Friday, December 30, 2005

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the conclusion of Chanwook Park's 'Vengeance Trilogy,' which includes one of my favorite films of recent years, Oldboy. Oldboy is a stunning piece of pop excess, with the violence and filmmaking all taken to their limits. Lady Vengeance has more in common with the first film in the trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. I just finished the film a few minutes ago, and I'm not quite sure how I feel about it yet, it's definitely a great movie, I'm just not sure how great.

The first really notable thing watching this movie is just how phenomenal a director is. Every shot is absoultely gorgeous, the framing accentuating the narrative content within a beautiful environment. At one point Lee Geum-Ja says she wants everything to be pretty and in this film, even when ugly things are happening, it looks good. It's much like a Wong Kar-Wai film in that way, that the environments and shots are so beautiful, just watching it as a piece of visual art makes for a satisfying experience.

I loved the stripe design in Lee Geum-Ja's apartment, the isolation of the farmhouse and the white of the bakery. The opening credits were stunning, reminding me a bit of Edward Scissorhands. I also really loved the outfit she wore throughout the film, the leather functioning like armor and also positioning her as a bit of a dominatrix, inflicting violence on those who displease her. Wearing it, she looks beautiful, but always haunted and cold, distanced from everyone, even her daughter. I also liked the way he used her eyeshadow as a further element of her war uniform, it signaled her complete transformation into this woman in search of vengeance.

Early in the film when she first gets out of prison people are constantly telling her that she seems like she's not herself. Watching this at the time, I assumed that she was putting on this persona in prison, of the good person, but in actuality, the eye shadow would imply that the violent woman is the false persona that she puts on. While her good deeds in prison are done in service of her plan, the way she behaves when seeking revenge implies that it isn't really her.

Whoever she was before is completely destroyed when she goes to live with Baek. When she is forced to take the fall for him, she puts her life on hold so that she can seek vengeance against him. She works within the system, devoted her entire life to destroying this guy, and that's why the fact that Mo-Wan wasn't the only child he killed is so powerful.

When she first gets out of prison, she seeks to recover the self she left behind when she went to prison. When she has sex with her co-worker, she makes note of the fact that he's how old she was when she went to prison, and probably how old Jenny's father was as well. However, when she goes to Australia, she sees that Jenny has a life, she's moved on, Lee Geum-Ja's sacrifice was successful in getting her a new chance at life, but it also means that she will never really view Lee Geum-Ja as her mother.

The scenes with Geum-Ja and the parents reminded me a lot of Clean. In both films, the mother has difficulty reconciling the fact that the child is hers, but has moved on and has other parents. Geum-Ja doesn't know her place in the relationship and that's why she hesitates to bring Jenny to Seoul. She also hesitates because she knows that what she has to do could get nasty. When she does get back, she tries to recreate the family she could have had, but it's difficult because her co-worker simultaneously represents Mo-Wan and her lover. So, he is simultaneously Jenny's brother and her father, something made explicit in the scene where he's teaching her Korean.

The whole first half of the film is very interesting from a technical standpoint. The opening scene kicks things right off, I love her saying "Screw you," then putting on the sunglasses. She is actively rejecting morality to become a crusader for vengeance. The overlapping voiceovers are effective in conveying narrative information and developing the little background characters. Also, I really liked the mingling of present narrative and prison stuff, gradually revealing the extent of Geum-Ja's plan. I loved the tableau presentation of characters, with many frequently speaking directly to the camera.

Anyway, when she finally gets Baek, she's all set to get her vengeance and move on, however, she soon realizes that Mo-Wan wasn't the only child, there were four more. At this point, Geum-Ja recognizes that though she certainly was wronged, at least she still has Jenny. For the other parents, things turned out much worse, and though they've moved on to some extent, the wounds clearly fester.

One of the main issues I had with the film on this first viewing was that I was expecting some Oldboy level joyous carnage, and you just don't get that here. There's very little of the joy in pain that was evident in Oldboy. Oldboy takes place in an essentially cartoon universe, while this film brings vengeance down to reality. This is most evident in the videos of the kidnapped children. I think those scenes were designed to demystify the violence, this is real harm being done to innocents, and those videos are pretty disturbing.

From here, we watch as a bunch of rational people decide that a man deserves to die. Baek is undeniably evil, but the characters seem to take little joy in what they do, rather it's cathartic. For all the parents, killing Baek is the chance to finally put to resolve their issues and move on. So, they kill him in an orderly way. I really liked how the police officer had to explain how to use a knife, and the neccesity to hold off on killing him until everyone got a turn.

