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  Sympathy for Lady Vengance  

(left) Lee Young-Ae, and (right) Lee and Choi Min-Sik in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.
  Korean: 친절한 금자씨
Year: 2005  
Director: Park Chan-Wook  
Cast: Lee Young-Ae, Choi Min-Sik, Kim Si-Hu, Nam Il-Woo, Lee Seung-Shin, Kim Boo-Seon, Ra Mi-Ran, Kim Byeong-Ok, Go Su-Hee, Oh Dal-Su, Seo Yeong-Ju, Song Kang-Ho, Shin Ha-Kyun, Kang Hye-Jung, Yoo Ji-Tae  
The Skinny: The highly-anticipated third feature in Park Chan-Wook's "Revenge Trilogy" proves worth the wait - mostly. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is involving and blackly funny, but during its final quarter, the film loses sight of its main character, and ultimately wheezes to its finish. Still, fans of Park Chan-Wook should go home happy, and the ride is more than worth it.  
by Kozo:

Is there an Asian director with a bigger upside than Park Chan-Wook? Probably not. Oldboy announced Park's international reputation as a filmmaker to be reckoned with, and his followup film, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, seems to confirm it. The third film in Park's vaunted "Revenge Trilogy" (after Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy), Lady Vengeance is brilliantly told, blackly funny, and well worth checking out. This recommendation comes despite the film's final quarter, which is entertaining and involving, but seems to steer the film off course. The film switches gears, changing focus from one character to many, and ultimately limps to its subdued, though poignant ending. It's all good though; Lady Vengeance may not be perfect, but it's still got plenty going for it.

Lee Young-Ae (Joint Security Area) is Lee Geum-Ja, a thirty-two year-old woman who's just getting released from prison. Her crime: the kidnapping and murder of a young boy some thirteen years ago. The result: all those years in prison, and the notoriety that comes with becoming a murderer at the age of nineteen. But her rep encompasses more than just a terrible crime. In prison, Geum-Ja became a legendary figure, renowned for her kindness and near-angelic demeanor. She became devoutly religious, and proceeded to win the hearts and loyalties of her fellow prisoners. But that's all in the past. Upon release, Geum-Ja does a 180 on her rep, and appears to go bad. She dumps her unassuming dresses for black leather and blood-red eye shadow, and proceeds to stomp around Seoul with a particularly grouchy expression on her face. Clearly, this is a woman with something on her mind.

That thing: revenge. Geum-Ja is out to get someone, and while the object of her fury is no secret - it's Mr. Baek, a school teacher played by Oldboy's Choi Min-Sik - the exact reasons for her actions are a bit fuzzier. When we first meet Geum-Ja, she appears to be a born-again Christian looking to find redemption after her terrible crime and years of imprisonment. And she certainly does seek redemption, even going as far as to slice her own finger off in front of her young victim's parents. But there's more going on in Geum-Ja. She's portrayed as both kind and giving, yet cold and calculating. She admits to her sins like someone looking for true atonement, and yet at the same time, she's planning bloody vengeance against someone who wronged her. Which is the real Geum-Ja, and if one is real, why does the other even exist?

Park Chan-Wook finds his reasons, and they're convincing ones. Using the omnipresent flashbacks and a showy, deliciously black comic tone, Park creates a complex portrait of a woman trying to perhaps be someone she's not. Geum-Ja is an enigmatic, but ultimately sympathetic figure, and Lee Young-Ae gets the part mostly right. Her angelic moments aren't much of a stretch (she played a truly angelic figure in the hit TV drama Dae Jang Geum), and when Geum-Ja tries to get tough, one can almost see Lee Young-Ae straining alongside Geum-Ja. The effect is fitting, as Geum-Ja tries to be both tender and tough, and the dichotomy clearly does not make her comfortable. As Geum-Ja steels herself for her final vengeance, Lee seems to be trying to convince both the audience and herself that she will do the deed. Mr. Baek surely deserves it. The character is portrayed as an unrepentant monster whose only humanity is that he's played by the versatile Choi Min-Sik. When the two finally meet gun-to-face, the dramatic payoff looks to be huge.

But it isn't. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance instead veers sharply off course, changing the "Lady Vengeance" to "Support Group Vengeance." Many more people show up wanting a piece of Mr. Baek, and while the scenes are engrossing and incredibly funny, they also serve to derail the picture from its primary focus. Up until the final quarter, the focus is all on Geum-Ja and the complexities of her vengeance. Every action Geum-Ja takes is predicated on addressing her thirteen years in the joint, from seeking out Mr. Baek to checking in on her long-lost daughter, now living Korean language-free with an Australian couple. The details paint a deeper, richer portrait of Geum-Ja than is probably necessary, because when the film reaches its climax, Geum-Ja seems absent. Vengeance is attained, and Geum-Ja is right there for the dirty deed, but the character and Lee Young-Ae seem to be more witnesses than participants. Maybe it's Lee Young-Ae's reticence - or maybe the Dae Jang Geum media overload - that prevents her from seeming right in the thick of things. When the final quarter rolls around, both Geum-Ja and the film seem to get lost, which is why the film's protracted poignancy feels as unsatisfying as it is appropriate.

Park does err somewhat with Lady Vengeance, as it's far more self-aware than his previous works. Aside from the occasional nod to previous films (like the English-language title of Lady Vengeance) or Lee Young-Ae's other work (Dae Jang Geum again), actors from Park's previous films show up in much-ballyhooed cameos. The effect is both delightful and needless, as it serves more of a "spot the star" function than anything else. Also, unlike Park's previous films, it's not the actions and their consequences that carry the film, but the character's internal journey. That's where the film falters, because neither the narrative nor Lee Young-Ae are able to follow through. Geum-Ja's character arc falls by the wayside, and the result is that something seems missing from the film.

Still, Lady Vengeance has loftier ambitions than its predecessors, meaning if Park falls short, it's somewhat understandable. Also, some might be pissed at Sympathy for Lady Vengeance because it's not as tough or uncompromising as its predecessors. That quibble is an unfair one, as Park Chan-Wook shouldn't be required to repeat Oldboy ad nauseum - even if fanboys worldwide are clamoring for more of that film's twisted thrills. Indeed, fanboys should still be happy with Lady Vengeance, as it reveals once more that Park is an assured, intelligent filmmaker whose every work should be anticipated. Revenge is about more than the act; it encompasses personal will and spiritual contrition, and in making Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Park seems determined to address this. He doesn't totally succeed, but his effort is exhilirating, entertaining, and more than enough. (Kozo 2005)

Availability: DVD (Korea)
Region 3 NTSC
CJ Entertainment
2-DVD Set
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Korean Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English subtitles
Various Extras
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
images courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen