by Jeff Meyers
Korean bad-boy director Park Chan-wook finishes off his three-film odyssey into the dark heart of revenge with a touch of the feminine. Blending pitch-black humor with relentlessly flashy filmmaking, Lady Vengeance has plenty of style and wit but ultimately disappoints with its simple storyline and melodramatic payoff.
Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) is released from prison 13 years after confessing to the kidnapping and murder of a 5-year-old boy. Nineteen years old and stunningly beautiful, the media turn her into a cause célèbre. Only lead Detective Choi knows the truth of her situation: Her infant daughter was kidnapped and she was forced to take the blame. Now free, she has an elaborate plan to get revenge on the true killer, Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik).
Using a jigsaw-like narrative, Park skillfully lays out the ingredients of the plan without ever tipping his hand. He flashes back to the friends and the favors the young inmate ruthlessly earned in prison while carefully maintaining her saintly reputation. These vignettes are played for sardonic laughs as a prostitute, bank robber and adulterer become indebted to her. Only a brutish inmate who forces others to sexually please her learns how vicious the "kind-hearted Geum-ja" can be.
On the outside, however, things become complicated when Lee Geum-ja strays from her plan to reconnect with Jenny, her estranged 13-year-old daughter. Can a woman with nothing but vengeance on her mind redeem herself as a mother? The film's final act takes an audacious turn into melodrama, confronting the emotional price of capital punishment and vigilantism. It's an impressive goal, but it doesn't work. Instead of a satisfying finale to a well-constructed tale, Park's ending comes off as muddled and forced.
Inspired by the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie, The City of Lost Children) and David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en), he buries the film in baroque imagery and wild color schemes. But Lady Vengeance constantly shifts tone; bouncing from slapstick humor to violence to anguish, and the viewer struggles to connect with Lee's need for cold-blooded retribution. It's a surprising flaw when one considers the visceral punch of the first two films in the trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy.
Lee Yeong-ae does a decent job of balancing her character's emotional scars with her dark mission, but Park's hyperactive narrative gets in the way. We never get a whole character, just a handful of affectations. Choi Min-sik (who starred in Oldboy), on the other hand, takes a paper-thin villain and adds just the right sense of perversity. Though we only get a hint of his malevolence, it's easy to imagine the depths of his depravity.
For all the skill and cleverness on display, Lady Vengeance never captures the lacerating intensity of Park Chan-wook's earlier films. The director knows how to deliver a hypnotically slick genre film; but when he strains to present something poetic and spiritual, the seams begin to show and his work comes off as just plain pretentious. He should leave that to the art-house wanks and stick with what he does best: mordant crime flicks that burst with style and invention.
In Korean with English subtitles. Closing out the season at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 5-6, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 7.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.