So, one of the Christmas gifts I received was Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan Geumjassi), the final installment of Park's vengeance trilogy. After being drawn and enthralled with this film, I decided there was only one way to describe my feelings for it, by writing a review. Including a MASSIVE picspam in the end, for good measure.
This is a revenge film as the female lead, Geum-Ja, is released from her thirteen-year sentence in prison after confessing to the kidnapping and murder of a little boy when she was about nineteen-years-old. However the twist is this, she didn't commit the crime, but rather was forced to take the blame from the real killer after he threatened to ruthlessly murder her newborn daughter. So while doing her time behind bars, Geum-Ja forms a well-constructed plan to take revenge once being released. This includes befriending and gaining respect of her cellmates which provide much use later on after she is released from her sentence. Once she does, her plan slowly and carefully unravels, as she searches for revenge along with redemption.
Some compare this to Kill Bill; a story about a woman scorned and taking revenge on those who wronged her. Though there's a difference between the two, as the Bride seeks bloody revenge the Kind-Hearted Geum-Ja is more maternal, calm and collected while carefully planning hers; complete with a classical soundtrack to emphasis the innocence lost and pain the main character goes through, this film is more lighthearted than its predecessors (Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), but still doesn't stray on violence and uncomfortable scenes.
Impressions: Heartbreakingly Gorgeous
First upon viewing Sympathy for Lady Vengeance I wasn't only impressed, I was very enthralled and captivating with the storytelling and the direction. The cinematography is simply gorgeous, each scene structured in its own way, and even if it's confusing in the beginning it manages to draw you in simply by the magical atmosphere in this bleak world as this woman, known as "kind-hearted Geum-Ja", presents herself in a very real aspect.
The film goes back and forth, between the present and the past. Some revealing what Geum-Ja went through while others revealing the other prisoners' tales, which are quite relevant due to Geum-Ja friendship with them and how they play a major role in her getting her vengeance. The filming is wonderfully done, and I am amazed at how they managed to make Geum-Ja (played by Lee Young Ae) appear young and naive one moment, and older, wiser and slightly unnerving the next. Just from the change in appearance, plus the remarkable red-eyeshadow she sports throughout the whole movie after being released, it really adds to her overall character at how much she's changed, and the innocence she cannot get back even while trying to regain her purity by righting wrongs and making amends. Which is why I call this "heartbreakingly gorgeous", because it is. It's a tragic tale that, even though she does get her revenge and breaks from, she really isn't truly free because she's lost so much.
Best Served Cold, Revenge on a Silver Platter
One of the things that rather surprised me about this film in general is how well-crafted the revenge plan was. Unlike other revenge films where it's all about the main character taking back what's rightfully theirs without mercy, usually in a bloody massacre of sorts, Lady Vengeance deals with the theme of vengeance in a collected manner. It is carefully plotted out, and those who are waiting for blood-spillage and mayhem are going to be disappointed since there is none. Where other revenge films have the protagonists seek theirs in a raving rampage, killing whoever and whatever stood in their way, Geum-Ja has this pleasant and quiet persona to her that is not of rage. Instead, her plan was already taking effect thirteen years prior, around the time she was imprisoned.
That's right, for thirteen whole years Geum-Ja created her image as the "Kind-Hearted Geum-Ja". You'd think after all that time someone would go mad by playing that role, but not Geum-Ja because her determination had consumed her.
With this, she began making bonds and befriending her cellmates were all just her facade of gaining their respect and their trust so that once she'd gotten out they would help her when she needed them. She purposefully used these women as personal gain in order to get her revenge, and some realize this as they make contact again on the outside. Often saying to her that she's "changed" and "different". Although she has, they never really knew the real Geum-Ja since she'd been plotting since day one while serving her time. Kind-hearted she may have been, but behind that facade is a cold-hearted sinner which, in Lady Vengeance, is what the underlining message is. That everyone makes mistakes, and these mistakes is what makes us human, whether good or bad, and we have to suffer the consequences and make amends of these sins.
