Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) Movie Review

(Movie Review by Eric Choi) Expectations can ruin a movie. That’s the adage that must have been on Park Chan-wook’s mind as he prepared to release “Sympathy For Lady Vengeance,” the final film in his much hyped “revenge” trilogy that began with “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance” and followed by “Oldboy”. “Lady Vengeance” received phenomenal media hype before its release, and is easily the most anticipated Korean film of 2005, helped by the creative casting of Lee Young-ae (who gained international popularity with her period drama “Dae Jang Geum” aka “Jewel In The Palace”) in the leading role. So the big question is, after all the buzz, can Park deliver the movie we’ve all been waiting for?

“Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” begins with Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) walking out of prison after serving a 13-year sentence for kidnapping and murder. She seems single-mindedly determined to track down and kill Baek (Choi Min-sik from “Oldboy”), the man she holds responsible for her imprisonment. With the help of some former prison mates, Geum-ja arranges an elaborate plan for revenge. At this point, revealing any more details about the plot would be a criminal act, as it would spoil the twists and turns the film takes. Suffice to say, a lot of blood is shed.

Looking back at “Lady Vengeance”, it becomes apparent that each film in Park’s trilogy focuses on different aspects of revenge. “Mr. Vengeance” centered on the irony of vengeance, and how the violent and impulsive acts of the main characters all stem from love. “Oldboy” focused on the madness inherent in the need for vengeance as summed up by its protagonist Oh Dae Su, who only desires revenge after being imprisoned for 15 years, but doesn’t know what to do after he gets it. And finally, “Lady Vengeance” is about salvation and the morality behind vengeance.

In a maneuver that caught me completely by surprise, Park adds a narrative twist two-thirds of the way into “Lady Vengeance” that alters the film’s focus drastically in order to accommodate the different aforementioned themes. This is actually both a good and bad move, as although it brings a refreshing change in direction to the movie, it also pushes Geum-ja into the background. On top of that, the third act seems somehow familiar and Hollywood-esque, a weakness that Park does skillfully manage to hide with some great black humor.

“Lady Vengeance” implies more violence than it actually shows, making it a much more subdued affair than either of its predecessors. But the technique is used so effectively throughout the movie that it works on many levels. One peaceful scene shows a woman happily grilling steaks in a solo barbeque outside her home, until you notice that she is surrounded by dozens of cops slowly approaching her with their guns raised. A voice-over then informs us that the woman was arrested for killing and eating her own husband.

Lee Young-ae does a fine job as the lady vengeance of the title, even though I found myself wishing that an unknown actress had played the part instead. Because Lee Young-ae is such a well known actress and her ‘nice’ image has become an icon in Korea, her turn as a woman thirsty for revenge doesn’t work as well as it should. Only in a single scene near the end that is similar to the final shot of Oh Dae Su’s sad smile in “Oldboy” does Lee completely become the character. But by then, it might have been a case of too little, too late.

As the closing of a trilogy, “Lady Vengeance” is more than satisfying despite its weaknesses. The film seems to be a combination of its predecessors, with the slick cinematography, gorgeous production design, and absolutely incredible musical score of “Oldboy”, and the slow pacing and static camera shots of “Mr. Vengeance.” As the end credits roll, I found myself contemplating in silence that I had just witnessed the final film in one of the best trilogies I’ve ever come across. It’s no “Oldboy,” but it’s still Park Chan-wook working on a high level.

Chan-wook Park (director) / Seo-Gyeong Jeong, Chan-wook Park (screenplay)
CAST: Min-sik Choi …. Mr. Baek
Su-hee Go …. Ma-nyeo
Shi-hoo Kim …. Geun-shik
Seung-Shin Lee …. Yi-jeong Park
Yeong-ae Lee …. Geum-ja Lee

Buy Sympathy for Lady Vengeance on DVD