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Lady Vengeance and deceptive appearances

Posted at 10:57 AM on June 30, 2006 by Euan Kerr

Few things are as they seem in Park Chan-Wook's "Lady Vengeance," even from the opening credits.

As delicate animated filigree wraps around the pale shape of the lady in question, it's unclear whether we are witnessing a beautiful decoration or a painful entanglement. The question seems to be answered when a serrated knife appears, and begins dripping blood.

Or does it?

"Lady Vengeance" tells the story of Geum-ja Lee (Lee Yeong-ae,) a woman convicted of kidnapping and murdering a little boy. The horrifying crime seems all the worse because she is known as being a kind-hearted person. (The literal translation of the Korean title is "Kind-Hearted Ms. Geum-Ja.")

Yet it soon becomes clear that there is something very cold and steely in that kind heart and while in prison, even as she nurses sick cellmates (and even donates a kidney to one) she demonstrates she is capable of scheming brutality.

On leaving prison she begins putting "the plan" into action, to extract vengeance on the person really guilty for the murder that put her behind bars. She is seeking revenge, but it seems she is also seeking absolution and redemption too.

This is an elegant film in many ways, but there are times when it is literally awash in blood. Park is not for the faint of heart. ( The Maven described "Oldboy" as one of the most horrifying films she has ever seen.)

Park Chan-Wook is reportedly a charming fellow, but he makes violent movies that turn your head and stomach around. They can sit in the back of your mind and jump out weeks and months later.

"Lady Vengeance" is the final installment in Park's "Vengeance" trilogy (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance" and "Oldboy" being the first two.) While some claim Park's films glorify extracting bloody retribution, he says they really show the futility of vengeance, and demonstrate how it can hurt everyone involved.

Yet it goes so much deeper than that. Park's genius lies in the way he builds audience empathy for his anti-heroes. There is a point in "Lady Vengeance" where a group of people are faced with a horrible dilemma, which challenges their individual morality to breaking point.

It's hard to escape their misery, or to avoid wondering what you might decide if faced with the same choices. Luckily you probably won't have to make those decisions.

Although Park Chan-Wook doesn't want you to be so sure.

June 2006
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