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'Lady Vengeance' A Splendidly Disturbing Gem [DVD Review]

2006/11/11 Source

Park Chan-wook's meditation on the meaning of revenge and its spiritual cost

Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)

"Lady Vengeance" ("Sympathy for Lady Vengeance") is marketed as the concluding chapter in Park Chan-wook's "vengeance" trilogy, a follow-up to "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" and "Old Boy". The truth of the matter is that Director Park never intended the latter two films to be connected in any way, and indeed they are quite different in tone and content from one another. "Sympathy" is in my opinion one of the most terrifying and darkest films ever made in the history of cinema. It tanked at the Korean box office, despite rave reviews by many critics. The viciously dazzling "Old Boy", however, not only turned out to be a smash box office success but also went on to garner stellar international reputation, winning the Grand Prix at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. Now comes "Lady Vengeance", which in interesting but not always successful ways addresses some of the criticisms levelled at these two. As a work of art conceived and realized within the perimeters of the film noir-crime thriller genre, or as a showcase of the masterly control Park exerts on the cinematic medium, "Lady Vengeance" has few peers among its contemporaries, Korean or non-Korean. As a follow-up to "Sympathy" and "Old Boy", however, it leaves something to be desired. Still, we have no reason to doubt that this was exactly the movie Park wanted to make, a product of his personal vision.

"Lady Vengeance" begins with a startlingly beautiful 30-ish woman, Geum-ja (the Asian superstar Lee Young-ae and heroine of the mega-hit TV drama "Daejanggeum"), being released from prison, having completed 13 years of prison sentence for the kidnapping and murder of a young boy. Nicknamed "Kindly Miss Geum-ja" for being a model prisoner, going as far as donating one of her kidneys to a cellmate, she is welcomed by a singing church chorus dressed in Santa uniforms. Following a Korean custom, the Protestant minister who had aided her "spiritual rehabilitation" offers her a cube of tofu, so that "she can live pure and white like tofu, discarding her sinful past". Splat! Geum-ja nonchalantly drops it on the ground. To the minister and his brethren gasping with shock, she snaps: "Mind your own business, Jack".

As it turns out, Geum-ja's "kindly" demeanor was a camouflage hiding her true motive: to get back at the real murderer, her former schoolteacher Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik, from "Old Boy"). To accomplish this, she recruits her former prison-mates and eventually the detective who had arrested her (Nam Il-woo). Adding wrinkles to her plan is her long-lost daugher Jenny, adopted by an Australian family, determined to get an explanation for being abandoned by her birth mother, and the revelation that Mr. Baek has been responsible for more kidnap-murders than anyone was aware of.

I do not believe director Park Chan-wook deliberately set out to disprove the American critic's lazy, knee-jerk branding of his (and a slew of other Korean) films as "Tarantino-esque" with this movie, but few of them will be able to dismiss "Lady Vengeance" with that label without sounding ludicrous. I suspect that the film will appeal to those put off by extravagant and excessive (as in "The Cut " from the anthology "Three Extremes" and "Oldboy") or coldly vituperative (as in "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance") violence in Park's previous entries. At the same time, it is likely to alienate some fans of Park who loved "Oldboy" precisely for its unflinching nastiness and wild stylistic flourishes.

Not that "Lady" is lacking in glamor factor. In fact, it is filled to the brim with a slew of stunningly gorgeous and disturbingly off-kilter imagery: Geum-ja's face radiating light like an icon of Amida Buddha or the Virgin Mary: the endlessly expanding Australian blue sky above the desert littered with bones of horned beasts: the stygian Valley of Death that an ordinary Seoul street passage way is transformed into, as our heroine approaches a trap laid down by her enemies: and Geum-ja's little shrine adorned with a three-side vanity mirror, a barber's chair and a pair of crimson candles, to which the murdered boy's ghost returns, with persimmon-colored marbles in his hands. Cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hoon, lighting director Pak Hyun-won and production designers Jo Hwa-seong, Han Ji-hyung and Choe Hyun-seok pull out all the stops. It is not difficult at all to turn off your critic's brain and simply lose yourself in the film's resplendence, as you might with the very best works of Bernardo Bertolucci or Ridley Scott.

Ultimately, however, "Lady Vengeance" is weighed down by the type of moral gravity associated with the thoughtful thrillers of Claude Chabrol or Andre Cayatte. For some viewers, the film's highlight will be the sequence in which a group of theater actors (led by Oh Dal-soo) enacts the drama of retribution against the almost abstract evil personified by Mr. Baek, their humorously petty bourgeois squabbles by no means diminishing the impact of soul-destroying tragedies experienced by them. Ironically, Geum-ja recedes to the background in this climactic sequence, so amazing is their ensemble acting, perhaps further annoying those who would have expected the strong narrative pull of a well-made Hollywood film.

