By James Cain
At the time of this article’s writing, a huge discussion is taking place online, about whether or not Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is, to borrow an overused phrase, the film we need right now. Some who have seen the movie, and some who have not, assert that “Joker” is a rallying screed for the far-right nutters who are shooting innocent Americans at an alarming rate. And it’s a fair question to raise about any film – how does this piece of art fit in with, or even inform our social/political climate? With that in mind, the 2005 masterpiece “Lady Vengeance” is very much the film we need right now.
Given the nature of the story, this review will purposefully avoid plot details as much as possible, but for the uninitiated: “Lady Vengeance” (also known as “Sympathy For Lady Vengeance” and “Kind-hearted Geum-ja”) is the best and final chapter of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy. Co-written by Jeong Seo-kyeong (the woman who with this film became a regular collaborator of Park’s), the film tells the story of Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae), a young woman freshly released from prison, where she served 13 years for the murder of a little boy.
“Geum-ja is such a compelling character on the page, with Park and Jeong taking the old-school noir detective and accompanying tropes (smoking, cool outfits, casual sex, taking a beating) and creating a vibrant feminist symbol for a deeply feminist flick.”
Upon regaining her freedom, Geum-ja sets out to exact revenge on the man responsible for her imprisonment. Throughout her mission, we flashback to Geum-ja’s time inside, showing the relationships she forged.
A whirlwind of noir-cool and killer-style, Lee Yeong-ae dominates each scene to Choi Seung-Hyun and Jo Yeong-wook’s delicious score (remixing Vivaldi’s “Ah ch’infelice sempre”). The South Korean actor/model/philanthropist is downright superb in the role, mixing uncompromising grit with glimmers of wry humour. It helps that Geum-ja is such a compelling character on the page, with Park and Jeong taking the old-school noir detective and accompanying tropes (smoking, cool outfits, casual sex, taking a beating) and creating a vibrant feminist symbol for a deeply feminist flick.
Throughout the film, Geum-ja and other female characters are presented with obstacles put in front of her by a patriarchal society: The boy who gets a fellow teen pregnant and is allowed to shirk any responsibility; the pimp and cheating husband drive the women in their lives to murder; the abusive man uses his partner as a sex toy; the man of God who can’t believe that a woman wouldn’t want to live her life on his (or, indeed, His) terms.
“Lee and Park’s script also beautifully mixes dark humour, theatricality and satisfying baddassery. “Lady Vengeance” is a very funny film, mining laughs from moments such as Geum-ja’s terrible post-coital chat, the reveal of a large axe, or a child holding a knife to her throat to prove a point.”
There are good men throughout the film (one of Geum-ja’s friends is in an insanely-sweet heterosexual relationship with a great guy), this is a world where women succeed in spite of the society built for them by men, not because of it (not like the real world at all, then…). One of the characters even runs a successful business making statues of beheaded husbands for pissed-off wives. Again, it’s a pretty fucking relevant movie for 2019, and the fact that it’s co-written by a woman is clear.
Given that this review only mentions other characters in passing, it’s worth stating that each of the players are wonderfully-realized, from the cop struggling to make a difference in the system, to Geum-ja’s young lover and sidekick, to Jenny, an exasperated Korean-Australian teenager. However, it’s not hugely relevant to discuss them at length. This is Geum-ja’s film. It breaths as she breaths, it wants what she wants. Kim and Lee’s story is utterly single-minded in a way that none of their subsequent films are.
While Guem-ja is occasionally the anti-hero of “Lady Vengeance” – her former lover is clearly crushed when she finds out that their prison romance was emotionally one-sided – another part of the film’s appeal is the outrageous decency of our protagonist. Whether it’s giving a kidney, dealing with a prison rapist, striving for forgiveness or aggressively taking a lover in a respectful manner, Geum-ja is astonishingly kind-hearted.
It’s not all down to Lee, of course. Park once again creates an oft-dreamlike world adjacent to our own through his characters’ flights of fancy. One scene sees Geum-ja commit an execution where blood sprays out of the victim’s arse – an act of both killing and humiliation. At another point, a young girl wistfully gazes at the sky before the clouds remind her “You have no mother”.
Lee and Park’s script also beautifully mixes dark humour, theatricality, and satisfying badassery. “Lady Vengeance” is a very funny film, mining laughs from moments such as Geum-ja’s terrible post-coital chat, the reveal of a large axe, or a child holding a knife to her throat to prove a point. What’s more, Geum-ja’s mission to get the bastard offers many opportunities to punch the air (if you’ll allow me to get personal for a moment, the scene that ensured “Lady Vengeance” stole my heart as a teen was when Geum-ja gets back up. It’s a riotously triumphant moment, and you’ll know it when you see it).
Special mention must be made for Jo Sang-gyeong and Jo Hwa-seong, costume designer and production designer respectively. Aesthetics are a huge part of the appeal here, be it Guem-ja’s “Clockwork Orange”-esque flat, or how our protagonist’s wardrobe goes from gothy-PI to the high-fashion grim reaper (a moment where she removes her black dress to reveal a red slip underneath for purposes of erotic gain is so damn good). The aforementioned score also does a lot of heavy-lifting, starting as brash and audacious, before slowly becoming gentler and more mournful as the narrative shifts.
“While Guem-ja is occasionally the anti-hero of “Lady Vengeance” – her former lover is clearly crushed when she finds out that their prison romance was emotionally one-sided – another part of the film’s appeal is the outrageous decency of our protagonist.”
And that’s an important thing to note. While two immediately comparable films to “Lady Vengeance” – Park’s own “Oldboy” and Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw The Devil” – escalate until they explode, “Lady Vengeance” ultimately winds down. Because after all of the killing, and the mayhem, and the bank heists, just as important to Geum-ja’s journey are the still, quiet images of a snowy street at night.