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Foreign Spotlight: Lady Vengeance

Park Chan-wook proves once again he is both a visionary – and re-visionary – filmmaker with his latest work, a philosophical meditation on politics, religion, revenge, feminism, violence and redemption.

Park Chan-wook proves once again he is both a visionary – and re-visionary – filmmaker with his latest work, a philosophical meditation on politics, religion, revenge, feminism, violence and redemption.

Lady Vengeance is the concluding film in Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy,” which began in 2002 with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and continued the following year with Oldboy, the winner of the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes film festival as well as an enormous commercial success (Min-Sik Choi, who played the leading role in Oldboy, again collaborates with Chan-wook, this time as a sociopathic school teacher and the film’s villain). These three films make up a trilogy not in the sense of The Matrix or Lord of the Rings films, but more along the lines of Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” films (A Fistfull of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly) or even John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness). We’re not following the same characters or a continuous plotline across three films, but exploring themes and ideas from different angles. In this case, revenge.

Revenge films seem to be a more frequent occurrence in the American film market as of late, with films like Kill Bill, Paparazzi, The Punisher, and Man on Fire. Chan-wook’s film hits the mark where these films miss it. While these other films are predominately driven by plot devices and on-screen violence, Lady Vengeance is a character driven film, propelled by the complex, often conflicting emotions of it’s subjects, directed by a filmmaker who is as much an expert in characterization as he is a master in the art of visual storytelling. It makes perfect sense for a director of his caliber to be attracted to the revenge genre – what endless possibilities there are to explore in the mind of a person who’s sole for existence has disintegrated into the desire to destroy? Chan-wook sees the possibilities and has made three brilliant films with them.

The film opens with Guem-ja (Lee Young-ae, who previously worked with director Chanwook on his 2000 blockbuster JSA: Joint Security Area) being released from a 13-year long prison sentence for her involvement with the kidnapping and murder of a five year old boy. Through flashbacks we learn about Guem’s quest for redemption among her fellow inmates while in prison, many of which will help her on the quest for revenge she seeks upon her release. It is here where the film transgresses the genre that has inspired it. While some might see the kindness Guem projects toward the women she serves her prison sentence with as manipulation, as a way to gain allies for her ultimate goal, it is in fact a statement about gender and judicial politics – all the women have ended up in prison, in one way or another, because of a man. Guem’s revenge presents an opportunity for these women to fight the social system that has imprisoned them.

I mentioned to a friend I had seen this film, to which he replied, “I heard that was really violent.” Lady Vengeance is not for the faint of heart, but it is not the gratuitous shock-cinema that some will undoubtedly make it out to be, or that some will be expecting when they go see it. Most of the violence occurs out of frame. What makes it so disturbing are the circumstances surrounding the violence, the context in which the violence occurs. Because spoiling any of Lady Vengeance would be a crime, I will reference to Oldboy, the preceding film in the trilogy. For me, the most disturbing moment in Oldboy was the shot of Mi-Do in the angel wings, toward the end of the film. This shot literally turned my stomach, whereas the scene where a man’s teeth are ripped out with a hammer, or when the man cuts out his own tongue, really just made me cringe. I was reminded of the line in Theodore Roszak’s novel Flicker (a must read for film buffs), “That was enough to put you off sex for the rest of your life.” Why? Because of what the shot meant in relation to the rest of the film, not because it was gory or violent. There are comparable moments of horror in Lady Vengeance.

With the many Hollywood remakes of films from past generations as well as the multiplying reworking of more and more foreign films (an American remake of Oldboy is in the works), one must ask the question, has every story been done before? Are there no new plots to be written, no new genres to be created? Park Chan-wook proves that even if this is true, for a talented filmmaker, this is not an obstacle, but a source of inspiration. Chan-wook has taken a film genre – the revenge film – and created a completely unique work of art. Beautiful photography, writing, acting, and music merge to form a film full of sound and color, multi-layered meaning and drama. This is not to be missed.

Tartan Films releases Lady Vengeance exclusively in New York on April 28th (today) and will open in select markets in the following weeks to come.

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