Award-winning director Park Chan-wook
's latest film "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" (Chinjeolhan Geum-jassi) seems unusual in many ways.
For one, his trademark outpourings of violence have been replaced by smiles and kindness. The plot is also predictable, and there is no last-minute twist like the shocking and memorable ending of his previous hit "Oldboy".
But the seemingly innocent facade of the movie, to be released nationwide on July 29, is as beguiling as Geum-ja, the main character played by Lee Young-ae
, one of Korea's top actresses.
This last installment of Park's "Vengeance Trilogy" - the first was "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance", the second "Old Boy - attempts to turn upside down the presumptions about life, value and judgment. Whether such a lofty aim works depends partly on whether the viewer is a fan of director Park, one of the most-admired cinema stylists in Korea. If not, the movie might come off as too bland - or even boring.
Although the English title is made to fit with the image of the Vengeance Trilogy, the film's Korean title, if literally translated, means "Kind Lady Geum-ja". And the word "kind" is highly ironic and holds the key to unlocking the riddle posed by "not-so-kind" director Park.
Geum-ja has served 13 years in prison for kidnapping and killing a child. The heinous crime was committed when she was just 20. The public was shocked, first at the brutality of her method, and second at her stifling beauty. The duality of Geum-ja, inevitably, throws out the crucial question for both the fictional public in 1991 and the real audiences in 2005, "Is Geum-ja an angel, or a devil in disguise?"
Geum-ja, who is extremely kind to every prison mate, is determined for revenge on Mr. Baek, an English teacher played by Choi Min-sik
, known for his impressive role in "Old Boy".
In "Old Boy", Choi's character seeks revenge against a mysterious person who imprisons him for no apparent reason. This time, Choi's character is largely on the defensive. Although Geum-ja looks extremely fragile and feminine, her resolve to have Mr. Baek punished is as firm as any other revenge-obsessed character in the trilogy.
The theme itself is serious enough. But director Park's playfulness makes it difficult to focus on the grave issue involving what revenge really means for sinful human beings. For instance, Geum-ja makes a comment unsuitable for an impeccable beauty, which is both funny and confusing. There is even a scene in which a narrator, who makes ironic comments throughout the movie, claims there is a "callous director" who attempts to make a movie out of the brutal kidnap-and-murder incident related to Geum-ja, obviously cracking a joke about Park himself.
But the film swings back on to the original track whenever Geum-ja inches toward her goal, step by step, utilizing all the resources and the network she has earned in return for being ostensibly kind to other struggling inmates.
As expected, she is totally innocent of the charges of kidnapping and murder of a little boy, who might have grown to be an old boy resembling exactly one of the main characters shown in "Old Boy". But her revenge scheme, brewing for 13 years, puts a spin on the innocent-or-guilty formula.
There is no question about Mr. Baek's sinfulness. His crimes stem from his mercilessly money-oriented desire, and his talent in playing the hypocrite is up to the standard of a true "bad boy".
The troubling issue is that Mr. Baek's wayward behavior often reflects his twisted mind-set, which views other human beings as mere tools to use to achieve his goal. When it comes to using and abusing other people for personal reasons, the innocent-looking Geum-ja is as guilty as Mr. Baek.
Interestingly, Geum-ja is portrayed as extremely callous once she is outside the prison. Everybody who knows her is surprised at her sudden cold attitude, devoid of any sympathy for other people. Do the audiences have to have some sympathy for this too-kind-to-get-real-atonement lady?
For those who are familiar with director Park's cinematic language and tricks, such a question does not matter much. "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" is full of sophisticated visuals and cinematic devices. In addition, much black humor and scenes are interspersed throughout the movie, allowing the audience to enjoy the film in a leisurely fashion.
But there is an unkind trade-off. The movie's departure from violence-driven storytelling makes it unique in the trilogy, but the story loses steam whenever major developments go in a predictable way.
"Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" is sure to evoke either sympathy or empathy among those in the audience who manage to get the intriguing question about the questionable good-and-evil classification. But for those who get swept away by actress Lee's admirable acting and her indisputable beauty may be disappointed by the predictable storytelling.
That's not kind at all, but that's a real and final vengeance dispensed by the wickedly kind director.
By Yang Sung-jin