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about the writer

Steve Erickson lives in New York. A critic for Gay City News, he has also written for Time Out NY, Cinema Scope, Cineaste, The Village Voice, City Pages, The Nashville Scene, and other publications.

"Lady Vengeance" and Its Critics
By Steve Erickson

Are Park Chan-wook's films serious examinations of violence or exploitation films pandering to uncritical audiences? Why do North American directors like David Cronenberg (in A History of Violence) and Clint Eastwood (in Unforgiven and Mystic River) get the benefit of doubt when they address this subject? Is it because Harry Knowles and Quentin Tarantino rank among Park's loudest fans (as horror buffs used to be Cronenberg's)? These questions have been the object of debate in venues ranging from blogs to The New York Times, where Nathan Lee wrote that "his [Park's] puppet people and phony plots are an excuse for rhetorical showboating, neither a source of human value nor the medium of legitimate ethical inquiry." Lady Vengeance, the conclusion of a trio of films devoted to the subject of revenge, features less on-screen carnage than its two predecessors, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, but has generated even more controversy. (A post on Filmbrain's blog generated 38 comments, an impressive number considering that Lady Vengeance had a total of 2 North American screenings at the time.) Park's playing a delicate game here, encouraging the audience to identify with a killer and then yanking the rug out from under us. After we saw the film at last year's Toronto Film Festival, the first thing a friend said was "It's pro-capital punishment!" I don't agree, but neither is it a simple condemnation of humanity's violent impulses.

For me, Park's trilogy peaked with its first installment, but that judgment may merely be a preference for art cinema over the hip flash of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is not exactly realistic — unless Korean urinals are plastered with stickers aimed at human organ buyers — but it's less grounded in myth than Oldboy, whose plot pivots around a hypnotist able to keep the protagonist totally under his thrall. The first film's vision of urban despair — all dingy colors, claustrophobic apartments, and so much noise pollution that deafness seems preferable — is a thoroughly believable environment, while the later films are over-directed, as if every scene needed to be a peak moment. Lady Vengeance recalls recent Japanese films like Tetsuya Nakashima's Kamikaze Girls, Gen Sekiguchi's Survive Style 5+ and Katsuhito Ishii's more sedate The Taste of Tea in its use of techniques like direct address and extremely stylized camera movement, as well its absorption of influences from manga and music videos.

Like many Korean films (such as Jang Joon-Hwan's Save The Green Planet and Im Sang-soo's The President's Last Bang), Lady Vengeance changes moods swiftly, mixing dark comedy and violence in a way that's often unnerving. Black humor can enhance the horror of its subject matter or trivialize it, and Lady Vengeance rests on the border between these two modes for its first half. Are cultural differences the reason so many Americans have a problem with it? It's a tempting theory, but few critics raised similar objections to the violence in Save The Green Planet or The President's Last Bang.

Quickly, Park introduces one of the film's key themes: anti-heroine Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) as a sum of other people's perceptions. Her life is narrated — out of chronological order — by her friends and possibly colored by their perceptions. She wound up in jail for participating in the kidnapping and murder of a young boy, although Mr. Baek (Oldboy star Choi Min-sik) was the real villain. Recalling her involvement with Baek, the narrator emphasizes her youth and innocence. An implicit question lurks. Is this really the way Geum-ja was or is it how other people remember her? It's noteworthy that she's barely a visible presence in this scene — her voice is loud but she's relegated to the back of the frame. In another key scene, she talks about the murder while standing out of the camera's range.

Lady Vengeance.  
Lady Vengeance  

One of the film's strongest critics, Michael Sicinski, has called it a sexist fantasy: "She [Geum-ja] is 'hot,' Park ensures, because his presumed viewership can project their fantasies onto her with minimal interference." Without entirely disagreeing with him, I think the appeal of the femme fatale is a large part of what it's really about. The early scenes take numerous potshots at the media's tendency to romanticize killers: a horde of photographers gather to watch Geum-ja reenact the boy's killing. Through this act, she becomes a celebrity, gathering a large following. Soon after her release from jail, a middle-aged couple walk into the bakery where she works and place an order. They think she looks familiar but can't quite place her. When they realize who she is, they're appalled and throw out the food she handled. However, most people have the opposite reaction. She drops many references to the murder she plans (much like Patrick Bateman's muttered confessions of his crimes in American Psycho), which everyone else ignores — but almost no one thinks it's a bad idea. In prison, she's called "the kind-hearted Geum-ja" (the Korean title's exact translation), but that's a projection based on her decision to donate a kidney to a fellow inmate. All her good deeds are ultimately self-serving. From the very first post-credits scene, Lady Vengeance is filled with religious references. Men and women in Santa outfits stand outside a jail, where Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) is about to be released from prison. One declares "they say she's a real live angel," while the group goes on to sing a gospel song.

