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A Reviewer Named Sue Wrassles With LADY VENGEANCE!!

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:

Hey Harry,

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.

Thanks, Sue. Good stuff.

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • Oct. 23, 2005, 7:04 p.m. CST

    by Barney Hood


  • Oct. 23, 2005, 8:49 p.m. CST

    I've never heard of this.

    by Bean_

    IMDb to the rescue I guess.

  • Oct. 23, 2005, 10:20 p.m. CST

    unfortunately us folks here in boondocks, PA..

    by white owl

    ..will have to wait for dvd in a couple years or less. There is maybe a .00001% chance it'll come to a theatre near me. And I'm not driving to bumfuck, Egypt to see it. I want to see this, so bad. I loved SFMV most of all, and OldBoy after that. Both of Mr. Wook-park's(?) films amaze me. I love his style of filmmaking, and I crave more. Damn you for teasing me with this good review.

  • Oct. 23, 2005, 10:23 p.m. CST

    Anyone hear a cricket?

    by Neosamurai85

    *Hammer-hammer-hammer-SPLAT!* Yeah, I don't hear it either. Peace.

  • Oct. 24, 2005, 5:46 a.m. CST

    What's so debatable about the ending of Oldboy?

    by Lenny Nero

    That is all. Good night. *drunken fall*

  • Oct. 24, 2005, 6:44 a.m. CST

    Great movie indeed

    by CuervoJones

  • Oct. 24, 2005, 1:27 p.m. CST


    by Wyrdy the Gerbil

    I was thinking of going to London for the film fest and this was one of my must(at least)try to see films but could`nt get the time off i know i gotta pay the bills but sometimes work seriously gets in the way of my film watching time

  • Oct. 24, 2005, 4:04 p.m. CST

    Park has directed other films

    by potvsktl

    I'd like to read a review from someone who is aware that OldBoy wasn't his debut effort and has gone to the trouble of seeing the other films. You know, someone with insight.

  • Oct. 24, 2005, 4:45 p.m. CST

    well what do you know

    by K|LLDOZER

    a reviewer that actually sounds intelligent while reviewing a movie, and doesn't try using too many double entendres. it's like the reviewer used a spell check, or something.

  • Oct. 24, 2005, 5:52 p.m. CST


    by Cat_Corporation

    Easy tiger! I think I wrote at the beginning of the review that I had recently started getting into Asian film - no, I don't have a huge frame of reference just yet, although my canon is growing all the time. I've been a massive film fan all my life, and therefore the obvious way in to new cinematic experiences are the breakout hits that find their way into the mainstream - stuff like 'OldBoy'. From there, you can - as I am - search out other gems, delve into a director's back catalogue, follow up an interesting actor etc. It's like a springboard. So I don't have insight yet. Does that mean I can't share my opinion with the rest of you guys? You may think so, but I don't. And for the record, I am well aware that Park Chan-wook did not start with 'OldBoy', but nobody can argue that wasn't the film that brought this wonderful director into the consciousness of people who might ordinarily have missed out on his work.

  • Oct. 25, 2005, 12:20 p.m. CST

    But Sue--

    by evergreen

    -have you at least seen Sympathy for Mr Vengeance? Because if you haven't, your comments about "the trilogy" might have been a bad idea. On the whole though, I was very grateful to finally read something about this film, so thanks - just a little clarification on whether you'd seen S 4 Mr V might have helped. Ignore people like potvsktl, who are just trying to announce to the world the fact that they've seen Joint Security Area, and are not worth even your pity

  • Oct. 26, 2005, 8:06 p.m. CST

    Official French site

    by mescal

    The official French site is up... has this been out for a while, because this is the first time I have seen it. For those who are looking forward to this as much as I am, here's a link....