Sympathy For Lady Vengeance

Chinjeolhan Geumjassi | 2005 | South Korea | Directed by Chan-wook Park

Logline: After a woman is released from prison for a crime she didn’t commit she sets about reuniting with her daughter and orchestrating an elaborate revenge on the man who was responsible for the terrible crime and many more. 

It’s original title, Chinjeolhan Geumjassi, translates as Kindhearted Ms. Guem-Ja, and like the first movie in Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy”, it is a far superior title than the American/international version, especially since it conjures a bitter sense of irony, which is in keeping with the movie’s sombre, yet bewitchingly poetic tone. This is a tale of revenge as different from Oldboy as it is from Mr. Vengeance, it is still a dish served oh so chilled, as it will always – and best be, but there is also a strange, melancholic beauty that permeates the movie’s atmosphere.

Not as explicitly violent as its predecessors, yet just as dark and, in some ways, even more disturbing, as it deals with child abuse and the cold-blooded killing of children. Park is not shy or perturbed about dealing with such heinous material, yet he provides his protagonist with a wealth of ethical complications and moral dilemmas. This is a complex movie in terms of its thematic elements, but at the core is a tale of systematic retribution; justice in the hands of an elegant damaged soul.

After thirteen years in prison for kidnapping and murdering a young boy Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee) is released and makes attempts to get her life on track. She finds a job in a bakery; orders the manufacturing of a special weapon; reunites with her daughter (who was adopted by an Australian family!); and, most importantly, plots her revenge against the real killer of the boy (who makes occasional ghostly visitations on her), the English teacher Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi, star from Oldboy).

Geum-ja seeks redemption; she seeks to become “white” again. She orchestrates the union of the parents of the many children who had perished at the vile, cruel hands of the serial killer, and arranges for them to sate their shared desire for primal justice: and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. As shocking as it is satisfying, this climax is delivered and executed not as one would expect.

Once again Park presents his deadly subversive tale with the eye of an artist; the visual narrative is stunning, the baroque classical soundtrack fits hand in glove, the performances, especially that of Yeong-as Lee is nothing short of brilliant. To add a dangerous level of tenebrous humour infused with touches of surrealism is only something Park could get away with (as he does in the first and second movies of the trilogy).

This is a movie of contrasts and juxtapositions. Park’s original intention was for the cinematographic palette to slowly change during the course of the movie; the colour slowly draining away eventually leaving the imagery in just black and white. Unfortunately the budget didn’t allow for such a complicated colour grade in post, however, for the domestic release a “Fade To Black Version” was completed, which is included on the Korean DVD release.

Forget Kill Bill (parts one and two), the “Vengeance Trilogy” is the essential viewing for Asian cinema lovers, leftfield crime fiends, and enthusiasts of the sub-genre of revenge flicks.