How does Geum-Ja get her revenge on the man that destroyed her life? She kidnaps him, of course. Ties him up, gags him, and tries to fulfill her fantasy of killing him with the perfectly-crafted gun. However she cannot do it at her first try, and finally decides to let the parents of the deceased children from over the years take matters into their own hands. This, to me, was a perfect way of resulting the perfect revenge; taking it to a personal level. This is something you do not see in many films, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well the outcome was. It's not uncommon to find a lone, broken protagonist taking out someone on a grudge, but to have a group of individuals band together to do this dirty deed? It's something very rare you see in films, and I was impressed at how well it turned out. Although in the end, while they've all gotten their revenge, Geum-Ja included, none of them are truly relieved or happy. They mourn the dead children over cake, and Geum-Ja tries to make amends with the ghost of the little boy she'd been accused of murdering all those years ago, only to be silenced as the little boy ghost turns into an adolescent boy ghost and turns away from her. She tries to make things right, and even when she does she doesn't feel completely whole, and that's the tragic part.
This is another message in the film, which explores the dark side of humanity, where even sometimes you can't scrub yourself clean from the sins you've committed. In a perfect world these families would be able to breathe freely knowing the real killer and offender is gone, however their consciences have been corrupted; their innocence lost, just like our protagonist. Geum-Ja says in the film that we all make mistakes, and essentially we are all sinners, and we have to make atonement for our sins, no matter how big or small they may be.
Kinship: The Mother-Daughter Bond That Wasn't
Unlike most stories where a mother is reunited with her daughter and all is right in the world, Geum-Ja's reunion with her teenage daughter, Jenny, is less than warming. Geum-Ja's daughter had been adopted by an Australian couple and only speaks English. Jenny doesn't warm up to Geum-Ja straight away, in fact she's less than thrilled and is unwelcoming at first, and throughout the film we see that Jenny doesn't have mutual feelings that Geum-Ja has for this reunion. Despite her wanting to return to Korea with her biological mother, Jenny feels like an outsider and doesn't fully understand the things her mother had done. In a letter, written in English so it has to be translated, Jenny confesses that she hated Geum-Ja for "dumping" her and had plans on taking revenge herself one day on the mother than didn't want her. Which is kind of the irony of this whole thing; the mother wants revenge for the daughter taken away from her, and the daughter wants revenge on the mother that abandoned her. Like mother, like daughter. Huh.
What I liked about this portrayal though is that not all reunions are warm and fuzzy. Because Geum-Ja had committed her sins in the past she's trying to make amends, especially to her daughter who doesn't understand Korean or the situation at hand. This is why I loved the confessional scene near the end, because Jenny wanted to give her real mother a second chance if only she'd give a good reason. And she did, and although Geum-Ja was going to return her to Australia with her adoptive parents, I think they did see eye-to-eye. Living white and pure, free from sin.
My Favorite Scenes and Bits
Since I loved the entire film it's impossible to just say the whole thing is marvelous, as there's many endless things I can talk about it, so I've decided to break it down to specific scenes which I felt were defining moments on why this film has me currently smitten with it. These are the main points which I thought "wow, this is MY kind of movie" while watching.
++ The Opening Title Sequence. I think the opening credits alone would have anyone captured, simply because it is so beautiful with the music, almost like a Mother Teresa setup with the white powder and the makeup, the tattooed thorns running up Geum-Ja's arm and the red-eyeshadow in the end. Don't believe me? Watch it for yourself.
++ The Soundtrack. Classical music never sounded so beautiful in a vengeance film, especially during maiming scenes. I have the soundtrack and the music is just magical, setting the tone for the story exactly. Particularly the theme, which is "Ah ch'infelice sempre" from Antonio Vivaldi's "Cessate, omai cessate", also fitting the theme to anyone who knows the meaning behind the actual song. It's hauntingly gorgeous, and fits perfectly. Perhaps I shall upload a few of my favorite tracks sometime in the future.
++ The Final Revenge Scene. I've read comments by others that final half of the film moved slower and was prolonged than it should've been, however I beg to differ. I felt this was a wonderful pace to go in, especially when Geum-Ja gathered all the parents inside the abandoned schoolroom and showed them Baek's snuff films of their murdered children. Henceforth forming the plan on taking revenge into their own hands. First of all, the videos of the children being killed weren't the only disturbing factor, although it wasn't graphic for us viewers, but rather it was heavily emotional to watch the parents' and family reactions of those deceased children. It added a lot more pain and emotion to the situation rather than a simple "kill the bastard" kind of deal. Also, them ganging up on Baek one-by-one was a marvelous setup; having every single one of them dressing in clear rubber suits, bringing their own personal weapons (knives, axes, scissors, etc.) -- to me this was a perfect way of ending the turmoil on a very emotional and personal level. It kind of reminded me on the novel I recently read last year, Out by Natsuo Kirino.
