Director/Coscreenwriter: Park Chan-wook
By Marilyn Ferdinand
South Korean director Park Chan-wook began an extended examination of revenge in 2002 with the release of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naui geot). He followed this up with the much-buzzed-about Oldboy in 2003. He finished the trilogy in 2005 with Lady Vengeance. The first two films deal with men seeking revenge, and I’ll tell you now that I haven’t seen them. Perhaps that will be a weakness in my review of Lady Vengeance, but Park’s decision to focus on female revenge in this final film hits an area of cinema with which I have more than a nodding acquaintance. Park’s approach in this film takes the hot-blooded emotionalism of his first two films and turns it cold. His vengeance-seeking female Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) hides her anger behind a mask of goodness that jibes perfectly with her beautiful face. Like women in all societies, she must use honey to trap her flies.
The story is easy to sum up. Geum-ja was snookered into participating in a kidnapping in which the little boy being ransomed is killed. She takes the rap for the murder because the mastermind, her former English teacher (Choi Min-sik) and the man who took her in so she could have her out-of-wedlock baby, has taken her baby girl. After 13 years in prison, Geum-ja is released. She then sets about seeking her revenge on Mr. Baek using a carefully laid plan devised in prison.
While the story is simple and straightforward, the telling of it and the inner conflict Geum-ja experience are anything but. Park shocks us with a disconnect right at the start of the film. A group of religious people follow their leader to the entrance of the prison to await Geum-ja’s release. They see her as an angel of mercy based on her actions while in prison. The minister offers her a white block of tofu as a symbol of purity and says, “Be white.” She knocks the offering to the ground, glowers at him, and tells him to go fuck himself. She goes to the home of a former inmate, dons high heels, and paints her eyelids red. This reversal plays on the enormous popularity of Park’s leading lady, known as a great beauty who normally plays romantic roles. Western viewers may not get much of a jolt from this opening, but it surely sent shockwaves through Asian theatres.
A series of flashbacks to prison during about the first third of the film suspend the viewer between two worlds, helping us experience a bit of the culture shock a longtime inmate might feel on being released to the outside world. There is great craft and ingenuity in this broken narrative that may not give up a lot of information, but still never confuses. Geum-ja’s life in prison is a focus at the beginning of the film to ensure we understand the puzzle pieces that make up her revenge scheme. Foremost among them are other inmates who come to owe Geum-ja debts of gratitude.
Each inmate is introduced with a small title card giving her name, crime, and sentence, and then we get a short, but graphic description of each crime. The most fearsome of them is large woman who killed her husband and his mistress and ate them. She runs the cell block and makes another inmate her bitch in a series of crisp and suggestive scenes. I particularly liked the younger girl’s introduction to the boss’ clitoris. The boss opens her spread legs slightly wider than they already are and urges the girl to crawl forward. She asks the girl to remove her pants, “please.” “Can you see it clearly? Say hello to each other.” The girl says a weak “hello” as this menacing, yet amusing scene comes to an end. This interaction is important because Geum-ja will cause an accident that sends the boss to the infirmary, where Geum-ja poisons her while seeming to wait on her hand and foot as an act of kindness. The girl she rescues from sexual slavery will go on to become Mr. Baek’s girlfriend and give Geum-ja access to him. Picking up where the boss left off, Baek gets up from the dinner table, lays his girlfriend across it, penetrates her from behind, and afterward goes back to eating dinner.
The heart of the story is Geum-ja’s struggle to come to terms with her own guilt. She blames Baek for corrupting her, and it is for that crime that she seeks vengeance. She herself feels guilty for not being a mother to her daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), who was adopted by an Australian couple and grown up speaking only English. Geum-ja locates Jenny and brings her back to Korea for a short visit. Jenny wants to stay with Geum-ja, but that was never her birth mother’s plan. “I’m not fit to be your mother. I’m bad,” Geum-ja says to her through Baek, who is now Geum-ja’s prisoner. Before she can kill Baek, however, she discovers that he has killed other children. She steps aside, contacts the police chief who was assigned to the case to which she confessed, and has him gather the parents of the murdered children. They discuss what to do with Baek—kill him themselves a la Murder on the Orient Express or turn him over to the police—while Baek listens to them through a speaker Geum-ja has rigged.
Once events play out and Geum-ja has had a chance to apologize to Jenny, she removes her red eye shadow. She has been working as a baker and on their last night together, she and Jenny walk home with a white-frosted slab cake Geum-ja has made. This cake brings us full circle, but instead of rejecting the symbol for “be white,” Geum-ja buries her face in it and munches furiously, hoping that now she can fill her soul again.
Beneath the beating heart of this violence-strewn tale from Asia lurks—guess what—a woman’s film! That’s right. Just look at the poster! Strip away the black comedy, the disjointed opening scenes, the foreign location, and the extreme violence, and you’ve got a film not so different from Madame X. Park uses his own stock company of actors from the previous two films in this one, much as Sirk had his stock players. He plays to the desire of female consumers of women’s films have to be free of their children by having Geum-ja’s removed from her when still an infant, with only a temporary reunion and her undying guilt to reassure audiences of her essential mother love. He even has her seduce a younger man, a 19-year-old coworker at the bakery. Through the inmates, he shows how women can be helpful and hurtful to each other (shades of The Women). And he pins Geum-ja’s initial downfall on a man and her redemption on upholding the primacy of the nuclear family.
How did all the critics miss this? Well, not all. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir and a colleague of his smelled the whiff of genre:
A fine young film critic of my acquaintance left the screening murmuring, ‘I don’t trust that guy,’ and I know what he means. It’s hard to say whether the autumnal mood and the female-coded moral seriousness of Lady Vengeance are anything more than another genre for Park to inhabit; he’s a master manipulator in the Hitchcock vein, whose true intentions are difficult to divine. In a movie this powerful and this lovingly crafted, I may not care whether I’m being had.
Since when did women’s films become a vessel of moral seriousness? I hope letting the cat out of the bag won’t make this film less appealing to the film community at large. Certainly, if any film can redeem the woman’s film it should be this one—gorgeous to look at, cleverly cast, and ingeniously plotted, written, and executed by one of South Korea’s most noted filmmakers.