Sympathy for Lady Vengeance Review
Park Chan-Wook's 2005 film Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (sometimes just Lady Vengeance or even Lady Vendetta) is the third in his acclaimed “Vengeance Trilogy", coming after Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Our protagonist is Lee Geum-Ja, a girl who has served thirteen years in prison for the murder of a young child and whose only goal upon release is to get revenge on the man who was truly responsible. As a woman alienated from society we see her struggle to come to terms with her place in the world and her relationship with the daughter she gave up at the beginning of her prison term. This culminates in a complex and violent finale in which the parents of children murdered by the real killer, a Mr. Baek, take turns torturing and ultimately killing the man, brough together by Geum-Ja.
Geum-Ja is perhaps one of the most complex protagonists in recent cinema. Her stay in jail turns her into a killer and a hero at the same time. She uses bleach to poison the prison bully, with her cell mates calling her “kind-hearted Geum-Ja” despite the brutal crime that she is in for. She so denies the role of hero or bringer of justice that by the end of the film she dons black leather and blood-red eye shadow to create a terrifying visage, in contrast to her earlier innocent that captured the media's attention at the time of her imprisonment. Geum-Ja's quest for vengeance and its outcome is also highly unusual when compared to depictions of the same in other films. Revenge is usually the path to self destruction and for protagonists to become whole again they must come to terms with what happened to them and learn to forgive. This is not the case in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Never does Geum-Ja's quest seem like the wrong thing, especially considering Mr. Baek has killed more children since the incident that set Geum-Ja away. The culmination of the film sees Geum-Ja, with the help of a police inspector, bring the parents of the murdered children together to torture and kill Mr. Baek if they decide to do so, thus giving them the visceral, violent closure that Geum-Ja preferes, as opposed to abstract imprisonment. She even shows them his films of murdering the children, an act clearly calculated to get them to take the violent path rather than turning him in to the police. During the torture one man is stopped only because his actions would kill Baek too soon, before everyone had gotten their own turn. Mr. Baek then has not only turned Geum-Ja from an innocent teenager into a murderer and torturer, but the parents of the five murdered children as well. The cycle of violence is disturbs the audience leaving a bittersweet taste to the “justice” delivered in the end. And the viewer is left to think what they would do in the same situation, with a more than subtle suggestion that violence would be the correct way. We're left with a cold world in which the system is broken and justice only exists when people are willing to go out and get it themselves.
The characterization of Mr. Baek is an interesting deviation from the first two films of the :Revenge Trilogy". In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance our protagonists accidentally allow a man's child to die, prompting that man to seek revenge. In Oldboy the protagonist's imprisonment is the result of being responsible for a girl's suicide. These films tread very murky waters and live in worlds in which tragedy happens randomly and justice does not seem to truly exist. But Mr. Baek is a clear villain with absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Without worrying about adding gray areas we get a closer analysis of the act of revenge itself, even when it does seem completely righteous.
Ultimately, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is an unforgettable film and a masterful and worthy end to the Revenge Trilogy. If you liked Oldboy you do not want to miss this equally dark and complex film.
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