When she was 19, Lee Geum-Ja made a terrible mistake. She confessed to kidnapping and murdering a young boy, and is sentenced to 13 years in prison. Despised and reviled by a shocked nation, Geum-Ja undergoes a religious conversion, becoming a model prisoner to both her fellow prisoners and their guards. Her kind deeds and saintly acts earn her the nickname “The Kindhearted Ms. Geum-Ja.”
However, as soon as she steps outside the prison walls, we learn of her other nickname — “The Witch” — and we learn that she didn’t spend those 13 years simply working for atonement. A complex scheme of revenge against Mr. Baek, her accomplice and betrayer, has been brewing all that time, a scheme so complex that she’s pulled other prisoners into it, using them as a quasi-underground empire to get her close enough to pull the trigger.
And so begins Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the final act in Park Chan-Wook’s so-called “Vengeance” trilogy (which began with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and continued through Oldboy). Admittedly, after those two films, it’s difficult to not develop high expectations for Park’s latest. However, I have to say that Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is not just my least favorite of the three films, but also the one I find to be the weakest.
Park Chan-Wook’s “Vengeance” films have always walked a fine line between depicting the destructive nature and consequences of revenge (with considerable gusto, I might add) and revelling in the “grand guignol”-ness of it all. His previous films have managed to show all manner of unsavory events and violence (Shin Ha-Kyun’s betrayal on the body organs black market in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and, of course, that octopus scene in Oldboy). However, both of those films managed to maintain their precarious balance.
In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’s case, it was the tragic spiral that the film’s characters found themselves in, which made them pitiable even when they were slicing eachothers’ Achilles tendons. In Oldboy’s case, it was the operatic, Shakespearean heights attained by the film, not to mention Choi Min-Sik’s devastating performance. Unfortunately, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance has neither of these things, nor does it have much else other than Park Chan-Wook’s astounding visual sense (if nothing else, the movie really does look exquisite).
Whereas Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance spirals downwards into despair, drawing ever closer to a tragic conclusion, and Oldboy moves with a laser-like intensity, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance slowly meanders all over the place, with odd tonal shifts and plot turns that make sense but are completely nonsensical.
For example, as Geum-Ja tracks down the daughter she had to abandon 13 years ago, she discovers that she has been adopted by a couple in Australia. When Geum-Ja arrives and introduces herself to her daughter and the adoptive parents, it’s unsure as to whether the scenes should be comedic (due to the cultural divide and Geum-Ja’s slapstick-ish performance), poignant, foreboding, or something else entirely.
But Sympathy for Lady Vengeance’s ultimate sin is that left me completely unmoved, feeling nothing at all for anyone or anything in the film. Sure, there are a few scenes that had me feeling a little queasy when Park lost his balancing act and veered off into exploitation territory (such as when Geum-Ja purchases a puppy so she practice killing something at short range, or when we have to watch families watching videos of their kidnapped children being tormented).
But ultimately, such browbeating and heavy-handed scenes left me feeling even more clinical and detached from the movie. With such lack of subtlety, I just gave up and stopped thinking or caring. Even during the film’s final act, when Geum-Ja’s plan for revenge becomes replaced with something even bigger and more urgent, the film fails to engage.
Distracting cameos, clever visual flourishes that are too clever for their own good, a heavy handed use of religious imagery — all of these prove to be a liability, but the film’s primary weakness is that I just don’t give one whit for any of the characters. Geum-Ja (played by Lee Yeong-Ae) is too aloof and distant, her daughter is too annoying, and all of the other characters remain cyphers or window dressing throughout. Even Choi Min-Sik, one of South Korea’s best actors, seems curiously muted in all of his scenes.
There’s one moment where I thought the film might redeem itself, a moment in which, interestingly and disturbingly enough, a child murderer becomes the most sympathetic character in the movie. It’s a scene when the Park’s apparent message about the futility of revenge could’ve been delivered with brutal impact, but it passes soon enough. And the film’s final scenes, in which we’re supposed to feel all of the guilt and shame that Geum-Ja’s course of action has left her to carry, feel drawn out and senseless — if you feel anything at all, that is.
I know that Park Chan-Wook is currently one the “It” directors, and for good reason. His last few films — JSA, the previous “Vengeance” movies — have been nothing less than stellar. But frankly, I’m glad the trilogy is over and Park can move onto new things (such as his cyborg/insane asylum/romance film), as one can constantly feel the momentum slowing down over the course of this film, the ideas running out of steam, the same themes delivered over and over again with less impact each time.