So for me, the pacing was exactly where it was meant to be. Because you can't rush through something like that. It has to be prolonged so the audience sees the reactions from the families, and the final deed being done to ensure that this man has paid his price and sees an eternity in Hell for them.
++ Geum-Ja. I pretty much have fallen in love with her from beginning to end. This was her story being told and, while she isn't quite happy, she has fulfilled that longing desire of revenge. She has her sins, as do we all, and you DO feel sympathy for her. The transformation her character goes through feels so real, even in such a surreal atmosphere it feels like she's really real because you connect with her. You want her to succeed in getting her revenge, you want to see her get her life back, even though it may seem like a lost cause after all she'd endured and experienced and gone through to get to that particular point. Also, plotting a revenge plan for thirteen fucking years? Now that's a headstrong woman. Geum-Ja is a marvelously tragic character, and I love her for it.
++ The Cinematography. There are so many things to comment about how everything was filmed, but the most goes to the direction of the film in general along with the usage of bright, vibrant colors in all the scenes.
++ Religion, Spirituality and Morality. One of the things I admired about Lady Vengeance was that it does question the ideas of religious beliefs and that people can change by discovering a religious calling. Although Geum-Ja pretty much plays and puts on a show to become the "kind-hearted Geum-Ja" by accepting religion in prison, I do believe that she knows and understands the concept of sin and that one has to make amends of those sins. This also sheds light to that nobody is a saint, nobody is perfect, and that everyone makes mistakes. But one has to be able to accept responsibility to those mistakes and even give something up for them. Another concept is morality, that sometimes you can take revenge into your own hands when you see fit. But you'll have to live with this decision and action for the rest of your life. Oh, and the tofu being symbolism of living in purity and without sin. I liked that, as well.
I also liked that Geum-Ja has been labeled "kind-hearted" despite her cold-hearted nature, and she's seen as being a saint to many people. The ironic thing is, she doesn't see herself as a saint, perhaps an avenging angel in a way, but certainly not a saint.
++ The prayer and dream sequence. In a particular scene, Geum-Ja is in her room while lighting two red candles, dressed in white, and praying until she falls sleeping, and while she dreams she fantasizes about killing Baek. But because this is a dream sequence, it is odd where Baek's head is attached to a small dog's body and is on a sled-like device as she drags him through the wintery-white snowy location, and kills him mercilessly. I felt this really gives a good look at her psyche, at how screwed up she has become since taken the fall for this man and now she wants revenge, and she wants it bad. Plus, she's smiling while she's dreaming, loving this little fantasy being played out.
++ Sacrificing Pinky scene. Gruesome scene, but Geum-Ja cuts off her pinky finger in front of the parents of the little boy she confessed to kidnapping and killing, as this was her way of offering her rependance and forgiveness from them. This also explains to the audience why Geum-Ja (in present time) remains having a cast over her pinky finger for nearly the entire film. I found this an interesting piece because this shows that Geum-Ja will resort to anything to have redemption, which is sweet but sad at the same time.
++ The Death of Mr. Baek. Of course I mentioned this in the "final revenge scene", but I do like how everything was well-constructed. How the parents and family members took turns mutilating the man until the quiet, emotionless grandmother just managed to stare at him, walk around and stab him directly in the neck with a pair of scissors belonging to her grandchild. Less messy, and rather poetic if you will.
Final Thoughts: As I've already stated before, I thoroughly enjoyed and loved this film. I think Sympathy for Lady Vengeance does Park's vengeance trilogy justice as it concludes on a bittersweet note. It is different from its predecessors (Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), and while I do recommend it to everyone I do want to make note that it is less intense than the previous. Those looking for random mayhem and bloody scenes will not find them here, however that doesn't mean this film isn't worthwhile. In fact the calm nature of the third installment is what makes it so appealing, in my opinion; also the storytelling is much more captivating than action sequences. Of course because the vengeance films are basically stand-alones, anyone who doesn't like really bloody/gorey kinds of films may want to test the water with this one. There are a few scenes which are uncomfortable and strange, but overall it's a terrific movie that I highly recommend.
*phew* That took quite a while to write up. Good thing the power was out so I could revise everything and finish up the picspam. I know most haven't seen or possibly even heard of the film, but I felt better after writing up this review because it just captivated me so. And this is a way to get my reviewing skills back into motion because of fandom show review withdrawals I'm having.
That said, I write reviews simply to write reviews, but if someone somewhere out there is interested in checking out these movies/shows I that my writeups are about, then that's an added bonus of accomplishment.