[Note: This review contains no spoilers of any kind. This poses quite a challenge, as it limits the ability to truly defend the film, and to fully explain why it is so damn terrific. Those who are familiar with Park's revenge films, and this blogger's love of them, will (perhaps) find the below useful and/or of some interest.]
When director Park Chan-wook was at Cannes with Oldboy, he made the following statement during an interview:
"With the development of civilization and the rise in education levels, people have had to hide their rage, hate, and grudges deep within them. But this does not mean that these emotions go away. As relationships become more and more intricate, the rage only grows more and more. While modern society is burdening the individual with a growing sense of rage, the outlets through which people can release their rage are becoming narrower. This is an unhealthy situation, and it's probably why art exists. In reality, however, the vengeances represented in my movies are not actual vengeances. They are merely the transferring of a guilty conscience. My films are stories of people who place the blame for their actions on others because they refuse to take on the blame themselves. Therefore, rather than movies purporting to be of revenge, it would be more accurate to see my films as ones stressing morality, with guilty consciences as the core subject matter. The constantly recurring theme is the guilty conscience. Because they are always conscious of and obsessed with their wrongdoings, which are committed because they are inherently unavoidable in life, my characters are fundamentally good people. The fact that people have to resort to another type of violence in order to subjugate their initial guilty consciences is the most basic quality of tragedy characteristic in my movies thus far."
An important statement to consider when looking at the three films that make up his revenge "trilogy". (Park explained on Thursday that he never set out to make a trilogy -- his decision to do so was a spontaneous reaction during a somewhat hostile press conference in Korea.) Though his latest film builds upon ideas presented in the first two films, it ultimately winds up somewhere highly unanticipated. Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, the best and most solid film of the three, is truly in a category of its own. Lacking the bleak, almost claustrophobic nature of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, or the devious, playful, noir-infused cleverness of Oldboy, this is Park in a far more sublime mode, who this time takes an almost experimental approach to the material.
Religion, specifically in its attitudes toward revenge, repentance and atonement, absent from the first two films, hovers over Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, though this is no way a simple lesson in Christian morality. Park relies heavily on symbolism throughout the film when addressing the uses (and even abuses) of religion -- from a Christian choir dressed in Santa suits, to the various Christ/Mary invocations (see poster, left), to priests with questionable intentions, Park peppers the film with symbols and allusions, but maintains a healthy distance from it, and rightly so.
Also noticeably different in this film is the presence of the outside world, particularly the media. In both Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy the stories were contained and limited to the characters involved. Rarely was there interaction with strangers, and the media, though present in both films, never served to comment on the events at hand. In Lady Vengeance, the media is in some way responsible for creating Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae), the titular lady seeking vengeance. Her beauty captures the hearts of many, and though the film opens with her release from prison, she already has a cult following purely based on her looks. The sins of her past are washed away from the public eye thanks to her beauty -- even the church actively courts her to be a spokesperson -- the commodification of rehabilitation, of sorts.
Unlike the (mostly) straightforward narratives of the first two films, Lady Vengeance avoids linearity in favor of trips back and forth in time, and by the occasional shifting of narrative focus. Fans of the series will spot allusions to the past two films (very clever at times), including a few that are clearly meant to throw us off. Choi Min-sik (star of Oldboy) is back, and though not as central to the story, his performance is once again incredible. (A comparison of this character to Oh Dae-su will make for a fascinating study, but not here, not now.)
What makes Sympathy For Lady Vengeance such an overwhelming success is the manner in which Park drags us into the fray and forces us, for the first time, to consider what we would do in such a situation. For unlike the socio-political circumstances that trigger the multiple vengeances of Mr. Vengeance, or the elaborate, purely fantastical scheme that is Oldboy, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance has at its core a device that, while not original, is one that all but the cold-hearted will have some sort of personal reaction/response to.
Sympathy For Lady Vengeance is far more disturbing than its two predecessors -- not for its graphic violence, but for its ability to force us to think about the difficult questions raised, and the even more difficult solutions. Can violence be used a means for the atonement of sin? Is redemption possible after such a horrific act? Park has taken great leaps forward with this film, and it's the kind of film that even those who hated Oldboy might enjoy.
There's still so much more to digest (and even more to say), but, as stated above, virtually impossible without giving too much away. This is definitely not Filmbrain's last word on the film.
Sympathy For Lady Vengeance screens at the New York Film Festival on Friday 30 September @ 6:00PM and on Sunday 2 October @ 8:30PM. Full details and tickets can be found HERE. A bit of advice -- if possible, avoid reading any plot description before seeing it.