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Lady Vengeance
cast: Yeong-ae Lee, Choi Min-sik, Kem Si-hu, and Kwon Yea-young

director: Park Chan-wook

115 minutes (18) 2005
widescreen ratio 2.55:1
Tartan Asia Extreme DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Lady Vengeance (or 'Sympathy For Lady Vengeance', as it is known in some circles) is the third in a trilogy of films dealing with retribution that started with the under-appreciated Sympathy For Mr Vengeance and continued with Park's breakthrough hit Oldboy. Lady Vengeance, while different to the two previous films in the series, also seems to be a reaction to them as Park seeks to combine the low-key realism and emotional rawness of the first film with the more gothic set-up and straightforward plotting of Oldboy.

Lady Vengeance is the story of Geum-Ja Lee. Thrown out of her family home at age 19, when she discovers that she is pregnant and, unwisely choosing to turn to an old teacher for shelter, Geum-Ja quickly finds herself convicted for the kidnapping and murder of a young boy. During her 13 years in prison, Geum-Ja carefully cultivates an image as a Christian do-gooder and uses it to recruit a group of friends that she knows will be of use once she is on the outside. Upon her release, Geum-Ja sets about tracking down and killing the people responsible for her incarceration. However, it is only when she meets up with the daughter she was forced to give up for adoption that she realises that revenge is not a simple act of premeditated violence but an emotional maelstrom that involves whole families.

Similarly to Oldboy, Lady Vengeance places huge responsibilities on its lead actor and this strategy continues to pay dividends for Park. Cold, enigmatic and at times terrifying, Yeong-ae Lee is breathtaking as the incredibly complex and conflicted Geum-Ja. Indeed, the complexity of the central character has lead to the film dividing opinion among critics.

At the heart of the controversy is Park's directorial style. Moving beyond the naturalism of the first film and the formalised cool and violence of Oldboy, Park fills Lady Vengeance with flashbacks, whimsy, dreams and camera trickery that make it look as if he is trying to hide something. Indeed, throughout the film Geum-Ja remains a strangely protean creation.

Geum-Ja's exact role in the initial child murder is never made clear. The film begins with her seemingly accepting her role in the kidnapping and murder of the child, but by the time the film ends, the implication is that she is completely innocent and made to carry to blame for another person. When you add this murkiness to Geum-Ja's repeated changes of character and behaviour, you are left with a character as involving as she is difficult to understand.

However, to argue that this lack of clarity is evidence of wooliness or an attempt at obfuscation on Park's part is to ignore the level of detail that goes into his films as well as his background as a philosophy student. Far from being poorly drawn, Geum-Ja's changing face and backstory are symbolic of the changing and complex nature of vengeance itself. Indeed, just as Sympathy For Mr Vengeance was naturalistic, Lady Vengeance is metaphorical with Geum-Ja playing the part of Lady Vengeance by reflecting the changing nature of vengeance itself.

An intelligent and complex film, Lady Vengeance is nonetheless full of the kind of humour, emotion and violence that fuel the west's continuing fascination with Asian cinema. While this film might lack the accessibility and cool that made Oldboy such a success, it is nonetheless a minor triumph. Heartily recommended.
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