As the proverb goes, there’s nothing more dangerous than a mother determined to save her endangered young. But even more dangerous than that? A grieving mother with nothing left to live for except revenge. The kind of bloody, “best served cold” type of revenge that will make you squirm and at the same time cheer her on because you know her cause is righteous. That is the premise of writer/director Eun-jin Bang’s “Princess Aurora”, a revenge picture from Korea , the second such film in as many years. The other, similarly themed effort is, of course, Park Chan-wook’s highly anticipated “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”. Bang’s ” Aurora ” arrives without nearly the fanfare of “Vengeance”, which is a shame as this is a quality movie worthy of equal recognition.
“Princess Aurora” stars the versatile Jeong-hwa Eom as Jung Soon-jung, a woman bent on vengeance. Simply put, there is a list of people Soon-jung needs dead, and she’s going to make them dead one way or another. The film opens innocuous enough, with imported car saleswoman Soon-jung driving to the mall, where a happenstance meeting inside a bathroom brings her face to face with an abusive trophy wife. No sooner does the woman retire into a bathroom stall does Soon-jung strike, claiming her first victim in a sudden and shocking splash of blood and violence. Enter detectives Oh (Sung-keun Moon) and Jung (Oh-jung Kwon), two men on opposite ends of the spectrum. Jung is young and ready to take on the world; Oh is older, and ready to retire and become a pastor.
Slowly but surely, we become aware of a connection between Detective Oh and Soon-jung, a relationship irrevocably altered by a shared traumatic experience exactly one year ago. While Oh has turned to religion for salvation, Soon-jung is not so willing to let go. This past relationship continues to haunt Oh as the bodies pile up, and it becomes increasingly evident that his ex-wife is the culprit. Will Oh use his knowledge of Soon-jung to catch her, or will she use it to elude him? And does she even want to be caught? By the amount of clues she leaves behind, including a Princess Aurora sticker at every killing, we’re not so sure…
To forcibly keep the audience in suspense, writer/director Eun-jin Bang cheats by refusing to tell us the identities of the men and women on Soon-jung’s death list. The answers are eventually revealed in the film’s final 20 minutes (including a plot twist that should be readily obvious to the more observant in the audience). For the longest time, we are left to wonder why Soon-jung is targeting these seemingly disparate strangers (a kept woman, an abusive step-mom, a ne’er-do-well son). Bang’s decision pays off, as we wait with bated breath for the answers. Through it all, we continue to accept that Soon-jung is justified in her killings, if only because she just doesn’t look…insane.
What keeps “Princess Aurora” from slipping into cheap exploitation is measured direction by first-time writer/director Eun-jin Bang (“301/302”), a former actress who shows good command of the cinematic tools at her disposal. The film’s only real shocking moment comes early, when Soon-jung ferociously pounce her victim in the mall bathroom. And while the rest of “Aurora” is nowhere near as bloody, that initial burst of shocking violence sets the stage for the movie’s unpredictable nature, as if Bang is telling us that anyone, at anytime, can become one of Soon-jung’s victim. The fact that Bang refuses to give us quick answers as to why these people are being targeted makes the mystery all the more engaging.
The primary reason why “Princess Aurora” works as well as it does is because of the tour de force performance of star Jeong-hwa Eom (“Mr. Handy”), who continues to prove herself an amazingly versatile actress. Eom’s Soon-jung is a woman filled with rage, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her. The exterior faÃ§ade that she allows others to see in public hides seething anger, uncontrolled violence, and most of all, a shattered soul. She is, without question, a destroyed woman trying to take as many of those responsible with her as she can before the inevitable end. All the credit in the world goes to Jeong-hwa Eom, who singularly carries, as well as make “Princess Aurora” more than the material.
This brings us to the script, which is excellent when it focuses entirely on Soon-jung’s quest, but falters when it has to bring others into Soon-jung’s world. There’s “Tube” star Oh-jung Kwon’s Detective Jung, who is initially written to be a major part of the story, but ends up doing little more than running about in the background. Also open to debate is the South Korean police’s seemingly ludicrous policies. When it’s revealed that Oh is the ex-husband of a serial killer still at large, Oh’s superiors have no qualms about letting him remain an active participant in the investigation. And then there’s a gratuitous sex scene early in the film that seems to be entirely devoid of any purpose whatsoever.
Overall, “Princess Aurora” is one of the better cop thrillers you’ll find out of South Korea at the moment. It’s not a procedural in the traditional sense, and if anything the film seems clueless about real police work. Not that it matters, because writer/director Eun-jin Bang has fashioned a fantastic debut film buoyed by a powerhouse performance from star Jeong-hwa Eom as the film’s serial killer with a cause. In a year of mediocre romantic comedies, derivative ghost stories, and tedious melodramas, it’s a wonder the Koreans still know how to make such an effective and entertaining thriller, much less two in the same year — Bang’s “Princess Aurora” and Park’s “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”.
Eun-jin Bang (director) / Eun-jin Bang (screenplay)
CAST: Sung-keun Moon …. Detective Oh Sung-ho
Jeong-hwa Eom …. Jung Soon-jung
Oh-jung Kwon …. Detective Jung