Speaking of Geum-ja, Lee Young-ae runs off with what is undisputably the best cinematic role she has ever been offered. There is no doubt that Lee makes a blindingly alluring femme fatale figure. Indeed, it is somewhat disappointing to see Lee's character reigned in by Park in the second half, like a butterfly not allowed to fully emerge out of her cocoon, lest the viewers are distracted by the silver and ruby brilliance of her wings. And yet, Lee is truly unforgettable when her china-perfect face is almost grotesquely distorted with Geum-ja's overwhelming desire for blood and, simultaneously, awareness of its devastating cost to her soul. Whatever minor gripes one might have with her character, this movie is a must-see for Lee Young-ae fans, which may well be the biggest constituency among the film's potential audience, globally speaking.

"Lady Vengeance" is, in the end, most powerful when taken not as a commercial film noir but as a deeply personal, artistic meditation on the meaning of revenge and its spiritual cost. Even after the fifth viewing, the image of Geum-ja, eyes full of yearning and sorrow, yet unable to open her mouth and taste snowflakes falling from the sky, as the innocently happy Jenny urges her to do, profoundly shakes me in the way few recent movies do. "Lady Vengeance", while not a certified masterpiece like either entry in Park's vengeance trilogy, is in a class of its own. No serious fan of Korean or world cinema can afford to miss at least one look at this splendidly disturbing gem.

DVD Presentation

Tartan USA DVD. NTSC. Dual Layer. Region 1. Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35: 1. Audio: Korean (DTS, Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1) Subtitles: English, Spanish. Retail Price: $22.95. Street Date: September 26, 2006.

Tartan USA, previously scoring their biggest hit with "Old Boy", rolls out the red carpet for Park Chan-wook's latest. I have compared the Tartan disc with CJ Entertainment's two-disc Special Edition Region 3 DVD. In terms of video, both transfers have their own strengths and weaknesses. The CJ transfer, presumably supervised by the director, has an impressively high encoding rate and surprisingly subdued colour for a Korean DVD. Unfortunately it suffers from high contrast, rendering a large chunk of the sequence where Geum-ja and Jenny are attacked by Baek's thugs illegibly dark and allowing the glaring snowscape to bleach the film's visual texture in another sequence. The Tartan transfer rectifies this problem but is not nearly as crisp as the CJ transfer, displaying more grain and video noise. It's certainly not bad, and its warmer, brighter hues give the slightly '70s technicolor look of the film's first half an excellent workout, although this might not be what Park intended.

Audio channels are fine, not that I have anything useful to say about the DTS track. Perhaps I would appreciate this alleged technological marvel more when I can invest $1,000 in spiffy home theater equipment. Tartan's English subtitles are a cleaned-up version of the CJ in-house subs. They are slightly better than those for "Sympathy" but it still does not quite capture the unique, twisted wit of Park's dialogue. To cite one glaring example, one of Geum-ja's key dialogue "Neona jal-haseyo", which I have translated above as "Mind your own business, Jack", is rendered as "Why don't you go screw yourself". Not quite the same, I am afraid. Perhaps Park should get more actively involved in the subtitling process in the way, say, Bong Joon-ho does.

The Tartan DVD ports over Park Chan-wook's solo commentary as well as a group commentary with the key staff from the Region 3 release, with English subtitles. Both are densely packed with useful information, mostly of technical nature. New to this edition is the English-language commentary track by Richard Pena, Program Director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Associate Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University. Pena passionately defends "Lady's" virtues, calling it the best film among the trilogy, and provides some persuasive thematic analyses, heavily concentrating on the movie's religious symbolism. Curiously, he does not seem to be aware of director Park's Catholic background (Park is the kind of Catholic who exclaims "Thank Virgin Mary!" when others would just make do with "Thank God!"), although he deserves credit for being the first American film critic (as far as I am aware of) to pick up the Communion metaphor of the snowflake-on-the-tongue sequence. I wish he had spent more time analyzing "Lady's" aesthetic aspects, including its composition, mis en scene and editing, but as it stands the track is a very welcome addition.

Other supplements include a standard making-of docu and a new 42-minute interview with Park Chan-wook. This segment is highly recommended, (despite some lapses of judgement in the simultaneous interpretation: "severed?") as Park displays sharp awareness of how his projects are perceived by "Western" audience and critics, in his wry observation that a stereotypical Euro-American image of "Asian beauty" does not apply to Lee Young-ae, in his reminder of the relative absence of graphic violence in "Lady" and his oeuvre, and in his pointed reference to the Al Queda decapitation footage and other terrorism-related media materials in relation to the video footage of kidnapped children being murdered (Nothing really graphic is shown, for the record). Conspicuously missing is the "digitally altered" print which gradually stripped the film of its color until it ended up entirely black-and-white by the final reel. Given that it was thoughtlessly dumped into the CJ package without English subs and only with a DTS audio track, I am not surprised that it is not included here.

Tartan USA should be commended for finally adding Region 1-specific extras to their releases, even though the overall presentation falls just short of making the grade for a creme de la creme title.

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