Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
I’ve been very patient, trying not to read anything about this latest film from Park Chan-wook, but it’s making me crazy at this point. I’m dying to see it, and one of our UK readers sent in this early reaction:
Caught an early UK screening of Park Chan-wook's 'Sympathy for Lady Vengeance' in London last night, as part of the London Film Festival, and thought I'd send you my thoughts on it. I've been a regular to AICN for years now, but this is my first review - so all you talkbackers, be kind if it's not quite up to scratch! Be warned, MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW although I've tried to keep plot details to a minimum.
In recent years I've become a bit of an Asian Cinema fan, and like every sane person, was absolutely knocked over by the magnificent 'OldBoy'. Therefore I was really excited about this, the final installment in Park Chan-wook's 'Vengeance' trilogy, and snapped up my tickets as soon as I heard it was showing in ole London town. I went in with pretty much zero expectation: I avoided all reviews etc.; all I knew was not to expect another 'OldBoy', which incidentally was a sage piece of advice. For those of you wanting more live squids and teeth torture............sorry. Although you do get some quite intense torture and unpleasant sexual abuse scenes, if that's your bag (and it ain't mine).
The movie opened with a striking credits sequence, backed by a striking classical score: a white screen, marked by snaking black, tattoo-like foliage and dripping red 'blood'. It then began with a flock of Santa Clauses (yes really) waiting outside a Korean women's prison to meet our 'Lady Vengeance', Geum-ja (the beautiful Yeong-ae Lee), who has served 13 years in chokey for a crime she did not commit. The movie then charts her planned vengeance upon the man who essentially put her there ('OldBoy's Min-sik Choi), drawing on the help of several ex-cons whom she helped whilst in prison. The whole film is interspersed with flashbacks to her life before and in prison, and closes with the extended vengeance plan in action.
Sounds like 'OldBoy', but it isn't at all. For a start, Geum-ja knows why she is in prison, and her stay there isn't sheer, solitary hell like Dae-su's, but in fact looks quite enjoyable. She makes plenty of friends by kindly helping out a string of unfortunates who are abused in some way, and is really a very sweet girl. All of this makes for some fun little vignettes, but does the narrative a disservice by rendering our heroine's steely, ball-breaking demeanour once outside of prison somewhat difficult to understand. We don't learn why she is so pissed off until quite late, which prevented me from really cheering for her in the same way as I did for 'OldBoy's Dae-su. I didn't feel every punch, kick, obstacle; I wasn't sitting there willing her on but just passively watching.
There is none of the searing, forward-thrusting narrative drive (no jokes please) of 'OldBoy', although the blacker-than-night humour is here in full effect, encompassing everything from witty visual gags to out-and-out slapstick. Like 'OldBoy' too, there are jokes that, early in the film, make you laugh, until Park twists them right around and makes you feel quite soiled for laughing in the first place. For example !!!!!!!!!!!!! SPOILER!! SPOILER!! SPOILER!! !!!!!!!!!!!! Geum-ja calms herself down by kneeling on the floor and taking five deep breaths. We see her do this (in a fine piece of comedic editing) when her daughter impetuously puts a knife to her own throat in order to force her mother to give in to her demands. FUNNY. Then later, we see her tormenter calming himself down in exactly the same way - in other words, she learned this behaviour during her time with him. NOT FUNNY ANYMORE. Sort of comparable to the clumsy, 'comedy' sex scene in 'OldBoy' which becomes absolutely shocking with the finale revelations. !!!!!!!!!!!!!END OF SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!
Still, it is unfair to compare 'Lady Vengeance' to 'OldBoy', which is a masterpiece - and if Park Chan-wook had just done an 'OldGirl' we'd all be complaining about him being a one-trick pony. In truth, 'Lady Vengeance' has much to recommend it. Yeong-ae Lee, as Geum-ja, is eminently likeable and puts in a fine performance; her eyes in particular are extraordinarily expressive - something obviously recognised by her director, who in a couple of scenes puts her in a face mask and a tall-collared coat that leaves only her eyes visible. She seems frail and feminine, but when she explodes into rage - well, she's pretty tough. The supporting cast of sidekicks and ex-cons are also effective, although they flit in and out rather quickly; and of course, Min-sik Choi - though his part is really an extended cameo - is a breath of pure class. Look out too for some familiar faces from the rest of the 'Vengeance' trilogy. The score, a mixture of keyboard/classical/operatic sounds, is very emotive, and the film looks wonderfully stylish from start to finish.
All in all, I feel similar to how I felt the first time I watched 'OldBoy' - kind of confused. It took me several days to realise that I did, in fact, think 'OldBoy' was one of the best films I have seen in my life, and although I've bought the DVD, I won't watch it that often - but it's a must for my collection. I may feel the same about 'Lady Vengeance'. I'm not sure exactly how I feel about it yet. It's certainly not the tour-de-force whirlwind of the second film in Park's trilogy, and I don't want to bring 'Mr Vengeance' into the mix because I would like to watch it in the light of the final film, but 'Lady Vengeance' certainly has its moments. It's visually striking, funny, intense, tragic and at the end, very moving. We find our Lady Vengeance standing in the falling snow, battered and bruised, her eyes screaming out for the chance to live a pure life now; and though she has the chance to 'live white' by eating the white tofu she holds, or opening her mouth to eat the falling snowflakes, she just can't do it until...........well, watch for yourself. It is a haunting final image, and sums up the mood of the trilogy perfectly, which seems to state - to me, at least - that vengeance isn't always the satisfying, enjoyable experience you expect, even if you really, really deserve to have it.
If you use this, call me Sue. I can't think of a witty alias.