“It has to be pretty. Everything should be pretty,” explains Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae), who throughout Lady Vengeance is variously referred to as “a real live angel,” “Geum-ja the kindhearted,” and “the witch.” The fact that what has to be pretty is a gun should surprise no one who’s seen Korean director Park Chanwook’s gruesome Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or his staggering Oldboy. His latest is the glorious female-revenge film Quentin Tarantino wished he could make, ending up with two so-so Kill Bills instead.
And Lady Vengeance has similarities with Kill Bill: a very bad man, a stolen child, and an agonizingly long period of inactivity preceding a fevered, focused pursuit of payback. But Geum-ja doesn’t fall into a coma; at the start of Lady Vengeance she’s exiting jail after serving 13 years for a crime it’s pretty obvious she didn’t commit. Behind bars, she’s been plotting, sweetly luring fellow inmates into her debt so that they have no choice but to help her on the outside. As the film’s intricate story line slowly reveals, she’s most intent on punishing the man responsible for her confinement (a children’s teacher with sinister tendencies, played by Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik), but there are other considerations — including a reunion with her long-lost daughter, now an English-speaking adolescent being raised by a square Australian couple.
Park’s previous revenge films drew some ire for their vicious violence, but they also earned the director a passionate following among genre fans. Lady Vengeance is no less cleverly brutal — granted, nobody cuts off their own tongue with a pair of scissors in this one — but it’s also Park’s most elegant effort, starting with graceful opening titles that introduce a classical, harpsichord-laden score. Overall, the film has a more feminine quality than Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or Oldboy — obviously a result of the casting, but it’s a twist that also permeates Park’s visual and tonal style. The film’s obligatory moments of over-the-top nastiness are tempered by an overall mood of delicate, lusciously colored restraint.
A big part of Lady Vengeance’s success is owed to Lee, perfectly cast as a woman caught between the conflicting forces of maternal instinct and the need for sweet, sweet revenge. Her years-ago arrest is chronicled for us by a breathless newscast; it seems Geum-ja became a media sensation not just for her confessed terrible crime (kidnapping and killing a child), but also for her refined beauty (the TV says, “tabloids compared her to Olivia Hussey”). And indeed, Lee is an exquisite actor, slipping between perfectly telegraphed emotions with often-wordless ease.
After prison, Geum-ja reenters society with relative ease, partially because of her skills as a baker (no accident, a stereotypically feminine talent), and her cool good looks. Her transformation into the lady of the title is achieved by applying crimson eye shadow (“People are always saying I look kindhearted”), a kind of superhero disguise that foreshadows the blood she’s hell-bent on spilling.
To fully explain Geum-ja’s motivation would deprive the viewer the pleasure of following Park through Lady Vengeance’s brambly maze of a plot. However, the statement “the kidnapper had kidnapped a kidnapper’s kid” (delivered in complete seriousness, though the film’s not without plenty of gallows humor) sums things up pretty well. Lady Vengeance falters only in its final quarter, when Lee steps back from the action for a few key scenes. Her quest for revenge is what drives the film, and without her red-rimmed gaze front and center, things meander a bit.
By the end, thankfully, she’s back in focus; her mission may be completed, but there’s no Kill Bill–style sense of triumph. “He made a sinner out of me,” Geum-ja says about the man she desperately wants to punish. And he will die, of course, but will Geum-ja ever find atonement? Lady Vengeance ends on that question — as pretty as ever. SFBG
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