Lady Vengeance


Reviewed by: Richard Mellor

Lady Vengeance
"It's designed to shock, to entertain in the most hard-hitting way and to make people, like the flabbergasted journo to my left, spit vehement rebukes at its conclusion."

The chief problem with Lady Vengeance was helpfully made known to me in a telling moment at the end of the film's screening. Puffing out his cheeks with more than a modicum of annoyance, the veteran reviewer next to me frowned and said to his wife: "Well that was complete tosh, wasn't it?" Instantly I realised the truth - Lady Vengeance is not a film quite to everybody's taste.

I was fonder of this latest fantastical thriller from director Park Chan-wook, our latest cinematic takeaway from South Korea. But even I must admit to the odd frown as I struggled to follow the plot progressions, flashbacks, unreferenced characters and sparse narration. My neighbour in the cinema was utterly aghast, though. For him, this was apparently a sin terrible that must be paid for with critical lambast.

Copy picture

The overall story is easy enough to grasp. The insecure Lee Geum-ja goes to prison, aged 19, for the killing of a young boy on behalf of the real murderer, her teacher Mr Chang (Oh Dae-su). He has kidnapped Lee's daughter, so forcing her to take responsibility for the boy's death. Upon her release, a cooler, more perceptive Lee plots to make Chang pay for her time in prison and for destroying her young family.

This is all fairly routine to digest. It's tracking Lady Vengeance from scene to scene that proves difficult. Who is that character? Why is she suddenly here? How does he know him? There is little explanation given, with Chan-wook concentrating instead on the immense (and highly commendable) style of his film. He inventively utilises unlikely camera angles, surreal musical sequences and mesmerising colours with glee and bravado.

Such a stylised movie is nothing new in Asian cinema. Only recently did we witness the balletic quality of the fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and way before that, the innovative soundtrack and distinct atmosphere of Seven Samurai. While us Westerners, and especially my dumbstruck fellow critic, like linear plots and easy-to-understand scenes, Eastern cinema has long been more willing to innovate and experiment. Who are we to say that such an approach is any better, or worse?

The conclusion of Lady Vengeance is seriously dark and raw. It is direct from the realms of the most morbid human fantasy, dreams we have when incredibly angry, or affected, that we know we'll never actually act upon. Like Battle Royale before it, Lady Vengeance is a cinema version of a computer-game fantasyland, where human behaviour seems at its lowest ebb. Worse, both films present this landscape in a deadpan style that makes events even more shocking. Consequently, they are impossible to relate to. Without empathy, film can be a soulless experience that seems much further away than the distance to the screen.

Yet, this is to miss the point. Lady Vengeance is not a picture we are meant to relate to, nor follow comfortably from the depths of our seats. It's designed to shock, to entertain in the most hard-hitting way and to make people, like the flabbergasted journo to my left, spit vehement rebukes at its conclusion. Chan-wook's film explores the outer limits of human fantasies, as well as the notions of retribution and absolution, with enthusiasm and curiosity, rather than any darker, immoral motive.

As his vehicle for doing so, Lee Yeong-ae is terrific as the avenging angel. Segueing from merciless hitwoman to giggly, charming girl and back again with utter ease, her Lee is a likeable figure who carries the film with effortless grace.

Just like its heroine, Chan-wook's film is unlikely, yet very likeable. It may be tosh, but it's pretty fantastic tosh.

Reviewed on: 10 Feb 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 ****
Paul Griffiths ****

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