Saturday, December 5, 2009

Revenge: A Dish Served Cold and Well-Garnished

I take a somewhat guilty pleasure in revenge stories. I imagine the moviegoing public shares my fascination, else there would be far fewer filmed vendettas. The simplest revenge movies offer the audience opportunities for guilt-free sadism. At other times, the genre can be intellectual, ironic, and even funny. Today's movie is an odd beast – a marriage between a revenge film and an art film. I am happy to report that it does both genres justice.

The Korean director Chan-wook Park is most famous for his 2003 film Oldboy, which may or may not receive an American remake. Oldboy is in fact the second film in Park's "Vengeance Trilogy". Though the three films share themes, each has a unique plot and characters and can stand alone. I decided to watch Lady Vengeance (called Sympathy for Lady Vengeance in some markets), the final film in the trilogy and a critical favorite.

Lady Vengeance's basic premise is simple, but the film tells its story in a highly unconventional way. Words appear from the clouds; our viewpoint suddenly turns upside-down; a character's face shines with intentionally comic CGI light; people in pictures come to life; dreams blend into reality and past merges with present. The camerawork is surreal, funny, and somehow easy to follow. All too often, such elaborate cinematography goes hand-in-hand with poor storytelling. In Lady Vengeance, however,the film's mode harmonizes with the plot's motion.

The success of the classical revenge story depends on establishing a visceral connection with its audience. For Park, however, thrills are subsidiary to thought. His elaborate staging and cold classical soundtrack distance us from the action without distracting us; we are given room to ponder, analyze, and perhaps judge the characters and their actions. The film's aesthetic framework keeps us from ever fully identifying with anyone in it. I understand that there are in fact two versions of Lady Vengeance; the less popular of the two is even more artistically daring than the "normal" cut. The second version of the film begins in color, but eventually fades to black and white. I would have liked to have seen this take on the film, as several scenes – particularly the last - seem written for the purposes of this device.

Once again, I've managed to write several paragraphs on a film without once describing its plot. Lady Vengeance's eponym is Geum-ja Lee, a thirty-two year old woman recently from thirteen years' imprisonment for her murder of a five-year-old boy. Though Geum-ja confessed to the crime, she was in fact (mostly) innocent. In prison, Geum-ja spent much of her time formulating a plan for her vengeance against the true killer. Like so much else in this film, Geum-ja's wrath takes on a thoroughly unconventional form...

Young-ae Lee plays Geum-ja; her cool beauty and suppressed emotions carry the film. She's quiet, sad, and painfully aware of her sins. She's clearly a sort of monster, but she's nonetheless sympathetic. We don't expect her to take any lasting pleasure from her retribution, but we understand why she could never give it up. The other actors in the film are fine, but the movie would have failed without such a successful lead.

As much as I enjoyed and appreciated Lady Vengeance, the film is not without its problems. The movie spends a great deal of its time establishing the characters of Geum-ja's prison friends, yet most of them vanish from the second half of the film. A police detective collaborates in Geum-ja's highly-illegal revenge, but we never learn enough about him to understand why he behaves as he does. And though this is hardly a major failure, one vital character, though supposed to be a native English speaker, does not sound the part at all.

I was highly impressed with Lady Vengeance; whether or not I blog about them, I shall certainly watch the other two films in Park's trilogy. And perhaps Mr. Hollis-Lima would like to watch his vampire film, Thirst. I have no doubt it would wash the Twilight aftertaste right out of his mouth. Lady Vengeance is a fine fine film.

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