eventually taking the blame for her murder. I often wonder which would be worse, being held captive for a crime you didn’t commit, or not knowing why you were held captive at all. This is just one of the subtle differences that leads us into exploring the characters for ourselves. In SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE, Park Dong Jin is looking for the killers of his daughter, Dae Su in OLDBOY is trying to understand why he was taken, but Geum Ja knows exactly what she is doing and why, but must also look for forgiveness herself. She can’t help but shoulder some of the blame for what happened in her past and she is constantly looking for acceptance. In a rather heartbreaking but telling scene, the spirit of the young boy visits Geum Ja’s daughter but not Geum Ja herself.

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This scene along with many others are just some of the artistic flourishes that keep Park’s third revenge drama so fresh. Before we know about her true plans and motives, Geum Ja has a vision of herself dragging Mr. Baek out onto a snowy mountain and shooting him, only Mr. Baek has the body of a dog. This is later rhymed with a scene in which Geum Ja kills a dog, seemingly to test her ability to actually achieve her vengeance. Even when faced with the real world, Park gives us something beautiful to behold, as beauty is very much a key facet of Geum Ja’s character. She is almost instantly forgiven for her own beauty, and a domineering character known as The Witch refuses to abuse her because she only likes plump women. Interestingly enough, the gun Geum Ja orders to be made is pretty much useless unless fired at point blank range. Perhaps the gun itself is a metaphor for Geum Ja, whose beauty has always overshadowed her abilities.

Where LADY VENGEANCE really differs from the previous Vengeance films, is its very convoluted and unstructured narrative. We jump here, there, and everywhere, to the point where we can sometimes become lost. However, these aren’t just jumps in the editing and timeline, but in the story itself. LADY VENGEANCE doesn’t play by the rules, and I mean that in terms of the character and film itself. Geum Ja’s plan goes off almost without a hitch. Even when it looks as though Mr. Baek may get the upper hand, she easily dispatches with the hired killers sent to capture her (the assassins being played by SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE stars Song Kang Ho and Shin Ha Kyun in cameo roles). But once her plan is almost complete, she is then faced with an awful twist, and perhaps she can’t be alone in her vengeance. These events seem to almost derail the script, but not in a bad way. They are simply unexpected events that usually have different outcomes in the majority of films. You can almost hear Park and co-writer Jeong Seo Gyeong proclaim “I didn’t see that one coming.” as they were writing the screenplay.

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I believe LADY VENGEANCE is certainly the least accessible of the trilogy, but not in a bad way. The ending becomes more of a dialogue between people searching for revenge, which forces us to seriously consider the implications of our actions, rather than other revenge films where the blood and guts of evildoers are gratifying. Once again the cast give us incredible performances, where there eye movements say just as much as their words. Choi is a brilliant villain, especially since we never see him being that villainous. All his actions are kept off screen, which does make his punishment harder to watch as it creates a sense of detachment. The very end is a hard watch, as it really doesn’t seem as though Geum Ja’s vengeance has helped cleanse her soul, and we are left wondering if this was really about justice for that little boy, or Geum Ja’s own sanity.

What To Take To STOKER? The strong female character is an obvious trait to take forward with both Kidman and Wasikowska taking lead roles. The ominous sense of mystery and dark visuals will also create an unforgettable atmosphere. It would also be nice to see some more artistic flourishes, but will Western audiences react the same way?

STOKER is released 1st March 2013. It stars Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Goode, Lucas Till, Jacki Weaver, and Alden Ehrenreich.

You can find all the articles in the series here.

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Luke likes many things, films and penguins being among them. He's loved films since the age of 9, when STARGATE and BATMAN FOREVER changed the landscape of modern cinema as we know it. His love of film extends to all aspects of his life, with trips abroad being planned around film locations and only buying products featured in Will Smith movies. His favourite films include SEVEN SAMURAI, PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, IN BRUGES, LONE STAR, GODZILLA, and a thousand others.

1 Comment

  1. sam

    February 6, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    In my opinion the best of the trilogy; sympathetic, slow-burning and hugely rewarding, Wook’s best.

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