Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

The weight of the expectations that certain individuals have to bear when nothing short of greatness is expected from them has to be daunting.  NFL star quarterback Tom Brady has already won three Superbowls and dates Victoria’s Secret models.  He’s 28-years-old and has already reached the pinnacle of his professional and personal career.  Sure he can win another Superbowl and get another model but there must be times when he sits up in the bed in the morning and wonder what’s the point of going on.  Quentin Tarantino has been trying to live up to landmark critical and financial accolades of ‘Pulp Fiction’, to vary degrees of success since that film came out almost fifteen years ago, whereas filmmaker Guy Ritchie has simply crumpled under the weight of what  had been expected from his once promising career.  This brings us to South Korean director Chan-Wook Park who in my opinion has few peers as film director.  The man just has as feel for the camera and he knows to frame a shot about as well as anybody ever has.  There is a general consensus among film critics and film watchers alike that Mr. Park’s ‘Old Boy’ is a great film with some, me being of them, calling it one of the best films ever.  This will not be a review of ‘Old Boy’ only to point out that ‘Old Boy’ is a kick in the pants like few films ever.  The third in Park’s Trilogy of Vengeance, with ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’ being the first is ‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance’ which I believe stands on it’s own as very good film.  Those not expecting ‘Old Boy pt. 2’ will probably recognize it as such, but those expecting something closer to that masterful second film will undoubtedly be disappointed.  As a result, this will be the last mention of ‘Old Boy’ in this article.

13 years ago Geum-Ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee) was imprisoned for the kidnap and subsequent murder of a 6 year-old boy.  Now I’m not hip to Korean minimum sentences, but here,

child murder generally puts you under a prison for your natural life, but that’s here, and this is there.  After a little back story of the 19 year-old woman, and the crime she committed through news stories and voiceovers, we meet Geum-Ja in her first day out of the clink.  Though she was considered a virtual angel in prison, (maybe got a good behavior early release?), when she is released, greeted by a pastor and his flock who supported during her time in, she tells them to go screw themselves and walks off.

What we come to know about Geum-Ja is that everything she did while she was imprisoned was coldly calculated for one ultimate cause.  The friends she made, the skills she acquired, the personality she cultivated would all serve her in getting her ultimate revenge against one Mr. Baek (Min-Sik Choi) who done did a girl real wrong.  Real Wrong.  Mr. Baek is one ill dude.  We think we know how ill he is, but Park, who co-wrote the script with Seo-Gyeong Jeong, made this man one damned reprehensible creature.  So we sit back and observe while Geum-Ja creates her symphony of calculated revenge, and then we are treated (for lack of a better word) to one long scene of prolonged grief and violence that Park is famous for.

Chan-Wook Park is a director of such mastery and vision that I’m almost envious of the man, but I don’t think I’d want to hang out with the man, despite his obvious brilliance.  He’s got issues.  For real.  You see it’s one thing to be a lunatic, but it’s something else altogether to be a lunatic and have the skill to perfectly translate what you see in your warped mine through the lens for all to see and experience.  ‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance’ wasn’t the bloodiest or most violent film I’ve seen, but there was something underneath it all that made one of the more disturbing films I’ve seen in some time.  Part of that can be attributed to the inspired casting of Yeong-ae Lee in the role of Geum-Ja.  A woman of undeniable beauty, strikingly so, but who performs through most of the film as if she doesn’t have a soul.  Special is a woman who looks that good, but yet you wouldn’t touch on a bet with fifty bucks on the table.  When she smiles sweetly and tells some people who also would like vengeance on the vile Mr. Baek that in essence ‘they better not tell, or else’ you sincerely believe this 100lb woman will slit your throat and not feel a thing in doing it.  This is Yeong-ae Lee’s film and she carries it off masterfully.  Min-Sik Choi is one of the greatest actors of his generation, hands down.  If Mr. Baek does anything but revile you, then you are somebody I needn’t know.

‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance’ is certainly more ethereal than Park’s other films and very experimental in certain parts with the disjointed timeline, the various narrators, the fading colors and the odd supernatural sequences that are shoehorned into the narrative.  It’s certainly not a film that he’s playing straight and it does have some rather black humor mixed in with its scenes brutal violence.  Sometimes it feels as if the director has gone off the tracks and as such, these scenes don’t always ring true, but other times they feel unique and inspired. 

‘Lady Vengeance’ is a very good film, if not an instant classic, but still comes highly regarded and recommended.  If one cares to see a visual master at work, whether or not you care for the story, Chan-Wook Park is that master.  This is a cat whose films I’ll stand in line for.  A short line though, because I HATE standing in line.  For real.

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