The One After Oldboy:

On Lady Vengeance

After Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, Chan-wook Park returned to his Vengeance Trilogy with Lady Vengeance (callback title!). Rather than attempting to continue along the successful wave that was Oldboy, Park instead capped the trilogy with his least accessible movie of the lot. His movies all display a strong predilection towards recurring and powerful symbols, and Lady Vengeance is the natural zenith of that interest. It also expands upon the series’ trend towards presentationalism (vs. the representationalism of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). These aren’t common traits for something that’s nominally a mainstream thriller. But instead of being thrilling like Oldboy, or tense like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Chan-wook Park chooses to make a symbolistic, surreal, and presentational work.

The movie (which, by the way, is sometimes called Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) follows a female prisoner named Geum-ja Lee who took the fall for a man who abducted and murdered a small schoolboy. Geum-ja Lee parrots a line of thought, almost verbatim, from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance: “There are good kidnappings and bad.” Basically the idea that some kidnappings end with the exchange of money and the return of a child, we just don’t hear about those ones. This was the story presented to Geum-ja Lee to ensure her participation anyways. The “kidnapper” never had any intention of leaving the child alive however, and Geum-ja Lee took the fall. She made an incredible turn in prison, finding religion and generally appearing saintly. The whole thing was an elaborate act in a long-term con, which we’re shown up front. She leaves prison and her priest is waiting for her. She callously and instantly casts him aside. You see, she wants…vengeance!

Which, obviously, is not really a surprise. Chan-wook Park however, splinters her plans into little vignettes. Then he mixes in scenes of the present, which take several prodigious turns. The movie is fairly fragmented in nature consequently. It’s filled with a series of flashbacks narrated by fellow inmates that act as character sketches, slowly shading in the menacing and mysterious protagonist at the centre of the film. There are decidedly obvious symbols and slightly less obvious ones. There are cryptic dream sequences and those wildly unexpected developments in the plot (They’re still not “twists” however, that’s pretty plainly not going to be a staple of Chan-wook Park’s discography; he’s not going to paint himself into an M Night Shymalamamama-style corner).

Released from prison Geum-ja Lee gets a job at a bakery. She connects with various fellow convicts who help her piece together her plan. Or at least that’s how it seems at first. It becomes clear that these people are actually only helping her do one thing – build an ornate and outdated gun. (It’s actually a gun we see even earlier in a dream sequence. This dream sees Geum-ja dragging a dog tied to a wooden frame across an arctic environment. The dog’s head is the panting face of the child-murderer who manipulated Geum-ja Lee. She procures her vermeil-decorated firearm and blows his head off.) She plans to use the gun to deliver her ultimate blow. There are, naturally, complications along the way. One in particular that derails the plot in a really unanticipated way that I’d rather not spoil. She ends up getting the parents of the killer’s other victims involved, which is hard to watch. Despite this being the least graphic film of the series the conclusion to the vengeance is truly excruciating.

The movie is really the strangest of the series, and not just because of that dog-headed dream sequence. It’s as structurally fluid as the first film, but presentational in a way Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy aren’t (Oldboy gets closer, but only because it’s blatantly stylized). Chan-wook Park never lets you forget that Lady Vengeance is a movie. Strange transitions, harsh camera angles, scattered narration, numerous flashbacks, and blatant symbolism make the film feel heavily French New Wave inspired. Red candles aren’t allowed to go out, pure white tofu is alternately cast aside and consumed, children show up, random birthday singing commences, black eyeliner is worn, ghosts show up, digital aureola are painted in behind Geum-ja Lee, and serial killer-esque trophies are kept pending atonement. All these symbols are meaningful and recurring. The average artistic mass market film would make do with any one of these motifs, but Lady Vengeance juggles enough to put many proper art-house movies to shame.

Which seems to make the relationship between the films in Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy a formalistic one. Despite the obvious thematic similarities between the films, they’re not truly connected or complimentary on a surface level. It’s not like further watching along the series expands or alters the presented message about vengeance. (Message is far too simplistic a word, but I hope you gather my intended meaning.) Instead the formalistic relationship basically shows off the directorial range of Chan-wook Park. Not that I’m proposing that was the goal, but it’s definitely part of the result, at least to my eyes. The movies in the series seem to exist on a scale from representational to presentational. Or, if you rather, from least movie-like to hyper-movie-like. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance wants to completely enthrall the audience. Oldboy is stylized but primarily concerned with landing its various emotional beats. Lady Vengeance never wants the audience to forget they’re watching a movie. Basically, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is like a Coen movie, Oldboy is like a Scorsese movie (with a dose of Tarantino tossed in), and Lady Vengeance is French New Wave-y (I’m admittedly under-watched in this department but what little Godard I’ve seen perhaps begs the comparison).

This formalistic transition makes it very hard to actually pick out my pick for “best” entry in the trilogy. Oldboy is definitely the most thrilling but all of them are hugely effective at what they attempt. It’s a colossal trilogy from a talented and diverse director. It also doesn’t mark the end of his personal experimentation…

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. For me, it’s the best film from the last 15 years. I agree with the New Wave connection. I also see some links to Japanese exploitation (the Tarantino touch you found in Oldboy). But mainly I have to say that it’s also funny as hell (and also devastating, of course). Brilliantly planned and executed.

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