Revealing Revenge

'Lady Vengeance' is fantastic for 42 minutes--and then it gets dicey in more ways than one

Lady Vengeance, the latest from Korean artsploitation filmmaker Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), is a three-act film that progresses as follows:

Act I: In an interesting series of compositions, Park and cinematographer Jeong-hun Jeong hint at the backstory of a mysterious woman who has been imprisoned for kidnapping.

Act II: In four sentences, the woman explains the entire backstory that the first 42 minutes of the film danced around.

Act III: Horrible, horrible, horrible things happen to a bad man.

This is an interesting way to lay out a story. I guess by "interesting," I mean "terrible," but still.

The opening act is really pretty good. I watched it with a stoner friend, and he said he was too stoned to have any idea what was going on. I consider that the sign of quality filmmaking. Mostly, what Park and Jeong do in Act I is cut back and forth between scenes in a prison--where a woman named Geum-ja (Yeong-ae Lee) has been sentenced for the kidnapping and murder of a young boy--and scenes that occur after she's been released, while she's up to something mysterious.

It's at least clear that she's assembling a super-team of ex-cons to help her with "the plan." This would be very standard stuff if it weren't for Park's inventive directing. Every shot is either a beautifully composed still-life or a beautifully composed tableau-vivant or a perfectly executed tracking shot which just happens to be beautifully composed.

There's a particular Korean way of arranging items and images in a shot. It's clean and precise, and every element seems to have been thoughtfully placed for visual balance and color. Park does an amazing job of it here, and he neatly combines sound, scene and camera movement to produce one of the most integrated aesthetics I've seen. He probably does this at the expense of narrative clarity, as my stoner friend noted, but in a sober state, I found following the story challenging and fun.

And I think your average pothead would get a thrill out of scenes like the opening sequence, when a chorus of Santa Clauses drop cups of coffee, or when a dog with a man's head is tied to a sled and executed in a wintry landscape, or when a cake is frosted. Dude. Manheaddogcakefrosting.

All of this is completely engaging and mysterious for 42 minutes. Lots of questions are raised: Who is this woman? What's the plan? Was she really guilty of murder and kidnapping? Hints are sprinkled about, creating a neat little puzzle.

Then, in an odd loss of confidence, Park has her explain the whole plot of the film in four sentences. I have no idea why he did that. It's like he just got tired of the arty opening sequence and decided to get on with it and turn his movie into an American exploitation film.

After this, the film becomes incredibly unpleasant. Originally, Lady Vengeance was titled Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, but I'm glad they retitled it, because I, for one, had no sympathy for her after what she did in Act III.

Although maybe that's the point. There's a common thread in American cinema that if someone does anything bad, like killing a child or beating a wife or criminally violating communications law by jamming phone lines during an election, that person can justifiably be brutally killed and tortured--thus, Clint Eastwood's career and the revenge film as a genre.

But I don't really need to go to the movies to see torture. I mean, my own government does that for me now. There's no point in having cinematic fantasies about it once it's officially sanctioned policy.

I also wonder if Park didn't make his violent sequences particularly grotesque and unsympathetic on purpose, as a way to challenge the revenge aesthetic that so commonly occurs in action films. Or maybe I'm just not tuned in to that aesthetic, and while I find it disgusting, the great mass of movie viewers want more and more disgusting versions of it. I don't have the scientific polling equipment to know that answer to that. But:

If you really like revenge, you'll love Act III. If you like inventive cinema, and you want to see CGI used in a subtle way and for strong artistic effect, you'll love Act I. And if you just want the entire film handed to you such that you know not only exactly what went before, but exactly what is to come, then the powerfully concise Act II is for you.

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