Lady Vengeance

Lady Vengeance

****

Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

After Sympathy For Mr Vengeance and Oldboy, writer/director Park Chan-wook completes his revenge trilogy with another fine film of style, complexity and masterful control.

He bases the film around another strong central character, played with breathtaking and brutal commitment. With some sense of inevitability, this time the lead is female, with the beguiling Lee Yeong-ae JSA: Joint Security Area) finding chiasmic, fractured depths in the character of Lee Guem-ja. As with its predecessors, the character conceit is to make the heroine so grossly wronged, to suffer so solidly, that however ferocious her subsequent actions are, in comparison we still feel she's justified.

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Lee is being released from prison after 13 years, having previously admitted to the kidnapping and murder of a young child, shocking the nation with the brutality of the crime and the beauty of its perpetrator. Except Lee was innocent, framed by the insidiously evil school teacher Mr Baek (Choi Min-sik, previously the eponymous Oldboy). Not only was he the killer, but he had kidnapped Lee's own child to force her to take the fall and not reveal the truth. Nevertheless, in prison she has slowly been raised to angelic status through her constant do-gooding and apparent unshakeable commitment to righteous living. She leaves with a loyal clique of fellow inmates, indebted to her for helping to survive the horrors of the women's clink.

On her release, she promptly drops her virtuous facade, dons the red eye shadow and sets about finding Baek and wreaking her vengeance. After scheming for 13 years, hers is a cold and calculated act, working to a master plan. This is the great difference to, say, Oldboy in that Lee is not reacting impulsively, physically and messily to what is being done to her. She is the architect, the planner, exacting the ruthlessness, going as much for organised emotional revenge as physical pay back.

With this comes less visible violence, although its presence is just as menacing and tangible, and, whereas Oldboy hardly shied away from its narrative-driven grotesqueries, here such eye-watering devices are just not necessary, although Lee's story revolves around enough mouth-dryingly disturbing scenes to equally thrill and chill. Bullying, kidnapping, sexual abuse, infanticide, prolonged torture, in the cold light of day the list of escapades is far from appealing. It is entirely down to Yeong-ae's mesmerising performance and Chang-wook's credit, as director and scribe, that the film carries such intense ideas with believability and - yes, damn it! - heart.

Having started with the watershed moment of Lee's prison release, Chang-wook splices and convolutes the remainder of the film with scenes from Lee's time in prison and after. Counterpoising her warm smiles and unfathomable stares, he adroitly conveys the emotional journey she is on, fantastically played by Yeong-ae throughout, especially when she is blindsided by an unplanned arrival from her past into her present.

Again and again Chang-wook and his cinematographer, Jeong Jeong-hun, deliver scenes and frames of singular cinematic style and beauty, through which his characters pass, always informing, expressing and augmenting the narrative. When the film ends, you are left with the impression that so much was actually happening and being squeezed into each frame. You know you're going to need to see it again to get the most out of it, not because it's too crowded, or confusing, but because you feel it's such a fantastic journey, you want to take again.

While this is modern adult Korean cinema near its best - it still can't quite outshine Oldboy - it's now finding its home more naturally on DVD.

Reviewed on: 26 May 2006
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Lady Vengeance packshot
Revenge is ugly and intricately planned in South Korea. Now out to own as part of the Vengeance Trilogy box set.
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Read more Lady Vengeance reviews:

Scott Macdonald ****1/2
Chris Brooks ****1/2
Anton Bitel ****
Richard Mellor ***1/2

Director: Park Chan-wook

Writer: Seo-Gyeong Jeong, Chan-wook Park

Starring: Lee Yeong-ae, Choi Min-sik, Kim Si-hu, Kwon Yea-young, Oh Dai-su, Lee Seung-shin, Kim Bu-sun, Kim Byeong-ok, Choi Sung-yoon, Nam Il-woo, Cha Soon-bae, Kim Ik-tae, Lee Young-mi, Kim Jin-goo, Seo Young-joo, Koh Soo-hee, Ra Mi-ran, Song Kang-ho

Year: 2005

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: South Korea

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If you like this, try:

The Vengeance Trilogy