Friday, September 5, 2014

Review: Lady Vengeance (2005)

Lady Vengeance (Review)
Park Chan-wook/Lee Young-ae/2005
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...sympathy for who?"

Recently released after being wrongfully imprisoned, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) seeks vengeance from the man who betrayed her...

Lady Vengeance follows Geum-ja in a nonlinear story -- that is, the story is not told in chronological order. Geum-ja is released from prison after serving time for a child murder. Well, as it turns out, Geum-ja was an accomplice to the murder but school teacher Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik) was the actual killer. So, as we leap from past to present, Geum-ja concurrently plans and executes her master plan for vengeance. In prison, she makes friends with her fellow inmates, and when free, she uses them to execute her plan. The final act picks up the pace for a very strong climax and great ending.

Lady Vengeance, also known as Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, is the final installment in Park Chan-wook's thematic Vengeance trilogy. Unfortunately, I found it to be the most disappointing. First, the storytelling is often unnecessarily convoluted. There's one sequence where we start in the present with Geum-ja, move to another character who hasn't been introduced, then leap back to the past in prison, then back to the present. It doesn't take away from the story, but it is inefficient. It reminds me of the issue I had with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but this one is a bit more glaring.

Next, I feel like the film places style over substance. It feels like the film is so set out on making a badass lead character that it suspends logical and rationale. Geum-ja is mostly presented as heartless and manipulative, and can overcome impossible odds. There's a scene where she's attacked by two people, and somehow the characters are so incompetent, she can simply walk up to an inch away with her short range weapon and save herself and daughter. Her other actions and dialogue also scream "cool" but for what purpose? The style-over-substance is also evident during some plot points, so it's not solely a character issue.

This character issue, however, continues as it also conflicts with the themes, or at least the themes of the trilogy. You see, it's very difficult to feel sympathy for any character in the film. Geum-ja is heartless during most of her scenes, and she's also an accomplice to the murder to begin with. Mr. Baek is all-around a terrible person. So, sympathy for who? The only people I felt sympathy for were the family of the victims, and they play a minor role during the redeeming third act. It's not like the first two films where you can feel for the characters or where the vengeance makes a statement. It really feels like this skimped on the writing.

Looking back, I really tore into Lady Vengeance. But, not all is bad. I did, in fact, like the style -- it looks very slick and it does make for some epic, unforgettable moments. The story was also interesting and engaging enough to keep me hooked until the end. Also, although the vengeance lacks sufficient buildup and is not nearly as memorable or jaw-dropping as the first two films, it is very satisfying. I wish the film spent more time with the actual victims, so we can really feel, though. Otherwise, it's a standard revenge-thriller with a lot style.

The acting is great. Lee Young-ae is very versatile, it's almost like she's playing two different characters. Choi Min-sik shares little screen time, but he's perfect at playing the villain -- and I say villain rather than antagonist, because Min-sik makes his character pure evil. The film is beautifully shot. The classical music is the perfect fit for the style of the film and works well in helping the film build a distinct identity. The technical side of the film is superb, really. Park Chan-wook's direction is stylish and consistent; however, the writing feels weak -- the themes, the symbolism, the characters -- it all seems so forced and unnatural.

Overall, Lady Vengeance is a good revenge-thriller. The technical side of the film is great and the story is entertaining. However, It doesn't break any ground, its characters feel unnatural, and the themes miss their mark. Maybe if this wasn't part of the Vengeance trilogy I wouldn't have been so disappointed, but it is -- and I am. I love all of Park Chan-wook's work, but the strong focus on style makes it feel like the success went to his head, at least for this film.

Score: 6/10
Parental Guide: Strong violence and blood, sex and nudity.

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