Never pretending to be even remotely benign, Chan-wook Park’s leading lady, Lee Geum-Ja, introduces herself by snapping, “Why don’t you go screw yourself?” and you can’t help but crack a smile. Yet her quip isn’t entirely wanton, as she is surrounded by a caroling gang of young women swathed in Santa attire referring to her as “a real live angel.” Until she tells them to screw off, that is.
A frequently shocking but still beautiful film, “Lady Vengeance” manages to consistently intrigue without ever fully explaining itself. The cinematography that haunts much of the film is striking to watch, and the images presented on screen can be disturbing and often eerily real. They manage to mesmerize you, and sometimes scare the hell out of you, even when you have no idea what’s really going on.
“Lady Vengeance” is the third film in the Revenge Trilogy from director Chan-wook Park. It follows the beautiful Lee Geum-Ja (Yeong-ae Lee) as she is released from prison and begins to hunt down the man that is responsible for her 13-year lock up. A confessed kidnapper and murderer, she is the model of redemption in prison, often praying and kindly helping her numerous cellmates.
Yet there is a duality of kindness and malice in Geum-Ja’s character that is frustratingly present throughout the movie, never allowing one to truly sympathize with or condemn her. At one point an old cellmate confronts Geum-Ja after they’re released from prison, asking her “What’s with the blood-red eye shadow?” Her response — “People are always saying I look kind-hearted” — is reflective of the nature of the film, in which Geum-Ja’s character is fluid, never really her true nature.
She receives the nickname “kind-hearted Geum-Ja” while in prison, but even prior to her release, she begins to act distinctly cold toward the cellmates she once seemed to adore. One fascinating scene in the film depicts her, while still in prison, feeding bleach-laced food to the bully of her cell. As the woman begins to gag, Geum-Ja soothes her (“You really are kind-hearted,” the dying cellmate whispers). Despite a moment of hesitation, Geum-Ja then watches in pleasure as a final spoonful causes the collapse of the poisoned cellmate. But does killing a thug, even for all the right reasons, actually make Geum-Ja an angel?
The captivating cinematography of “Lady Vengeance” provides for many spellbinding scenes. The film begins with a gorgeous sequence of opening credits, in which a simple scene composed of pure white and light gray is eventually overtaken by an ink-blot invasion of bright red. A parallel image is created later in the film, when a daydreaming Geum-Ja takes a dog, with the head of a man, out into a snow-powdered world, surrounded with mountains and cliffs of white, only to put a bullet in the hybrid creature’s head and splatter the faultless ground with searing red blood.
Violent scenes, frequent throughout the movie, are portrayed not as gore but as a kind of visceral art. The images depicted are eye-catching, with contrasting colors and a lucidity that cannot be ignored. Even the violent ending of the film, while unsettling, manages to be strangely calm and purposeful. It never seems as if the violence is merely for shock value, because it appears as a vital element of the tale being told.
While confusing, the binary nature of Geum-Ja’s character, and of the film itself, is captivating and realistic. Her desire for revenge is compelling (think Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill”), as is her benevolent nature. As she states early in the film, “This angel inside of me only comes out when I invoke it.” And unfortunately, as this film completes a trilogy, vengeance has been served; and all that we’re left with is another budget a cappella group — The Sinful Santas.