Directed by Park Chan-wook. Starring Lee Yeong-ae, Choi Min-sik, Go Su-hee, Lee Seung-shin. (2005, R, 112 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 30, 2006
AFS@Dobie If you're a latecomer to the South Korean filmmaking phenomenon that is director Park Chan-wook, I'll say only this: Park is one sick puppy, and I mean that in the very best sense of the phrase. Like Hong Kong's cinematic powder-keg John Woo two decades before him, Park positively revels in the artistic possibilties of good old-fashioned badness. Unlike Woo, however, Park's films eschew the dubious clichés of honor among thieves, cops, and killers and instead focus on the wild pas de deux of remorse (or lack thereof) and retaliation, almost always by characters who have been wrongly accused and imprisoned. Woo and his contemporaries in the HK film explosion of the mid-Eighties to mid-Nineties constructed grand tales of chivalry, honor, and betrayal that existed in a world of black-and-white morality, buffeted by gun-barrel gusts of cordite and the triple-time whine of bullets and bodies in perpetual, bloody motion. The universe of Park's films – and it's of interest to note that Park himself inhabits a latitude not far removed from the 38th parallel's DMZ between communist North Korea and the Democratic South – contains few such ameliorating moral and spiritual simplistics. His is a world of enigmatic puzzles and fragments of human debris that only coalesces into something approaching rationality when viewed in hindsight. A kind of brilliantly realized perplexity is the predominant tone, and when Park sets these complex emotional nuances before some of the most riotously colorful and splashily off-kilter backgrounds (both literal and figural) ever witnessed, the resulting schism is akin to watching a pop-art paintball skirmish in the world's most baroque ossuary. It's big, lush fun (Park's previous films in this so-called revenge trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, are nothing if not operatic, and "Cut," his segment in the cinematic triptych Three … Extremes contains an actual song-and-dance number), and Park is unquestionably an aesthete of borderline Hitchcockian propensities. Above all, as Park fanatics will gleefully attest, his films are terrifically entertaining tales of romantic love run amok and the blood-drenched byproducts of calculated revenge. In Lady Vengeance Lee Yeong-ae plays Lee Geum-ja, the titular Lady, who seeks retribution against the person or persons responsible for the crime – a child-murder – that sent her to prison for 13 years. Once released, the stunning Lee Geum-ja goes about methodically plotting for her tormentor a wildly complex comeuppance that would astonish even Alan Moore's V (himself no slouch in the eye-for-an-eye department). Oldboy's brilliant Choi Min-sik is on hand, too, as a character with various outrageous skeletons dangling from his coat hangers, and Lee Yeong-ae is simply riveting in one of the most exciting female performances of the year thus far. Some people have complained that Park is all style and very little substance (apparently they've missed a goodly chunk of Takashi Miike's back catalog), but that's just plain wrong. In repeatedly describing the inherently self-annihilating arc of both victimization and vengeance, his films can readily be viewed as a lesson and warning both to individuals and the societies they inhabit. And, once more with feeling, they're just plain kickass examples of the art of bloody good filmmaking.