"Mr. Vengeance" could be any of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance's three main characters, but Lady Vengeance can only be Geum-ja. "Sympathy" has been stripped from its American title, but the film's devoid of it anyway. In its own blood-splattered way, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was a humanist lament with no real villain (or hero); Lady Vengeance makes the mistake of thoroughly dehumanizing its villains. That doesn't let Geum-ja off the hook, but its treatment of "the witch," whom Geum-ja kills in prison, is particularly problematic. Unless I missed something, we've never told her real name. She's introduced in a shot that emphasizes her grotesquerie, as she spreads her legs in preparation for forced sexual favors. Geum-ja's slow-motion murder (a three-year poisoning via bleach in her food) of "the witch" is played largely for laughs. To put it bluntly, the film suggests that it's OK to kill her because she's a fat dyke. This is the first sign of a sadistic streak in Geum-ja that will later be taken more seriously, but here Park seems to raise no objections to it.

It's difficult to discuss Lady Vengeance seriously without giving away the ending, so readers who haven't seen it yet should stop here. Upon release from prison, Geum-ja plans to murder Baek. Gathering her ex-con friends, she kidnaps him from a restaurant and brings the parents of the many children he killed together. She shows them home videos of their children, made just after their kidnapping and shortly before their deaths. Not surprisingly, the families are emotionally devastated. She has reunited them to kill Baek, and while they discuss what should be done with him (in a parody of discourse around capital punishment), her desires are pretty clear. One by one, they enter the room where Baek is tied to a chair, armed with a weapon. Collectively, the group kills him.

This sequence is the riskiest part of Lady Vengeance. Somber in mood, it brings to the surface the nastiness underpinning Geum-ja's character. The film showed signs of it earlier — as when she shot a puppy at point-blank range, preparing to kill Baek. Dressed in black rubber, she looks like a dominatrix here. She moans orgasmically as she grabs Baek by the hair. Her decision to show the home videos is the most blatant instance of her manipulative tendencies: it's obvious that after watching their late children cry for their lives, their relatives' bloodlust will be inflamed. Perhaps she thinks there's something cathartic about it, but it sets the stage for an unsettling finale.

Lady Vengeance stacks the deck against Baek heavily, but the families' cruelty is still disturbing, especially when one man compares torturing him to using the toilet. (He thinks both should be done one-by-one, in private.) However, the film has gradually brought its darker undercurrents to the fore by this point. It expects us to be on the families' side but pushes that identification into the void. Advocates of capital punishment claim that it offers closure to victims' relatives; for a while, that seems to be both Geum-ja and Park's point as well, but the scenes following Baek's murder are telling. It's also crucial that most of the violence takes place offscreen; Park denies us the satisfaction of viewing it as spectacle.

During the group slaughter, the families somehow look both overcome with emotion and robotic, framed as small bodies on a regimented line and covered in plastic wrap that makes them look the same. More than one person collapses after leaving the room where Baek is being killed. After burying him, the group gathers again at the bakery. A cake is brought out, but the mood is hardly one of celebration. The silence is deafening. When a man walks in and says that it's snowing outside, the families race to leave the bakery. They clearly haven't achieved catharsis; judging from their faces, total blankness is more like it.

It's telling that Lady Vengeance takes the image of Geum-ja's face after shooting Baek and turns it into a shot of static on a blank TV screen. Even at this intimate juncture, she's as much a media creation as a real woman. However, the film makes one more major change in its final few minutes, entering fantasyland as the ghost of Won-mo (the boy Geum-ja helped kidnap) appears to Geum-ja. To its critics, this part of the film — which bluntly criticizes her actions — is pure hypocrisy. Sicinski writes: "I'm simply aghast that anyone could see Park's film as a critique of mob violence. Everything we've learned from how to read the cinema (and Park, like Tarantino, is clearly more of a movie brat than a freethinker) tells us the opposite." Indeed, the decision to have a narrator tell us that she used people and couldn't achieve redemption through violence plays like a PSA.

If Lady Vengeance didn't show the attractions of Geum-ja's scheme, the regret at its end wouldn't be nearly as moving or disturbing. Even so, it could be far stronger. The religious references aren't thoroughly thought out — although I'd like to see an American film that dares to blame religion for fueling its character's murderous notion of "redemption" — and the digs at the media are artless swipes. In fact, many of the first half's tonal swings are a confusing muddle. Park's direction tends to be overbearing and heavy-handed.

In some respects, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is so well done that it makes the remainder of Park's trilogy pointless. Its characters are victims of a moral climate where compassion is dead and everyone thinks the ends justify the means. However, their worst actions are rooted in understandable situations and emotions: economic desperation and the pain of seeing a loved one die. Its strengths become all the more apparent in light of the influence of Asian cinema — especially Takashi Miike's Audition — on truly reactionary American films like Eli Roth's Hostel or David Slade's Hard Candy, which doesn't even have the guts to take responsibility for its castration fantasies. When he is at his best, restoring pain to screen violence ranks high on Park's agenda. He leaves it up to us to provide the sympathy missing onscreen.

Steve Erickson
© FIPRESCI 2006

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issue #2 (7.2006)


Contents
Perpetual Rediscovery
bullet. Dovzhenko/Earth
bullet. Dovzhenko Exhibition
bullet. Madigan
bullet. Conte d'automne
Recent Cinema
bullet. The New World
bullet. Lady Vengeance
Man's Favorite Short
bullet. "The Civil War"
Criticism of Criticism
bullet. Import or Confront?