Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"Lady Vengeance"

What in American hands would probably be a “B” exploitation thriller becomes from South Korea’s Park Chan-wook a beautifully filmed story of redemption through violence.

“Lady Vengeance” concludes Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, films tied together not by narrative or character connection, but by their explorations of revenge and what extracting it does to everyone concerned. In the first film, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” the revenger pays a terrible price for trying to find some degree of emotional satisfaction. In the second film, “Oldboy,” it’s the victim of the revenge plot who pays most decidedly.

In this final installment, “Lady Vengeance,” retribution may at last bring some peace, if a horrible peace it is, to the people whose lives have been devastated by continuing acts of evil.

We first see Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) as she leaves prison after serving 13 years for the kidnapping and murder of a child. The crimes were committed when Geum-ja was just 19.

Her story is revealed in the non-linear way that is so popular with filmmakers now. As she pursues her course of vengeance against the monstrous school teacher Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi, whose terrifying performance in “Oldboy” is impossible to get out of the mind), Park cuts back to snippets of Geum-ja’s life in prison as she makes friends with the weak and becomes known as the “kind Ms. Geum-ja.”

But Park and co-screenwriter Seo-Gyeong Jeong begin playing with our heads early. Geum-ja is only kind to fellow inmates she plans to use later. The bullies that oppress them are dispatched with the same lack of conscience she will call on later.

There would be no vengeance to extract if Geum-ja, now wearing red eye liner and clothing to hide the gentleness others see in her, had really committed the crimes for which she was imprisoned, and although we quickly learn that she was innocent, it takes a while for us to find out why she confessed. That’s part of the need for revenge.

After you’ve begun piecing the narrative together it is all easy enough to understand. Even Geum-ja’s motivation, which at first seems so simple, becomes more twisted before it finally evolves into a clarity and is both inevitable and perfect.

And speaking of perfection, no other word comes as close to describing Lee Young-ae’s performance. Every facial expression, some of which are tellingly blank, and every body movement tells us a little more about this woman. In a matter of seconds she can transform from a modest girl to a killer, switch from a hard-boiled woman with something serious on her mind to a nearly-campy actress who wants to wink at the camera. It’s a chilling and, by film’s end, heartbreaking performance.

Cinematographer Jeong-hun Jeong makes the Korean cities and landscapes look like killing grounds of the mind, covered in leaves or snow grass or asphalt, but always shot with the pristine framing of a travel magazine.

Park ties all this up in a package that is sometimes creepy, often sad or black humored, but always completely convincing.

The emotional content of “Lady Vengeance” isn’t as noisily melodramatic as that of “Oldboy,” but is the more satisfying for that. It’s much easier to identify with the protagonist of “Lady Vengeance.” You may wish you didn’t have to, but I suspect in some ways you will.


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