Here, the actual act of vengeance isn't the climax of the film. Geum-Ja watches it from a distance, jealous of the fact that these people finally have found peace. Even though what was done to them was awful, by the time they reach the table, they've moved on to practical matters, like getting their money back. They were victims, and time had already healed most of their wounds.

However, Geum-Ja has to deal with the guilt of her complicity in Baek's plans, because she took the fall for Baek to save her own daughter, these parents lost their own children. So, looking at Jenny, she has to wonder if her life is worth the price of the four who died. And she also has to deal with the fact that thirteen years of her life were taken from her, and now she's left with nothing, when Jenny leaves, she'll be completely alone, without the vengeance to push her along. And watching the other parents take revenge, she feels unworthy of being involved, her daughter is still alive, so she doesn't deserve the vengeance.

In Oldboy, Lee Woo-Jin commited fifteen years of his life to finding vengeance, and when he had finally acheived his revenge, he killed himself. There was nothing left for him because he had built his life around destroying Oh Dae-su's. Geum-Ja was similarly committed to vengeance, and at the end of the film, it's left uncertain whether or not she'll be able to move on.

As their dinner ends, the parents move out into the snow, into a clean, white world. However, Geum-Ja stays inside, unable to move on. In the bathroom, she sees Mo-Wan, and when he leaves her, she finally feels free enough to move on. The narrator says earlier that she wanted desperately to see him, and now that she has, she is able to wipe off the eye shadow and move out into the white that she had previously rejected.

The final scenes of the film are incredibly beautiful. The falling snow, white contrasted against Geum-Ja's darkness is such a striking, powerful image. Emotionally, it's very powerful stuff, Geum-Ja breaking down while her daughter offers her the cake, the chance for redemption, to not sin again and instead build a new, clean white life. Geum-Ja accepts it, but she's too broken by her ordeal to take it in a conventional way, rather she smashes it. Burrowing in the cake provides a very ambiguous conclusion for the character. The way I see it is that she's emotionally broken at this point, collapsing into the cake because her desire for redemption is so strong. She wants a new start, but at the same time, she destroys that which would give her the new start. Geum-Ja has been reduced to an innocent, a child, seeking forgiveness. The roles are reversed here, and it's her daughter who gives her the chance to start over. Geum-Ja is left with the realization that without the vengeance, she doesn't know who she is. The person she once was has been destroyeed by the violence, and even though Baek is dead, she can never get back that which was taken from her.

Emotionally, at the end I was drained. The final scene was so beautiful and sad, as was the whole film. Though there were a lot of funny bits, it's a much more melancholy film than Oldboy. This was about being pulled to Earth rather than rising to the supernatural operatic heights that that film acheived. Even in the score you can see the difference, both use driving strings as the base element, but Oldboy backed it with pulsing club beats, while SFLV merely lets them stand alone. Both scores are amazing, they're just different.

This is one I'm going to be watching again in the next couple of days, but even from this first viewing, it's clear that Park's filmmaking is way beyond nearly everyone else out there. The images he captures are primal and powerful, evoking strong emotions. It's not as strong a movie as Oldboy, but it's still a masterpiece. Comparing this film to yesterday's Munich, it's striking how much more you're drawn into this movie. Munich always kept you at a distance, never making you feel what was happening. In this movie, there were a number of moments that had me gasping, and more importantly, throughout the whole thing, there was an energy of anticipation. I wanted this movie to keep going because it was such a beautiful world to move through.

I'll close with a statement from Park that summarizes what makes his revenge films so special, such thoroughly engaging, exhilirating and draining filmgoing experiences.: ""Basically, I'm throwing out the question 'When is such violence justified?' To get that question to touch the audience physically and directly - that's what my goal is. In the experience of watching my film, I don't want the viewer to stop at the mental or the intellectual. I want them to feel my work physically." With Lady Vengeance, the mission was accomplished.

5 comments:

viagra online said...

The movie seemed to be a nice job but at the end it was a failure, it's not bad alt all but have something that people don't like...

Angie Varona said...

Great movie 9/10

ziwei said...

thank you for your post. now i understand the film much better. im kinda sad to know that she's not really who i thought she was. turns out her kindness was only a facade for manipulating people. but it was a great film though.

kamagra said...

I feel sympathy for vengeful persons that's why i love this movie!

John Halford said...

I enjoyed this post very much. Thank you. I think this is a great movie and trilogy and has inspired a lot of thought on my part. You talk about her "destroying" the white cake-- the symbol of redemption-- but my take is that she simply fell face first into the prospect of redemption, perhaps not that she felt "sinless" but for a brief moment (face, nose and eyes full of cake and icing) she felt an overwhelming sense of redemption and joy.