Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Review - Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan geumjassi)

If revenge is a dish best served cold then Park Chan-wook has already given us two tasty treats with the bleakly nihilistic Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and the thrillingly kinetic Old Boy. After the tough and cold first two courses, this brighter and more colourful final entry in his vengeance trilogy might be seen as the dessert - literally, in fact, with the beautiful cakes the main character creates becoming a dominant metaphor in the film. Unfortunately Sympathy for Lady Vengeance doesn’t quite hit the high notes Park’s previous efforts have offered and, despite seemingly having the perfect ingredients, this muddled concoction leaves an unsatisfying aftertaste.
Right from the start Lady Vengeance declares itself as a more ornate and elegant film than its predecessors. The opening credits have beautiful flowers creeping across the screen and drops of blood which, in a similar twist to the opening of American Psycho, are revealed to be little more than an innocent ingredient being added to a cake. The hands moulding this dough belong, we are to presume, to Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae); a woman who has just been released from prison after thirteen years for the kidnapping and murder of a five year-old boy. Geum-ja went inside when she was just nineteen and time has hardened her once delicate features. She is greeted in comical fashion by a group of singing Santa Clauses and a preacher (Kim Byeong-ok) who supported her throughout her sentence. He offers her the traditional greeting of Tofu, which she throws to the floor. “Go screw yourself” she tells him. She certainly has changed.

Geum-ja has only one thing on her mind: revenge. We gradually discover that she was wrongfully imprisoned for this crime; taking the fall for schoolteacher Mr Baek (Old Boy star Choi Min-sik) when he threatened her daughter. Now she is making plans to punish Baek for his crime with the help of some colourful allies she met in jail, and to track down her lost daughter. Essentially, this is a rather linear revenge tale but, perhaps in fear of being seen to repeat himself, Park tries too hard to take his latest film into new territory and loses his way.

“It has to be pretty. Everything should be pretty” says Geum-ja when she asks the husband of a former fellow inmate to craft her a gun of her own design; and it soon becomes clear that this line neatly sums up the film’s raison d'ĂȘtre. Like its predecessors, Lady Vengeance is a visually stunning piece of filmmaking, but the style here is very distinct from the trilogy’s first instalments. Park shoots Lady Vengeance almost as if it were a fairytale, with his bright, vivid colour scheme and weirdly artificial atmosphere contrasting spectacularly with the grimy, dark worlds of Mr Vengeance or Old Boy. Park is a director of rare skill and he brings all of his customary flair and chutzpah to this film. The frequent flashbacks (each of the ex-cons Geum-ja enlists is introduced with a brief vignette telling their own tale) are linked to the main narrative with the help of clever, CGI-enabled trickery. But all the surface fireworks are servicing a tale which never comes to life in the way we expect.

The change in gender for this film’s main character seems to have caused Park to lose his nerve. After the gut-wrenching intensity of Mr Vengeance and Old Boy, the curious lack of bite Lady Vengeance displays is a disappointing development. One of the earliest scenes of violence is actually self-inflicted by Geum-ja - a further act of self-imposed penance - but then there’s little further action until the overextended finale. It’s as if the director can’t bring himself to depict a female character performing the same acts that characterised his two previous films. Instead of giving us action, Park gives us a huge amount of convoluted backstory, which is elaborated upon through numerous flashbacks - and this only ends up bogging the film down with a lot of unnecessary clutter. This is not to say that the film’s various flashbacks and sidetracks aren’t well done, they’re all brilliantly crafted and liberally sprinkled with a dose of dark humour, but they slow the film down and provide a frustrating build-up to the long-awaited vengeance.

And then, when we finally reach the moment for Geum-ja to exact her revenge, Park pulls the rug out from beneath us. The heroine catches up with her prey, holds him captive in a remote building, and it’s at this point that more details about Baek’s deeds are revealed and the script suddenly takes a severe left turn into tricky territory from which it never regains its footing. In the last half-hour Park takes the arguably laudable move of expanding his view from a tale personal revenge to question the larger issue of vigilantism. This is an interesting twist to throw at us but it doesn’t really work at all. It causes the film’s climactic third to sink into a series of debates over the rights or wrongs of people taking revenge into their own hands (perhaps a critique of capital punishment), and it has the unfortunate effect of making Geum-ja a bystander during the actual act of vengeance.

The meandering final third is a letdown, but park does show one new aspect of his filmmaking by investing Lady Vengeance with a genuine sense of emotion. This unexpected development is mostly created through the relationship between Geum-ja and her 13 year-old daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), and with the help of the utterly brilliant central performance from Lee Young-ae. The actress gives a beautifully subtle and compassionate display, both as the delicate young woman who enters jail and the determined angel of death who leaves it. Geum-ja’s confession to her daughter is a deeply moving moment, superbly handled by Park who elects to focus on Young-ae’s face. It’s one of the few scenes in the film which isn’t trying too hard to impress, and it shows us that less is often so much more.

What a strange film Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is. It must ultimately be described as a disappointment even though it displays as much imagination, flair and sheer filmmaking skill than any other feature this year. In truth, Park is simply guilty of failing to match the high standards he has set for himself, and now he has finally put his ‘vengeance trilogy’ to bed we can look forward to seeing what else he has up his sleeve. This immensely talented filmmaker has unleashed bloody revenge on the world, it will be fascinating to see where he goes from here.