June 25, 2011

Lady Vengeance: And the Lord Sent Down an Angel of Justice

I've often said that Oldboy, that perverted whodunit, is my favorite Park Chan-wook film, and sometimes my favorite Korean film period, but after re-watching Lady Vengeance, I'm not so sure. Park's final entry in his vengeance trilogy — the first being Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance; the second, Oldboy — is definitely a masterpiece in its own right, too. A mystery within a mystery within a mystery, Lady Vengeance begins as a revenge fantasy of which we know neither the crime nor the perpetrator, segues into a well-orchestrated murder plotted out at a women's prison where grrl-power informs a secret society, then returns to its original crime only to reflect it in a fractured mirror. One child's death unveils many; one woman's pursuit of retribution from a serial killer is set aside for a form of mob justice.

At the center of it all is Geum-ja (Lee Yeoung-ae), a conniving ex-convict wrongfully imprisoned for kidnapping and killing a little boy; a guilt-ridden woman willing to chop off her finger as penance for the crime she abetted; a sorrowful mom out to reunite with daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young) who she gave up for adoption to Australians long ago; and a guilt-free Cougar having an affair with the inexperienced teenager (Kim Shi-hoo) who works with her at the local bakery. If that sounds like a lot for one character, one actor, don't worry, Lee is totally up to the task of playing one of the more complex characters in Park's ouevre with a surprisingly light touch.

By turns haunted, crafty, bewildered, tender, and enraged, Lee underplays what another actress would overact in the hopes of taking home an acting trophy. There's no prolonged scream of rage or cry of horror from Lee. Instead, she conveys everything with a cool detachment. There's a great scene late in the movie, right after the central revenge has finally come to fruition, where the camera catches Lee smiling in a way that literally bridges grief and happiness. Unlike most performers who'd segue from laughter to tears as two kindred extremes, Lee rides the middle ground, with a quivering smile that hovers between sadness and joy for so long that you'll start thinking Mona Lisa's smile isn't so complicated. Park's touch is similarly light and ambivalent. Keeping the violence largely off camera, Lady Vengeance ends up extreme in one sense only: extremely delightful.

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