Beginning as a complicated although not terribly convoluted revenge movie, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance eventually transforms into something more. Does that surprise you? This is the third film directed by Park Chan-wook, and it’s the third that has followed this formula. The second half doesn’t play out exactly like the first half seemed to indicate that it would. This time around, the question Chan-wook seems to be asking is “Do the ends justify the means?” This is something at the heart of many revenge films, although the answer is almost unanimously skewed in one direction. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance might be fighting for the other side; you’ll have to watch to see.
Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae) is our lead, having spent the last 12.5 years in prison for a crime that she didn’t commit, but did admit to doing. She was convicted of murdering a schoolboy, having allegedly smothered him to death with a pillow. In the early parts of the film, we move busily back and forth between her prison time and the present day. Pay attention or you will get lost.
There’s a purpose for this, and it’s not just to establish back story. The inmates are going to figure into her plan now that she has her freedom. She wants revenge on the man who actually killed the schoolboy, although the death is not the reason for this scheme. She lost years of her life, but also was forced to put her daughter up for adoption. That, mixed with the harsh life of prison, can change a woman. And Geum-ja has certainly changed in both personality and appearance.
Part of the functionality of initially allowing us to see Geum-ja both prior to, during, and after her prison sentence is to have us get the context with which most of the film will take place. Without seeing how she was in the past — this sweet, pure girl — to now, the emotional impact would be lessened. so would the point. That revenge might not be as sweet as it might seem. That taking the life of someone who ruined yours might not make you feel as good as it should.
Meticulously paced, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is not a movie like, say, Kill Bill, even if there are many similarities. The end goal is the same, I suppose, which is “kill an older male who did something bad years earlier.” And both contain moments of extreme violence. But while Tarantino’s film was heavier on the action, Chan-wook’s is content with dialogue, plotting, and having an actual point to the proceedings. It might not be a better film — or, a more enjoyable one — but I just want to make it clear that they’re very distinct entries.
This is perhaps the busiest and most complicated from the outset of Chan-Wook’s revenge films. In terms of plot, which will confuse viewers not willing to give it their full attention, there’s enough information given for it all to make sense, but just barely; a fine line is walked here. The flip-flopping between the past and present, isn’t new or unique, but it happens before we even have a grounding, too soon to get comfortable. Having seen the film, you might find yourself wanting to watch the first 30 minutes again just to see it all with the full picture in mind.
As with most of Chan-wook’s films, there’s a lot more to grasp at than is on the surface. If this is your kind of thing, you can spend hours trying to figure out the symbolism hidden throughout the film. Or even the reason for everything that happens in even the smallest of subplots. Or, you can sit back and enjoy a fascinating tale of revenge. The more you put in, the more you get out, but it can be enjoyed by anyone.
Even if you don’t want to think terribly hard about the film, you’ll likely be appreciative of the film’s style. Park Chan-wook is nothing if not a master of visuals, perfectly shooting and editing his pictures. They’re so gorgeous to look at that even if nothing much was happening — which doesn’t often happen, by the way — you would still have something to hold your attention. Each frame is beautiful. You will love looking at this film.
All three of Chan-wook’s revenge films have had a strong performance in the lead, and they have gotten more singular in succession. There were important and lengthy roles given to characters supporting the protagonist in the first two. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, there were really two main characters, Ryu and his girlfriend. In Oldboy, Oh Dae-su was helped out by Mi-do. Here, it’s all on Lee Guem-ja, and the actor playing her Lee Young Ae, who does a wonderful job playing almost a dual role, depending on the point in time of the scene. If it’s in the past, it’s a warmer performance, while in the present, it’s more distant and impersonal.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a very good film. You don’t expect anything different at this point, do you? Park Chan-wook has a fascination with the concept of revenge, and over the course of three great films, has explored it to a great extent. This might be the weakest of the three installments, but that doesn’t stop it from being a very strong entry into the director’s filmography, and something that you should absolutely watch — even if it’s just for the sake of completing an informal, thematically linked, trilogy.