Feb 25, 2011

Lady Vengeance


The final film in Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy; Lady Vengeance is a stifling femme fatale hiccup in Chan-wook's otherwise remarkable career. The trilogy began quietly with the poetic Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. The trilogy then took a sharp turn with the uproarious Oldboy. With word of Chan-wook developing a contemporary noir epic, the word excitement can only construe so much. Having watched Lady Vengeance around 4-5 years ago with a roommate, my initial sentiments were most crude. Lady Vengeance had what it took to bore an impressionable foreign fanatic beyond the realms of the unreal. Said roommate swore that it needed an additional viewing to fully set in the effects and thanks to Suncoast's 40% off all new DVDs sale, this wish of his became a reality. Before I had set out to rewatch Lady Vengeance I tried earnestly to remember details from the film. All I had drawn was blanks except for the final lengthened scene of familial justice. Here, deep within my blank memory banks, exists evidence of the wretchedness of Lady Vengeance. The introverted background of the character Geum-ja is so fatally flawed that it kills not only sympathy for the character but even her realized "white" form, as highlighted by Park Chan-wook's Fade to Black and White edition of the film. Now I fully understand why the title was trimmed from Sympathy for Lady Vengeance to the simplified Lady Vengeance. There isn't a shred of decency in this film, not for Geum-ja and certainly not her irrational, horrendous daughter. 

Lady Vengeance follows a woman named Geum-ja fresh off a 13 year stint in a women's prison for a crime she didn't commit. For 13 years, Geum-ja sat in the corner of her strange cell with many other women, watching as her cell-mates were sexually assaulted by a grotesque troll of a woman portrayed by Go Su-hee. This time was bid terribly as Geum-ja concocted her master plan boasting one step, a simple "kill Mr. Baek". Upon release, Geum-ja lingers about, visiting former cell-mates who are mostly connected as being a victim of sexual assault to Go Su-hee. Since Geum-ja since poisoned her for three years with bleach, a certain kind-hearted notoriety surrounded her. The film basically boils down to repeated instances of Geum-ja "winging it". Her plan is nil, the fruit of her preparation is an aesthetically pleasing N.Korean firearm, and the story is as convoluted as possible. If my short, fractured summary seemed at all confusing, turn back now as the narrative digresses much more than my seemingly-ramble dictated. This intricate pattern of feminine clockwork makes an interesting attempt at painting a mural of sinners but Park Chan-wook's ideal masculinity behind the camera smudges the intended effect. Despite suffering effects similar to what cancer can do to the nervous system, the shell of Lady Vengeance is what one would expect coming from the international sensation that brought us Oldboy and J.S.A. It is a technically efficient film that includes several examples of surrealism and symbolism, the former being more worthy of screen-time than the latter. The argument of the intended symbolism during the final scene springs to mind. A scene in which defies filmmaking logic as we witness smoke billowing out of a room and Chan-wook musters the gumption of ambiguity and calls "symbolism." Obviously hinting towards a house fire, the finale wraps up with Geum-ja reuniting with her daughter in the alleyway outside of her house. For those who need the dots connected, when I see smoke and two parents blissfully asleep, only to switch setting to a girl barefoot in thick snow outside her house, a fire is the only thing that explains the events that have just transpired.

This clever ruse that Lady Vengeance is ignorantly putting forth on display attempts to instill a sense of righteousness into vengeance. Simpler means of vengeance, including all of the Death Wish films, did it far simpler and to much more effect. Another terrible condition plaguing Lady Vengeance is an atrocious script. I found myself in severe agony during the translation scene in which Geum-ja uttered the word "atonement" over and over, dizzying my already stewed hatred for every character in this film. It was bad enough that Geum-ja was raping repetition but to have Choi Min-Sik repeat it over her words created a cinematic likeness to a 16 car pileup. The first half of the film scrambles to juxtapose flashbacks with present day character vignettes, ultimately creating a beast of cinema whose scruffy exterior could be comically reported as suffering from "bed-head". I understand Chan-wook's decision to include these scenes cause if executed correctly, could conjure a means of clarity. Since I am writing negatively about this aspect, you can presume that it failed against its own advantage. The collective of post-dyke characters that Geum-ja meets all represent deus ex machina in the sense that their existence is only to bring together a plan that is never seen to fruition. Geum-ja scraps the plan once she finds herself unable to kill again. Atonement for her sins? "Bad atonement...good atonement"? "Big atonement...small atonement"? You get the picture.

By the end of the film many glaring inconsistencies are made aware. Perhaps if Chan-wook's master plan was, in fact, to encapsulate a human interaction with trial and error then Lady Vengeance might have came out as another scorned girl-with-a-gun picture. Sadly, this wasn't the case the largest smear on Chan-wook's near perfect track record is born. With my prior exposure to Lady Vengeance being sour and my now current revisit to the arthouse director's choice in the Fade to Black and White version, I feel as if a terrible scab has been reopened. My body has since began detoxing itself slowly, making haste to scrape the remains of the radical feminization that Lady Vengeance planted. While the whole film is not to blame and the final scene involving Mr. Baek's punishment became quite rousing, it was not enough to save this picture from being such a flop of whimpering proportions. Lady Vengeance is a textbook example of what not to do when gifted with artistic freedom. This coming from a director who has always employed such demoralizing projects in masculinity (Not including I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK). Geum-ja is a vile woman, of whorish intent and inane means to reach her goals. If she even had any. Her frequent abuse of cinematic angst and shock value overloads the screen. No matter how many times she wears leather or eyeshadow or even how often they mention either the intended effect will never rub off on me. In short, Lady Vengeance was D.O.A.



The Angry Lurker said...

It's been a long time since I've seen this movie and I thought it was just OK.


Got to agree with you here. I'm a huge fan of most of Park's other films, but this one was the only one I wasn't impressed with. Don't remember hating it, but don't remember too much else about it either.

Anonymous said...

A total masterpiece, as good as the other two.