Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Written: Jeong Seo-gyeong, Park Chan-wook
Country: South Korea
As the conclusion to “The Vengeance Trilogy,” “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” is the one that most approves of revenge. Similar to “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” it strikes a very sensitive cord – little children – and takes it to another level. While in “Mr. Vengeance” it was absurd mistakes that led to brutality, “Lady Vengeance” presents us with an irredeemable character, a serial child killer, who has no regrets for his sins.
The opening of the movie shows Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae) coming out of prison after thirteen and a half years. She is greeted by an excited catholic priest with a choir of singers dressed as Santas. He presents her with a white tofu cake.
It’s traditional to eat tofu on release, so that you’ll live white and never sin again, he explains.
To his surprise, she flips over the plate and tells him to screw himself. Lady Vengeance has a plan, and she sets out to fulfill it. The story is told with a lot of flashbacks, going back and forth; therefore I will present it in more linear way. (spoilers) Geum-ja was imprisoned for kidnapping and murdering a young schoolboy, Won-mo. We can see some inconsistencies in her confession, and the detective on the case also does not believe it. Indeed, we get to know that she was not the only one in the story. A schoolteacher, Mr. Baek, actually organized the crime and did the killing, dragging Geum-ja into it. He then forces her to take the blame, holding Geum-ja’s daughter as a hostage. She went to prison, where she became known as “Kind-hearted Geum-ja,” treating everyone with utmost Christian dedication and selflessness. As we get to see in the opening scene, this was all an act, a part of her vengeance scheme. After coming out of prison, she changes her hairstyle, clothing, walks with high heels and puts on red eye shadow, – transforming herself into a femme fatale.
When she gets out, her plan has already been started through other women prisoners who had been released before her. She goes to Won-mo’s parents, and cuts her finger off as a sign of atonement. She finds her daughter in the home of an Australian couple, and comes back with her. She finds Mr. Baek, and is prepared to execute him. At this point, however, she finds out something even more horrific – Won-mo was not the only child that Baek has murdered. There were many of them. To add to her regret – if she had not been convicted and imprisoned instead of Baek, this might have been prevented. The revenge now belongs not only to her, so she contacts the old case detective and all the parents of the kids. She suggests two options – they can give Baek to the law, or they can invoke the Lynch law, and take turns destroying the beast. Their fear of reprisal is conquered by their pain, hatred and desire for getting justice, so lynch law is chosen. The parents, all from wealthy backgrounds, get their weapons of choice and one by one go in for Baek. This continues until the grandmother of one child ends the bloodshed by sticking small childish scissors into his neck. The whole process, as is typical for the director in this trilogy, is shown with its own share of absurdity and even black comedy. After the event they take a group photo and eat a cake, a symbol of a new start, a “birthday.” Though nothing can really compensate for the loss of a child, there is some part of them that is satisfied, something in the act of revenge that can let them move on in their lives. As for Geum-ja, she does not get her peace of mind after all. In the end we see her sobbing into a tofu cake that she brought to her daughter. Does the director leave any hope for her? I think just through her daughter Jenny, in that at least she could live white and with no sins.
It is not the first time a movie confronts us with a monster child killer. The Fritz Lang classic, “M,” is the icon of the theme. Both Baek and Hans are psychopaths, but different breeds of monster. Viewers can feel some sympathy for Hans during his epic speech, “I can’t help it”. The whole film is well worth watching if you have not seen this classic!
Meanwhile, Baek’s reasoning is that he doesn’t like children, and he was going to buy a yacht with the ransom money. A more recent popular TV series with a similar theme is “Dexter.” The protagonist is a psychopath killing the “bad” people who escape the justice system in one way or another. While “M” and “Dexter” both explore the mind of the monster, as well as the question of how society should approach this issue, “Lady Vengeance” goes just for the latter topic. Parents are put in a hot spot, figuring out what kind of social norms or directives could help in this situation. In the film, religion is clearly not an answer, and both Buddhism and Christianity are a bit mocked (Christianity through the comical figure of the priest, and Buddhism through a small scene where the “Way of Dharma” book is used as a map on the back side of the pages, part of the vengeance plan). They ultimately choose a path that would generally be perceived as barbaric and tribal, but the movie does not blame them for it. Viewers are left to render their own moral judgements.
Visually, the movie is very beautifully crafted. Sometimes it seems so theatrical; it is like watching “Hamlet” or “Titus.” However, at the same time, the pervasive use of flash backs and cut scenes to tell the story serves the more artistic and visual side of the film, rather than plot. This makes the storyline difficult to follow. It was going for an almost arthouse feeling rather than revenge thriller, but it did not manage to fully join the different themes into an easy flowing film experience. There is another version of the film that I have not seen using fading into black and white, and fading out, and it might result in a different aesthetic experience of the movie all together.
Nevertheless, “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” is a unique movie experience. It has more connection with the first of the three movies, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” while “Oldboy” stands out from the trilogy technically, visually, and story-wise. Whatever sequence you choose to take these three vengeance pills, it will surely have an impact.